Jerusalem’s ‘center of life’ policy imprisons Palestinians

Israel/Palestine
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shuafat
Palestinians drinking coffee by a new section of the wall in Shuafat refugee camp, December 2011. (Photo: Anne Paq/ActiveStills)

“Amir Salima, 21, from the Old City of Jerusalem, has no legal status – not in Israel, not in the Palestinian Authority and not anywhere else,” writes Nir Hasson in today’s Haaretz. “He has no identity card, no passport, he cannot register for university studies, apply for a job, sign up for an HMO or open a bank account. He cannot visit the West Bank or anywhere else outside of Jerusalem. In fact, he can barely leave his house, for fear of being caught by the police.”

Due to Jerusalem’s residency revoking “center of life” policy, Salima who lives in the old city is not a legal resident of Jerusalem. Hasson writes:

Salima is a man with no identity. The absurdity of his situation is amplified by the fact that his parents and five siblings all hold Israeli identity cards. The reason is simple: unfortunately for him, he was born in a hospital in Ramallah, and not in Jerusalem.

amirsalima
Amir Salima at home in Jerusalem. (Photo: Michal Fattal)

While their Jewish-Israeli counterparts are exempt, Palestinians who live in Jerusalem are required to submit documentation verifying that city is at the “center of their life.” Though inside of Israel’s 1967 border, Palestinians living in Jerusalem are not Israeli citizens, they are “Jerusalem residents.” If a court finds that Jerusalem is not their existential or material “center of life,” the local authorities can strip him or her of  Jerusalem residency. For Palestinians, “center of life” becomes a constant process: proving where one works, attends school, and seeks medical services. For Salima, being born in Ramallah is enough that under the current policy, he could never prove Jerusalem is the “center” of his life. His attorney argued, “His whole life is centered here. There is no other place where he can go.” Yet the Israeli authorities ruled against him, stating, “The family’s request was rejected due to various reasons, among them center of life.”

But for most Palestinian Jerusalemites, they lose their residency status because of the city’s artificial housing crisis, which is derived from discriminatory planning regulations. Under Israeli building codes, in order for a house to be considered “legal” one regulation requires electricity. And in the 1965 when this housing law was passed, approximately 50% of Palestinian homes did not have electricity, effectively rendering 50% of Palestinian homes pre-approved for demolition. Once a house is illegal, adding electricity cannot legalize it; the law will not allow for changes to illegal structures. If changes are made, the new construction is considered an additional penalty, and the homeowner could be strapped with fines and jail time.

Jeff Halper in “Obstacles to Peace: a critical re-framing of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” explains the process:

Take Jerusalem as an example, where Israel endeavors to maintain a 72% majority of Jews over Arabs. The municipality uses zoning and expropriation to severely restrict Palestinian construction, enforcing its policies with an aggressive policy of house demolitions. The result is an artificial housing shortage – 25,000 housing units lacking in the Palestinian sector – thereby raising the cost of scarce housing. Since 70% of Palestinians residing in Jerusalem live below the poverty line, they are forced to find affordable housing outside the city borders. Once they have shifted their “center of life” from Jerusalem, the Ministry of Interior revokes their Jerusalem residency, turning them into West Bank residents, thus bolstering the Jewish majority.

Another way Palestinians are losing their Jerusalem residency is through the expanding wall, and checkpoints. Earlier this year a mammoth multi-lane checkpoint was added near Shuafat refugee camp. As a result, some 70,000 Palestinian residents of Jerusalem are cut off from the remainder of the city through this physical barrier, thus disqualifying their “center of life.”

The only option for Palestinians Jerusalemites is a precarious existence. If their home is demolished, or they lose their residency status they must live elsewhere. And without adequate options inside of Jerusalem, typically they move to the West Bank where they are not guaranteed a West Bank ID. Overall, since 1967 this technique of home demolitions and proof of “center of life” has pushed some 25,000 Palestinians into the exile of illegal residency within Jerusalem.

 

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