THE BLOG

Waking Up Stateless in Jerusalem

At least twelve million people wake up stateless every morning -- unable to travel, obtain identity cards, work legally, own property, register their children's births, attend school, apply for public benefits, access healthcare, and receive state protection. Stateless persons exist at the periphery of society -- both outside the law and at the mercy of the law. In occupied East Jerusalem, thousands of Palestinians -- Christians and Muslims alike -- have lost their permanent residency rights -- their only legal bond to the city of their birth -- due to a number of Israeli laws and now wake up to this paradoxical reality every day -- stateless in their own homeland.

Policymakers and heads of state gathered in Geneva earlier this month to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention and the fiftieth anniversary of the 1961 Statelessness Convention. Member states, including the United States, reaffirmed their commitments to the conventions' principles and delivered pledges to protect and assist refugees and stateless persons. In her remarks before the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees Ministerial, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton focused on the detrimental effects of discriminatory citizenship laws that prevent women from passing citizenship to their children or strip them of their citizenship when they marry non-nationals. For Palestinian Jerusalemites, the holding onto one's permanent residency is even more tenuous than that -- even for those who have never left Jerusalem, revocation of one's permanent residency rights is an enormous risk.

Most Palestinian Jerusalemites, despite having been born in the city, do not possess citizenship rights. Rather, they are trapped in a fine limbo between permanent residency, whereby they exercise a limited set of rights and are able to live in Jerusalem, and statelessness, whereby their permanent residency rights are revoked and they are forced to leave the city in which they were born. While permanent residents are permitted to pursue Israeli citizenship through naturalization, the Israeli Minister of Interior ultimately holds complete discretion in granting or denying a citizenship application -- even where an applicant meets all of the naturalization requirements, she will only be granted nationality if "the Minister of the Interior ... thinks fit to do so."

The "center of life" policy is the most detrimental of these policies by which thousands of Jerusalemites are rendered stateless. Referred to as "quiet deportation" in a 1997 joint report by B"Tselem and HaMoKed, the policy is based on a very liberal interpretation of a 1988 Israeli High Court holding. Pursuant to that interpretation -- but contrary to the written Israeli law -- the Minister of Interior has revoked the rights of Jerusalemites who have never settled abroad and some who have never even left Jerusalem. Israeli citizens, on the other hand, who reside permanently outside of Israel easily maintain their citizenship and are under no similar obligations to justify their continued connection to Israel.

That a state is deliberately rendering discrete populations of persons stateless should be of concern to the international community. Israel is obligated as an original signatory to the 1961 Statelessness Convention to refrain from acts that defeat the object and purpose of the treaty. Notwithstanding its unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem and obligations as an occupier under international humanitarian law, Israel is also bound in East Jerusalem by a number of international human rights treaties, including the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights which prohibits the arbitrary deprivation of one's right to enter his or her own country.

The situation in Jerusalem is especially dire because those most vulnerable to statelessness have never actually enjoyed full legal bond to a state -- citizenship. Yet as heads of state examine their commitments to the 1961 Convention, attention must be paid to reforming the statelessness protections framework to prevent a runaround of its provisions through this categorical distinction between citizenship and permanent residency. Indeed, this distinction goes to the core of the problem of statelessness among Palestinian Jerusalemites: when strictly interpreted, the distinction renders most of the provisions of the 1961 Convention inapplicable. To be sure, the contention is not that the two legal statuses -- permanent residency and citizenship -- should be eliminated; however, where permanent residency is habitually issued to a discrete class or group of persons born on the territory over which a sovereign claims authority, the reasons behind the continued use of the tenuous status -- and its subsequent revocation -- must be closely examined.

When you deny a population the opportunity to participate, Clinton remarked, you deny them the opportunity to contribute. It is time to examine the impetus behind Israel's laws concerning the permanent residency rights of Palestinian Jerusalemites and to scrutinize the purpose for denying thousands of Jerusalemites the right to live in the city of their birth. The facts on the ground are that at the expense of occupation and politics, thousands of Jerusalemites are losing their only connection to Jerusalem by the deliberate actions of Israel. As stateless persons, they wake up bearing the status of the most vulnerable -- the rightless.

This article is based on the forthcoming paper Institutionalizing Statelessness: The Revocation of Residency Rights of Palestinians from East Jerusalem in the International Journal of Refugee Law.