“How Can I Belong?”
Zayna, a middle-aged Palestinian Jerusalemite woman, spent 10 years agonizing over whether to apply for Israeli citizenship before she finally did. She shares the complex reasoning behind that decision. Although she was granted citizenship three years after applying for it, she still does not feel safe or wanted by the country of which she is now a citizen.
Both of Zayna’s parents are from a Palestinian city located in the West Bank, 30 kilometers south of the Old City of Jerusalem. After Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967, her parents ended up with two different identity cards (IDs): the Israeli Ministry of Interior conferred upon her mother the legal status of Israeli permanent resident after she was counted in the 1967 Jerusalem census, and the Israeli military government of the West Bank conferred upon her father the status of West Bank resident after he was counted in the West Bank census. Her parents had no say in these decisions; the state only allowed those who were counted in the census (such as Zayna’s mother) to apply for Israeli permanent residency.
In the early 1970s, her parents got married and lived together in East Jerusalem. Zayna’s mother applied for permanent-resident status for her husband through the Israeli Ministry of Interior’s family unification process. At that time, Palestinian Jerusalemite women could apply for family unification, and spouses were given Israeli permanent residency as soon as the ministry approved the applications.2 Zayna and her nuclear family members (father and siblings) received Israeli permanent residency through family unification or child registration, and they have been living in East Jerusalem ever since.
Experience with Precarity
Zayna’s decision to apply for Israeli citizenship was neither easy nor quick. “It took me 10 years to finally make up my mind to apply for Israeli citizenship,” said Zayna. In the end, her decision was based on her personal experiences, the collective experiences of Jerusalemites, and her education journey. “All the people around the world have a say about Jerusalem, except Jerusalemites,” she said.
Growing up, Zayna always knew that the Israeli authorities could revoke her Israeli permanent residency at any time (see Precarious Status). She always thought that the name of her legal status reflects a game of “reverse psychology”: “It is called ‘permanent’ to give the illusion of security and safety.” She finds it odd that she must prove that she is living in Jerusalem every time she approaches the Israeli Ministry of Interior for any reason, whether to renew her identification card or secure an Israeli travel document. “The status is revokable. Revoking is the opposite of permanent, so it is temporary, not permanent.” She elaborates: “The legal name is one thing; practice and reality are a whole different story.”
Challenged on “center of life”
In 1995, Israel implemented the “center of life” policy, which required that all Palestinian permanent residents of Jerusalem who live in the city continually prove that they live in the city (see Precarious Status).
Zayna has firsthand experience with the implementation of this policy. In 2008, she again went to the Ministry of Interior office in Jerusalem to renew her ID. Having lived in Jerusalem her entire life except for an 18-month stay in Canada to work on a master’s degree, she did not expect any problems. But this time, the demands for documentation were the most extensive ever, and her ID renewal request was then denied. This meant her permanent residency had been revoked, and she would be left stateless. The ministry denial letter stated, “Our records show that you are still living in Canada, and you submitted an immigration application to Canada” (see Mubarak Awad: Lifelong Experience of Dispossession).
It took Zayna two years to renew her ID and reclaim her residency, during which time she had to provide all sorts of documents to support her application and prove that, contrary to their assertions, she had lived all her life in Jerusalem and had spent only a short time in Canada and did not apply for or acquire a Canadian passport or residency. To this day, she asks herself, “If I did not keep all the documents proving that I had a student visa only, as well as my old Israeli travel document proving the type of visa and entry and exit days, would I ever have succeeded in renewing my ID, or would I have been forced to engage in a legal battle in Israeli courts with the State of Israel?”
Zayna elaborated on her personal experience growing up. She shared that she grew up with a deep appreciation of Palestinian history, heritage, songs, and food.
Her early adulthood coincided with the Second Intifada. “Israeli military soldiers pointed guns at us and threatened to arrest us if we passed military checkpoints,” Zayna said. She also talked about her “identity dilemmas,” by which she meant being a Palestinian but holding an Israeli document that identified her as a permanent resident of Israel and a Jordanian “citizen/immigrant”3 (see Precarious Status). To Zayna, “belonging” means Jerusalem. She said, “I am a Palestinian woman who is living in patriarchal communities (both Israeli and Palestinian communities), and Jerusalem is my country.”
Having a voice is very important to her; she wants to decide her future and have the right to self-determination. But “Growing up in Jerusalem was confusing.” She explained that under Israeli law, Palestinian Jerusalemites must carry two travel documents: an Israeli laissez-passer and a Jordanian travel document in addition to the Israeli ID, neither of which identify them as Palestinians or provide citizenship rights anywhere.
Left alone in a medical emergency
Zayna recounted a personal experience that had a direct effect on her decision to apply for Israeli citizenship. She had a health crisis and called an ambulance, but the ambulance was late to arrive, because in East Jerusalem, Israeli ambulance services do not enter Palestinian neighborhoods unless they are accompanied by an Israeli military jeep, and this can take time to coordinate.4
During the agonizing wait, she believed she was going to die. She literally lost her voice as a result and was not able to speak for a while. She said, “I saw the difference between living in Canada and living in Jerusalem. In Canada, I called the police once to report an incident, and they came to make sure I am safe; they did not ask me to prove my legal status. I am not saying it is ideal there, but I had a glimpse of a different reality.”
