Palestinians get 'right to return' — to Jerusalem

The Israeli High Court of Justice ruled that Palestinian residents of Jerusalem cannot be permanently stripped of their residency rights after having lived elsewhere.

al-monitor Houses are seen in Silwan, a Palestinian neighborhood close to Jerusalem's Old City, June 29, 2016.  Photo by REUTERS/Ammar Awad.
Daoud Kuttab

Daoud Kuttab


Topics covered

residency, citizenship, israeli settlers, israeli-palestinian conflict, east jerusalem, israeli occupation

Mar 28, 2017

Al-Quds, the leading Palestinian daily, used bright red ink to highlight its March 17 headline. The Palestinian newspaper of record, published in East Jerusalem since 1951, did so to celebrate the March 16 decision by the Israeli High Court of Justice recognizing the “special” status of East Jerusalem Palestinians. “Jerusalemites ‘citizens by birth,’ not immigrants,” blared the headline.

The article that followed included extensive quotes from the court's unanimous decision requiring the reissuing of permanent residency to Akram Abdel Haqq, a 59-year-old Palestinian from Jerusalem who had left for the US decades prior. Upon returning to his hometown, he was told that he would have the same status as a tourist; that is, he no longer had residency rights.

Abdel Haqq had been 9 years old when Israel captured and occupied East Jerusalem, in 1967. Three years later, in 1970, his family emigrated to the US. Abdel Haqq returned to Jerusalem in 1989 to discover his residency rights revoked.

Adi Lustigman, the Israeli lawyer who defended Abdel Haqq, told Al-Monitor that the case will guide Israeli Interior Ministry officials for years. “It is a precedent that Palestinians who have had their residency revoked or are worried about losing their residency should be very pleased with,” she said.

Lustigman noted, however, that Palestinians wishing to regain their residency will need to resettle in Jerusalem before applying to regain their rights. “But they will not have to live there for a long time,” she said.

Lustigman added that the decision should provide more security to many Palestinians from Jerusalem now living elsewhere on the West Bank. She said, “Israeli Interior officials can no longer easily revoke the residency rights of East Jerusalemites, and this for sure includes Palestinians who are living in the West Bank.” Between 1967 and 2014, Israel revoked the residency permits of more than 14,000 Palestinians from East Jerusalem for not continually living in the city or for living elsewhere for more than seven years, regardless of the reason.

Sani Khoury, a Palestinian lawyer specializing in Jerusalem citizenship issues, told Al-Monitor that the decision is a step forward, but also warned against prematurely celebrating. “We have to wait and see whether this will be followed up by any changes in guidelines or dealings with the problems facing Jerusalemites,” he said.

Khoury shared that he was worried about a note the chief justice of the Supreme Court attached to the ruling. He wrote, “Miriam Naor, the Supreme Court president noted that in the future, similar petitions will be treated on a case-by-case basis, which means that this is not necessarily a major precedent.” Khoury did, however, concede that the ruling is a much stronger commitment than the one made by former Interior Minister Natan Sharansky.

In March 2000, Sharansky submitted an affidavit to the High Court about Israeli policy on residency for Palestinians. The Israeli human rights organization B'tselem reported the gist of it as, “All East Jerusalem Palestinians who return to extend their permits on time and maintain a ‘proper affiliation’ with the State of Israel would retain their status as permanent residents, even those living in Jordan or in other countries.”

One possible reason for Khoury's cautioning against celebrating could be his knowledge about newly appointed members of the Israeli Supreme Court. Israel's right-wing justice minister, Ayelet Shaked, announced the appointment of four new justices Feb. 23. One was David Mintz, a Jerusalem District Court judge who lives in an Etzion bloc settlement, south of Bethlehem. The Israeli journalist Amira Hass pointed out in a March 20 column for Haaretz that the ruling in Abdel Haqq’s case reversed a ruling by none other than Mintz, the settler just sworn in as a Supreme Court justice.

Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer specializing in issues related to Jerusalem and its residents, told Al-Monitor that the residency issue for Palestinians in East Jerusalem has been left vague by a collective Israeli decision-making process. “In 1967, Israel neither offered nor imposed its citizenship on Palestinian East Jerusalemites," Seidemann explained. "Instead, they were deemed permanent residents under the Entry into Israel Law, as if they were alien residents newly arrived rather than an indigenous population with roots thousands of years old.”

The Israeli lawyer called the high court's ruling courageous, but of limited impact. “It acknowledges for the first time the absurdity of viewing the Palestinians as ‘newcomers,’ and the devastating impact such a view has,” Seidemann remarked. “It makes the thread by which the residency rights of Palestinians hang somewhat thicker. It will help an indeterminate number of vulnerable individuals. It will make occupation more bearable at times, but it in no way makes Israel less of an occupier.”

While the Palestinians of East Jerusalem have no political rights, they are not without other rights, including rights to property, residency, health care, and so on. Seidemann argued, “These are not the inalienable rights of the citizen, but the ‘alienable’ rights extended by the ‘magnanimity’ of an occupier. These rights always hang by a thread.”

The Israeli High Court decision providing some relief to Palestinians in East Jerusalem deals with a reality that is too little acknowledged in the rest of the world, namely, that East Jerusalem is an occupied city. As such, Palestinians can never be considered immigrants in their own city. Palestinians did not immigrate to Israel. Rather, Israel, with its military occupation, came to the Palestinians in Jerusalem.

While the final status of Jerusalem must be resolved in negotiations, after 50 years of occupation, it is important that basic rights, such as the Palestinians' right to live in the city of their birth and of their ancestors, not be considered a gift from a “benevolent” occupier but an inalienable right that cannot and should not be taken away.

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