Azmi Abu Hallaf was born and raised inside the sheltering walls of Jerusalem's Old City. But six months ago, after living in several different Jerusalem neighborhoods, he learned that the Israeli government had decided he was no longer a legal resident of Jerusalem. His residence card was revoked on grounds that his "center of life" was no longer in the city.
Mr. Abu Hallaf, a father of 12, is appealing the revocation in an Israeli court. If he loses, either he will be forced to move elsewhere or he will live in the city illegally.
His ordeal puts him in a club of more than 3,000 Palestinians who have had their Jerusalem residence cards revoked by Israel's Interior Ministry since 1987, according to B'tselem, an Israeli human rights organization. Figures provided by the ministry indicate that the policy was more vigorously enforced under right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who left office in July, than during any other period since Israel occupied and annexed the city's eastern half in 1967.
Newly appointed Interior Minister Natan Sharansky, who served as Mr. Netanyahu's minister of trade and industry, says he wants to put an end to that policy. "I think the time has come to change this policy and stop canceling residence permits for residents of East Jerusalem," Mr. Sharansky said during a tour of ministry facilities.
Who's without IDs
Many Arab Jerusalemites have had their residence cards, which are also used for identification, revoked after spending years abroad or taking a foreign passport. But it is also a situation faced by a Jerusalemite marrying a Palestinian who lives in the West Bank or Gaza Strip - or, in the case of Abu Hallaf, who simply moved to a part of town they didn't realize was outside the city limits.
When Abu Hallaf's Old City apartment became cramped, his family went looking for room to grow at a more affordable price. In 1985, he took his family to Kalandia, a neighborhood in northern Jerusalem.
But as Israeli officials increasingly shaped and enforced Jerusalem's boundaries, part of Kalandia was designated as inside Jerusalem, while the part Abu Hallaf lived in was outside, in the West Bank.
Sharansky's statements promising change were one of several indications that the government of new Prime Minister Ehud Barak could try to redress human rights violations in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Police Minister Shlomo Ben Ami recently said he wants to ban the use of administrative detention, a policy that allows Israeli security officials to hold Palestinian suspects without trial or conviction for years. That is authorized by Israel's official state of emergency, which Justice Minister Yossi Beilin said he will also work to bring to an end. It has kept active 13 emergency laws that have been on the books since 1945, allowing the Israeli army to demolish houses, put residents under curfew, and exercise military censorship.
But one of the most sensitive issues is that of the Jerusalem residence-card confiscations. Jerusalem's future is to be discussed in "final status" peace talks, and Palestinians say that means the city's eastern half will ultimately be declared as their capital. Most Israelis say that the city must remain united under their control, but many worry they are losing their demographic edge. An annual study released last week by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel showed that while the Jewish population grew at a rate of 1 percent in 1998, the Arab population increased at a rate of 3.5 percent.
"Both Labor and Likud governments have tried to make sure Palestinians are a minority in Jerusalem so we can't make our capital here," says Azmi Abu Suood, the director of the Center of Civil and Social Rights at Orient House, the Palestinians' main representative body in Jerusalem.
By law, the Interior Ministry is allowed to revoke the identity cards of Jerusalem residents who have lived elsewhere for seven years. But until recently, the policy was only enforced sporadically.
Figures suggest that during Netanyahu's three-year tenure, the ministry stepped up use of the policy as a tool to wage a demographic battle between Arabs and Jews in the capital. Between 1987 and 1995, for example, an average of 36 Palestinians lost their Jerusalem identity cards per year.
In 1996, the year Netanyahu was elected, the figure jumped to 739, and to 1,067 the next year. (See chart, left.)
"This policy ... wasn't carried out in a vigorous and cruel manner until the Netanyahu administration came in," says Eliyahu Avraham, an Israeli lawyer with HaMoked, a human rights group that represents Palestinian residence appeals in the Israeli court system.
As for Abu Hallaf, he says his family will stay put. It might just be easier to move up the road to Ramallah, a booming Palestinian metropolis, but "I don't know anyone [there]," he says. As the late-day sun sets in the valley below his house in Issawiyeh, an East Jerusalem neighborhood where he moved last year, he says, "I can't be without Jerusalem."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society