For some Palestinians in East Jerusalem, a pragmatic 'Israelification'

More East Jerusalem Palestinians are taking Israeli citizenship, learning Hebrew, and living in Jewish neighborhoods. But does that affect their identity?

Ammar Awad/Reuters
Israeli police officers stand at the scene of an attack in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of A-Tur May 20, 2015. Israeli police shot dead a driver in the Palestinian neighborhood of East Jerusalem on Wednesday after he rammed them with his car, injuring two of them, a police spokesman said.

Suha, a young Palestinian lawyer, grew up in East Jerusalem and got her degree in the West Bank, then took a crash course in Hebrew to pass the Israeli bar.

Now she is planning to take a step that was once considered taboo among Palestinians living under Israeli rule in the passionately contested holy city: take an oath of loyalty to Israel in order to become a citizen.

“A lot of people are applying for it. Even people you would never expect: like sheikhs with beards. The lawyers that I work with all have it,” says Suha, who declined to give her full name so as not to risk rejection by Israeli authorities. “I don’t see the occupation going anywhere,” she says. “Eventually I’m going to do it.”

Ever since Israel conquered and immediately annexed East Jerusalem in 1967, the city’s hundreds of thousands of Palestinian residents have lived in limbo. Even as their blue residency cards afforded them Israeli social benefits and freedom of movement, they remained loyal to their countrymen in the West Bank and Gaza and resisted the Israeli system.

That meant choosing Palestinian and Jordanian school curricula and ignoring Hebrew studies, boycotting Jerusalem municipal elections, and preferring the lesser status of permanent residency to full-fledged Israeli citizenship.

In recent years, however, a modest shift has begun as a growing number of Palestinians are embracing elements of Israel, including hundreds of applicants for citizenship every year when once there were almost none. Palestinians are also increasingly moving into Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, while others are studying Hebrew to attend Israeli colleges and universities.

The phenomenon seems all the more surprising considering that just a year ago, months of widespread rioting broke out in Palestinian neighborhoods that reflected frustration over years of neglect, creeping settlements, and discrimination. Israel responded with widespread arrests and roadblocks, and relations between neighboring Jewish and Arab areas suffered.

There is no one reason that explains the shift in Palestinian attitudes. Many Jerusalemites justify their citizenship move as a pragmatic survival tactic to ensure that Israel doesn't strip them of their Jerusalem residency status as it has done in the past with thousands of Palestinians who left the city. Israeli citizenship would allow them to move beyond the isolating security barrier Israel erected 10 years ago without sacrificing their right to return some day to East Jerusalem.

Others say the move toward Israel is to improve their quality of life or boost their job prospects.

“Politics is one thing, and day-to-day life is something else,” says Jamal Natsheh, a lawyer from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Haninah who helps broker rental and property purchase deals for Palestinians in neighboring Jewish areas.

'Political orphans'

Palestinians and analysts say the process of integrating their lives more closely with Israel is also linked to geopolitics. The peace process has limped to a halt in recent years, further dimming prospects that East Jerusalem is going to be the capital of a Palestinian state anytime soon.

“There’s no negotiations, and the Palestinian state isn’t seen on the horizon.… People are saying, ‘Let’s improve our lives as much as possible,’ ” says Nir Hasson, a reporter for Haaretz who covers Jerusalem. He calls the shifting attitudes and practices among East Jerusalem Palestinians a process of “Israelification.”

Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist based in Amman, Jordan, calls the city’s 300,000 Palestinian residents “political orphans” stuck between the Palestinian Authority – which is barred from operating in Jerusalem – and Israel. For Palestinians, he says, moves like acquiring Israeli citizenship are a “defensive” mechanism.

But Nariman Quarain, a lawyer colleague of Suha’s who provides services to Palestinians seeking to be naturalized in Israel, says that move is “not an act of desperation.”

There’s a nine-month wait to get an appointment to start the process because of the demand, she says, pulling out an Israeli Interior Ministry naturalization form with “East Jerusalem” written on the top.

“People are motivated to do it,” she says. “They feel encouraged for positive change.”

Survival tactic

The citizenship requirements sound mundane at first. Candidates need to produce documentation like a rental contract or municipal bills to prove they actually live in the city.

But it’s not a simple step for any Palestinian. Those with Jordanian citizenship must agree to give it up. Applicants have to demonstrate knowledge of Hebrew, explain in writing why they are connected to Israel, and take an oath of loyalty to the Jewish state.

The Israeli Population, Immigration and Border Authority declined requests to provide the number of Palestinians naturalized. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz, however, reported that 3,300 Palestinians received citizenship between 2005 and 2012, while the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, citing data from the Interior Ministry, said 7,600 Palestinians lost their residency status during the same period.

Suha explained that Israeli citizenship would give her a passport to travel with and forge an unbreakable link to Jerusalem. “Once [other Palestinians] considered it betrayal, now they see it as a ticket to stay here,” she says.

