More Jerusalem Arabs seek Israeli citizenship

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 19, 2008 

Salim Shabane and his family live outside the Old City walls of Jerusalem.


JERUSALEM — Like hundreds of thousands of other Jerusalem residents, Salim Shabane considers himself a Palestinian. But his life and work are intertwined with Israel, where he runs an auto shop.

So, despite his tacit support for a Palestinian state, Shabane is part of a new surge of Jerusalem Arabs applying for Israeli citizenship.

"I live in Israel," said Shabane, "why shouldn't I be an Israeli citizen?"

Shabane has plenty of company. After decades of living under Israeli rule and years watching the Palestinian Authority struggling to govern, more Arabs in Jerusalem are casting their lot with Israel.

Last year, as peace talks revived the possibility of handing over parts of Jerusalem to a new Palestinian nation, the number of Arab residents applying for Israeli citizenship more than doubled.

In 2007, according to the Israeli Interior Ministry, Shabane and 500 other residents of East Jerusalem requested Israeli passports, up from 200 in each of the previous three years.

Shabane's decision to seek full Israeli citizenship reflects the awkward reality for Arabs in Jerusalem: Though many want to see an independent Palestinian state, they don't want to be part of it.

"My work and my life are inside Israel," Shabane said. "I am very proud to be an Arab and Palestinian, but for practical reasons I'm not able to be part of the Palestinian Authority."

Though the number of Arabs seeking passports is relatively small, there's an uncomfortable acknowledgement, especially among the Arab middle class in Jerusalem, that their lives could get substantially worse under Palestinian rule.

Jerusalem Arabs have long held a unique position in Middle East politics.

After Arab countries attacked the new Israeli nation in 1948, Jerusalem was cut in half. Residents in the western part of the city controlled by Israel became citizens of the new nation. Those living in the east were given passports by their new Jordanian rulers.

When Israel gained full control of Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War, the Arabs in East Jerusalem were given special identification cards and offered a chance to become full Israeli citizens. Most refused. Still, the blue IDs give Jerusalem Arabs substantially more freedom than West Bank residents.

East Jerusalem Arabs receive Israeli social security and heath benefits. They're allowed to vote in local — but not national — elections. They have the freedom to travel throughout Israel without special permits.

But since 1967, East Jerusalem has received far less support and money than West Jerusalem has.

Jerusalem is at the center of a contentious demographic battle in which Israel is looking to solidify itself as a Jewish nation and persuade the rest of the world to accept Jerusalem as its capital.

More than 250,000 Arabs and 481,000 Jews live in greater Jerusalem, according to new figures released this week by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. But the number of Arab residents is growing faster than the number of Jewish ones.

Arabs constitute about 20 percent of the Israeli population, but the nation's leaders worry that Israel eventually could lose its predominant Jewish identity.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is now considering relinquishing control of at least some of the Arab neighborhoods that Israel annexed in 1967 so that they can be part of a peace deal with Palestinian leaders.

That possibility has created renewed anxiety for Jerusalem Arabs such as Shabane, a 42-year-old father of three.

Shabane grew up right outside the Old City walls of Jerusalem in the shadow of Al Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam.

For most of his adult life, he's worked as an auto mechanic and, with a Jewish partner, he owns a garage in a Jerusalem suburb.

If the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem are transferred to the Palestinian Authority, Shabane fears that new border restrictions could prevent him from getting to his garage.

Shabane's family lives outside the Old City walls, and it's unlikely that Israel would agree to give up control of his East Jerusalem neighborhood. But Shabane and others seeking Israeli citizenship don't want to take any chances.

"I prefer to stay under occupation rather than return to a Palestinian state that cannot govern," said Akram Jweiles, a retired 50-year-old carpenter who lives in an Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem.

Though Jweiles has no desire to live under Palestinian rule, he also has no plans to request Israeli citizenship.

"I am not the type of person to get an Israeli passport because I am a fighter," he said while looking out on the Israeli separation wall that divides his neighborhood from a large Jewish suburb on the adjacent hillside.

Shabane said he doesn't have the same luxury to resist because of his wife, Samia.

Because she was born in Bethlehem, Samia Shabane has a West Bank ID that restricts her ability to live with her family in Jerusalem. She must request a new temporary entry permit every six months, can't send her children to Jerusalem schools and doesn't have access to Israeli public health care.

Shabane hopes that getting Israeli citizenship will make it easier for his wife, even though current family unification procedures in Israel are restrictive.

"Enough of the B.S.," a frustrated Shabane said after his wife declared herself to be a proud Palestinian. "I want her to get an Israeli ID. God forbid that she gets sick. Where can I take her?"

Shabane understands the political complexities of his case, but he's made his decision.

"If I choose to be Israeli, then the Palestinians will be unhappy," he said. "If I choose to be Arab, I don't get citizenship. I'm in a trap."

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service