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World Perspective | ISRAEL

Arabs in Jerusalem Suffer Identity Crisis

Government seizure of cards proving residency in Holy City strips many Palestinians of homes, jobs, rights.

June 21, 1997|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Mustafa Diab, born and raised in East Jerusalem, went to the Israeli Interior Ministry seeking residency papers for his Jordanian wife and nine children. But instead of granting permits, an official there seized the identity card that allows Diab to live in Jerusalem and gave the Palestinian truck driver 15 days to leave the country.

Two months later, Diab's 11-year-old daughter died, and his request for a death certificate to bury her in the family plot in Jerusalem was denied. No longer a legal resident, Diab had no rights in Jerusalem, the Israeli authorities told him.

"I am destroyed," Diab said. "How can I describe it? They kicked me out of my homeland, and I cannot do anything about it."

Despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's public vows to rectify the problem, Palestinian human rights activists assert that Israel is accelerating the confiscation of identity cards from Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, stripping them of the right to live in the disputed city.

Palestinians charge the Israeli government is trying to reduce the Arab population of East Jerusalem in advance of negotiations over control of the Holy City and other key issues.

"They want to change the balance between Jews and Arabs and say there are no Palestinians in Jerusalem," said human rights attorney Ahmed Rwaidy of the Arab Thought Forum in the Palestinian town of El Ram. "This is 'ethnic cleansing,' the same as in Bosnia."

The Interior Ministry responded that it is simply enforcing long-standing residency requirements. Anyone who has lived in Israel without interruption may continue to do so with all entitlements, ministry spokeswoman Tova Elinson said.

But, she added, the law states that anyone who lives abroad for seven years, or who receives a permanent residency permit or passport from another country, has moved his or her "center of life" and therefore is no longer a resident of Israel.

Most of the approximately 160,000 Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem have refused to take Israeli citizenship. The Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of an independent state.

Palestinians are incensed that they are treated as foreigners in the land where they were born--in many cases before Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast War. They say successive Israeli governments have forced them to live outside the city by restricting housing construction in traditionally Arab East Jerusalem and refusing to allow their West Bank and Jordanian spouses to move there.

Moreover, they say, Israel recognized their status as Jerusalem residents for decades even if they studied or worked abroad, as long as they kept their identity documents current.

Diab, who lived in Jordan for many years, renewed his without problems in July 1994.

The seizing of identity cards began in late 1995 and has been increasing ever since. The Interior Ministry acknowledges that it has withdrawn 1,047 cards from Palestinians in the past 18 months and that 402 other cases are pending. The U.S. Consulate knows of 110 Palestinians with American passports who either had their Jerusalem IDs revoked or have been told that they will be taken.

"Our concern is that the law hasn't been applied this way before," a U.S. consular officer said. "And seemingly it is only applied to Palestinians. . . . There are no cases of Jews [losing residency]."

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Palestinians are rendered stateless when their cards are seized. The Palestinian Authority will not give them a passport because they are Jerusalemites. But without an ID, they cannot legally live in Jerusalem, work, receive Israeli health insurance or travel.

This situation forced Diab to move his family into the one-room basement of his father's home in a Palestinian village outside Jerusalem.

"I cannot earn a living and support my kids," Diab said. "I am in despair."

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