Bashar Azzeh, a Palestinian businessman who commutes from Jerusalem to Ramallah, also says there is growing understanding in the West Bank for Jerusalemites’ shift as a survival tactic.

“There is 70 percent poverty, and the [Palestinian Authority] can’t help them,” he says. “There’s no ideology behind it. It’s more because of a lack of options.”

Mr. Azzeh says that even though Palestinians in Jerusalem have become more oriented toward Israel, he doesn’t see the trend as developing into deeper coexistence. “We’ve lived too far apart for too long,” he says. “They look upon us [with] prejudice. There’s a need for cultural change.”

Move to Jewish neighborhoods

Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem mark another taboo being challenged by Palestinians. Viewed as illegal settlements by the international community and considered stolen land by Palestinians, the communities have become a draw for Palestinians looking for better living conditions.

“It used to be people with a bad reputation that lived with the Israelis,” says Mr. Natsheh, the lawyer. “Now that’s changing. It’s normal. Some people like to be on the Jewish side for the privacy.”

Natsheh displays a short list of available rental properties in the northern Arab neighborhoods of Beit Haninah and Shuafat. A lack of existing housing and new construction in Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem is another factor forcing Palestinians to look to Jewish areas to find housing, he says.

The erection of Israel’s security barrier around Jerusalem prompted Sari Saeed to leave the Palestinian town of Abu Dis – a Jerusalem suburb that lies on the West Bank side of the border – and move into the city so as not to risk losing her residency. The middle-aged hairdresser now lives in the still-growing Jewish neighborhood of Pisgat Zeev because it’s cheaper than in the neighboring, upscale Beit Haninah.

“Renting here solves a lot of problems,” she says. “I am quite happy here and it's very close to work.”

Prospective Palestinian residents often run up against discrimination from Israeli owners who resist transactions with Arabs, Natsheh says. However, “if you respect the law, they accept you. There are even friendships,” he says. “For me it’s a positive trend, because we are fated to live together.”

The affluent neighborhood of French Hill, just next to Hebrew University, also has been popular with middle-class Arabs in recent years.

“I don't count. But some do,” says Yossi Klein Halevi, the American-born Israeli writer, referring to the influx of Arab families who have moved into his building. “It’s been uneventful.”

While Israel has declared the city its united capital since 1967, the divide between east and west has persisted.

Choosing Israeli colleges

Both sides looked away from each other: As Palestinians refused citizenship and boycotted Jerusalem municipal elections, municipal officials in Jerusalem neglected investment in the Palestinian neighborhoods and there have been precious few permits for new residential projects in Palestinian neighborhoods.

In recent years, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has sought to devote more resources to correcting those gaps, and has pushed to improve road infrastructure and open new schools so as not to leave a vacuum of authority in Arab Jerusalem. At the same time, he opposes a political compromise in which Israel would surrender sovereignty over East Jerusalem.

Currently, some 1,900 East Jerusalem high school students are studying toward Israeli college matriculation tests, according to the Jerusalem municipality, after years in which nearly all of them focused on Palestinian and Jordanian studies.

Though Palestinian community leaders like Abdel Karim Lafi say they are wary that Israel is trying to “occupy the minds” of children with an elementary school curriculum that presents an Israeli narrative, they acknowledge that Israeli colleges give Palestinians good job opportunities.

Administrators at post secondary institutions in Jerusalem say there’s growing demand from Palestinian students – though the numbers are still small relative to the population.

Hadassah College, an Israeli school based in Jerusalem, says Palestinian students account for 10 percent of the school’s 2,000 students. Prestigious Hebrew University, which has 12,000 undergraduates, says it will open its first college preparatory course tailored to East Jerusalem students this fall. The number of such applicants rose by about 50 percent to 154 in 2014 and a significant increase is expected again in 2015.

Not leaving Palestinian fold

Saleh Awad, an Israeli Arab who teaches Hebrew to East Jerusalem high school students in Beit Haninah, says that while he struggles to convince high school students of the value of learning Hebrew, there is more receptiveness among twenty-somethings eager to boost job prospects.

“They want to develop careers and advance in life. And what prevents them is language,” he says.

Will the embrace of Israel remake the identity of Palestinians of Jerusalem in the image of Israel’s Arab citizens? In an unexpected parallel to their marginalization in Israel, young Palestinians acknowledge feeling alienated by their countrymen in the West Bank.

But Mr. Hasson, the Israeli reporter, says that, despite new acceptance of Israeli citizenship, the Arabs of Jerusalem are not leaving the Palestinian fold.

“The fact that you are Israeli in your daily life, doesn’t mean that you aren’t Palestinian in your identity,” he says. Mayor “Barkat believes this is the solution: that we will adopt the Palestinians, and everything will have a happy end. But it’s much more complicated.”

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