Stateless and in Exile: One Palestinian family’s story of being expelled from their Jerusalem home

Israel/Palestine
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East Jerusalem, October 15, 2009 (Photo: Synne Tonidas. Flickr)

East Jerusalem, October 15, 2009 (Photo: Synne Tonidas/Flickr)

Far-fetched Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations began earlier this month. But in parallel process for my family, long-time residents of occupied East Jerusalem, we have been sent into exile by the same Israeli authorities that claim they want to establish peace.

Our infraction?  We had the temerity to live outside of our homeland for several years and the naivety to think we could return to Palestine for a summer vacation. Israel, however, allows such certainty only for Jewish residents of Jerusalem and not for the Palestinians whose land it occupied in 1967 – and certainly not for those Palestinians exiled in 1948.

It’s as though a Native American went to study in Europe and was expelled if she returned for a visit or to re-establish her life in the United States.  Imagine your agony if you traveled abroad for several years and then were told by an (occupying) government that your right to return home had been forfeited while people of a different religion were allowed to make similar long-term trips or immigrate after never living there at all.

The double standard is obvious and should be addressed by Secretary of State John Kerry. Instead, Prime Minister Netanyahu inveighs against alleged Palestinian incitement when Mohammed Assaf sings of the Palestinian desire to return to homes and land from which over 700,000 Palestinians were expelled in 1948.

My family’s personal experience with this miscarriage of justice came in July.  Just days into our vacation, the Israeli Ministry of Interior (MoI) presented us documents expelling us from our country, leaving us to face statelessness and exile. We are now in France, appealing our case, still in sharp pain, indignant about this injustice, and fearful for our future.

Our attorney hopes to convince MoI to reverse its decision on revoking our “permanent resident” status in East Jerusalem, where my husband was raised and my children were born.  Should the MoI insist on its decision, two of our three children would end up stateless and passport-less. This will also mean that our family will not be able to live in, or possibly visit, our homeland again.

Israel imposed the “permanent resident” status on the Palestinians in East Jerusalem when it occupied and illegally, unilaterally annexed the city in June 1967 – thus not observing its obligations as an occupying power with regards to the provisions of international law, according to which Palestinian East Jerusalemites are not merely “residents” but are also “protected persons” who are entitled to continue living in their country.  Over 14,000 Palestinians have been expelled since 1967.

Suheir Azzouni and her family. (Photo: Suheir Azzouni)

Lour, Layan, Suheir, Khalil and Saji Mahshi (Photo: Mahshi Family)

My husband’s roots run deep in Jerusalem. His ancestral family (Mahshi) has lived in the city for centuries. It is still recognized by the Greek Orthodox Church as one of 13 prominent families within its congregation in Jerusalem. On important occasions, like Holy Fire Saturday, the family is called upon to carry a banner in front of the Patriarch in processions through the city streets.

My husband grew up in the Old City and was living there when Israel occupied it. Until 1994, he was involved in joint Israeli-Palestinian activities to realize a two-state solution and a just and lasting peace based on UN resolutions. He contributed to Palestinian statehood through the development of educational institutions and was a member of the team which established the first Palestinian Ministry of Education. His work was recognized by many, including France, which decorated him with the “Palmes Academiques” in 1993 and granted him French nationality in 2010. In 2001, he was offered a job at UNESCO where he presently holds a senior management position.

In 2001, our three children and I joined my husband in Paris, where we still reside. Triggered by the fact that my husband was granted French nationality, Israel expelled our family based on its policy of “center of life,” which it consistently applies to Palestinian Jerusalemites living and working outside the city, thus rendering them stateless. Israel thereby denies us our human right to travel, pursue our professional development and careers, and return to our country. Needless to say, Jerusalem’s Jewish residents have no such fears. It’s discrimination at its clearest.

My own roots also run deep in Jerusalem. The families of my paternal and maternal grandmothers are two of the 13 Greek Orthodox families mentioned previously.  Many of my years were spent struggling for gender equality in Palestinian society.  In 1994, I established the executive offices of the Women’s Affairs Technical Committee, a coalition of women’s organizations which was effective in reversing a number of discriminatory regulations against women.

How ironic it is that despite my life’s work on women’s and human rights, I am presently subjected to the violation of my basic rights as a person and a woman: my human right to leave and return to my country, a right secured by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 13.2) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Israel has signed (Articles 12.2 and 12.4). This covenant also stipulates that all persons lawfully within the territory of a State shall have the right to liberty of movement and freedom to choose their place of residence.  My children, who are pursuing their studies, are also denied their human right to a nationality and the choice to return to their country.

We hope that Israel will demonstrate its seriousness in the ongoing negotiations through halting its inhumane policies which threaten Palestinians’ existence and enjoyment of basic human rights. Like all the peoples of the world, we have the right to go back to our home and country. We yearn to continue to work for peace, to live in our homeland and retire in peace. But Israel’s willingness to talk peace while at the same time exiling vulnerable Palestinians speaks volumes about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s intention to secure as much land with as few Palestinians as possible.

Please sign this petition supporting Suheir Azzouni’s family and their residency rights.

 

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