Treated as a foreigner in her own city
When Zayna applied to the best university in her city, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, she was categorized by the school admissions committee as an international student and treated accordingly. She found that hard to understand: “‘International?’ In my own homeland?”
Zayna’s decision to apply for Israeli citizenship was affected by the “formal realities” and “facts on the ground.” She is Palestinian, but she does not have full civil rights in Palestine, Israel, or Jordan. Palestinian and Jordanian laws do not grant specific rights as a way of making sure that Palestinian Jerusalemites do not leave Jerusalem (“sumud laws”). Israel, on the other hand, creates laws, policies, and procedures designed to displace Palestinian Jerusalemites from Jerusalem in what Zayna describes as a “demographic war.”
Inevitably suspected at airports
Zayna shared her travel experiences. “They love me at airports,” she laughs. She cannot remember a single time she had a routine airport experience. She always gets stopped for random security checks; she once asked the security officer, “If I get stopped every time I travel, is it still random?”
Every time she travels, she is asked to explain how she holds an Israeli travel document that says she is Jordanian, while she identifies herself as a Palestinian and has no citizenship at all. “I know it is confusing, but I hate wasting hours in airports explaining the story over and over again,” Zayna said.
She considers profiling to be “amusing.” At Ben Gurion Airport, her “random” security checks include frisking. “They poke me in private areas and check my underpants for “weapons of mass destruction.” On one occasion, “they [the security staff at the airport] did not allow me to carry my medicine on the airplane, but they gave my friend permission to carry it for me.” Zayna thinks that her Arabic name and Muslim family is the reason.
Does she expect different treatment now that she has Israeli citizenship? She doesn’t think so. “Maybe they will just spare me the question of why I have an Israeli travel document that states I am Jordanian. Other than this, I have no expectations.”
Her Israeli colleagues at work always joke that she doesn’t look Palestinian. She wonders why: “Is it because I don’t cover my hair?”
Zayna feels trapped in the Israeli labor system, of which she is a part, but she has no idea what it would be like within a Palestinian work system, either.
Because separation is now well established between Jerusalem and the rest of the occupied Palestinian territories (see The Separation Wall and Jerusalem: A Closed City), Zayna worries that the younger generation of Palestinian Jerusalemites will have fewer opportunities to reconnect with their Palestinian roots. “Palestinian cultural life is illegal in Jerusalem. Because of the many military checkpoints, young people don’t go to the West Bank that often,” she said.
At the end of the interview, Zayna thanked us for asking her all these questions. “It created an opportunity to really talk about my personal journey. I am usually asked one question, ‘Do you want to acquire a Palestinian or Israeli citizenship?’ In fact, I don’t even have the legal right to choose. That is why I don’t answer.” Palestinian Jerusalemites do not have the right to acquire even a Palestinian Authority (PA)-issued Palestinian travel document; only those living in PA-administered areas can do so. But even this document is merely a travel document and does not confer citizenship.
After the Decision: The Application Process and the Outcome
Once she made the decision to apply for Israeli citizenship, it took Zayna almost three years to get it, during which time, in keeping with Israeli law, she had to repeatedly and continually provide copious documentation to prove that Jerusalem was (and had always been) her “center of life.” At one point, her entire application was suspended, merely because she failed to provide a water bill for a particular month.
The Ministry of Interior also required Zayna to sign a written statement that she would not marry for one full year after the date she became a citizen of Israel. Zayna asked her lawyer about this. It was the first time he had ever seen such a requirement, but he advised her to sign the document if she wanted the citizenship.
Zayna thought about this condition and could see only one explanation for it: “They are frightened that more Palestinians will come to Jerusalem through me.”
When asked whether she felt more secure with Israeli citizenship, Zayna replied, “You will never have 100 percent sense of security and safety in this country unless you are Israeli or Jewish.” Zayna concluded: “I am a country unto myself. This citizenship is a means to live in this part of the world as fully as I can. But really, how can I belong?”
Research for this story was completed in April 2021. All quotations in this story are from interviews with Zayna conducted by the Jerusalem Story Team unless otherwise indicated. Identifying information has been changed.
After the First Intifada and the first Gulf War in late 1980s and early 1990s, the Israeli Ministry of Interior outright denied family unification applications submitted by Palestinian Jerusalemite women on behalf of their nonresident husbands. The Israeli government claimed that this aligned with Arab cultural norms, which often lead a woman to relocate to wherever her husband is, rather than the other way around. The ministry stopped this practice in 1994 after the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) filed a petition with the Israeli High Court and won.
Since Israel’s establishment in 1948, the legal status of Palestinian Jerusalemites has been determined by Israel and Jordan. Israel conquered the western side of the city; Jordan assumed control of the eastern side. Palestinians who resided in the eastern side of Jerusalem or who were displaced from the western side of Jerusalem to the eastern side were granted Jordanian legal status. When Israel annexed the eastern side of Jerusalem in 1967, they treated Palestinians as Jordanian immigrants who “entered” Israel and granted them Israeli permanent residency.
Adalah, Physicians for Human Rights – Israel, and Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights, “Press Release: Ambulances Prevented from Entering Palestinian Neighborhoods in East Jerusalem without Prior Approval or Police Escort,” November 19, 2009.