To be born in Jerusalem Lately, Palestinians find their right to return revoked

March 23, 1997|By RAND ENGEL

ON JAN. 3, a 21-year-old college student went to the Israel Ministry of the Interior office in East Jerusalem to get a new exit and re-entry permit. An Interior clerk told the student that he had been deleted from computer records because he had been out of the country for more than six years.

The clerk confiscated the student's blue Israeli ID card, which identified him as a "permanent resident" of Jerusalem, and told him he had lost his right to live in the city. He was no longer welcome in Israel.

The student protested, saying he met legal requirements because he had returned to Israel four times while studying outside the country, and he was born in Jerusalem and his whole family lived in the city.

But the student had become a stateless person in the eyes of the law. If picked up by Israeli police, he could be fined and jailed. Lacking any passport, he could not return to the United States where he needed only one semester to complete his bachelor's degree.

The student, a Palestinian, was born in Jerusalem in 1975. Jerusalem Palestinians are "permanent residents" of Israel but not citizens, unless they apply for and are granted citizenship.

By contrast, I was born in Omaha, Neb., of Jewish ancestry and could move to Israel and immediately become a citizen by exercising the "Right of Return." This right, enshrined in the 1950 Law of Return, allows almost any Jew to settle in Israel, the land of refuge for the Jewish people.

Until recently, Jerusalem Palestinians could live outside of Israel but maintain their residency if they renewed their exit permits and returned to Jerusalem within specified time limits.

As the student and hundreds of others have been discovering, with no formal warning, the rules have changed. ID cards are now routinely canceled or, according to the Israeli Interior of Ministry, expire, not only for Jeru-salemites who have been out of the country, but even for those living in nearby suburbs in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Some Jerusalem women, whose husbands carry West Bank IDs or passports from other countries, are also losing their residency rights. According to the Interior Ministry, if the husband is living elsewhere, the wife must be living with him; therefore their "center of life" has moved from Jerusalem and they no longer belong in the city.

Interior spokeswoman Tova Ellinson says the government's policy has not changed: "Few came back before, and now many are coming. If the government is confiscating more ID cards, it only appears to be a policy change."

Human rights advocates charge that the ID confiscations are part of an accelerating effort, waged on many fronts, to drive Palestinians out of Jerusalem before the Final Status talks called for in the Oslo Peace Accords.

L Tens of thousands of people, activists believe, are at risk.

Israelis, with justifiable pride, have built a prosperous nation on a sliver of land surrounded by hostile states; they live with the ever-present memory of the Holocaust and the more recent traumas of wars, terrorist bombings and the 39 Iraqi Scud missiles that fell on their cities during the Persian Gulf war.

Nevertheless, international law and human rights conventions strongly proscribe discrimination against occupied peoples.

The Fourth Geneva Convention specifies: They must not be expelled from their land of birth; their land cannot be settled by citizens of the occupying power; they must not be collectively punished; violation of human rights is not justified by the occupying power's security concerns.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child declares the rights of children to be united with their parents. The Hague Conventions prohibit confiscation of private lands by an occupying power. Israel, as a signatory, is obligated to uphold these human rights covenants.

In the Oslo Accords, Israel and the Palestinians agreed not to alter the status of Jerusalem; however, Palestinians say, Israel is reinforcing its hold on the city. This is exemplified by a recent decision by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu authorizing construction of 6,000 housing units for Jewish settlers at Har Homa (Jabal Abu Ghuneim) in East Jerusalem. The new housing would isolate Palestinian neighborhoods and is part of a broad strategic campaign to maintain undivided Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem.

Since 1967, Israel has provided subsidized housing to almost 70,000 Jewish families in formerly Arab East Jerusalem, while providing subsidized housing for only 555 Palestinian families.

Besides revoking the residency rights of Israelis born in Jerusalem, the campaign includes restricting Palestinian building rights and collecting high taxes while providing meager municipal services. The military closure of the West Bank has a negative impact on health care and the economy there and separates nonresident families from relatives there.

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