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Stop Holding Palestinians Hostage to the Peace Process

Since the early days of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Palestinians have faced insurmountable barriers to political rights and citizenship in the Middle East. A recent Human Rights Watch report highlights the ongoing nature of this problem, documenting the situation of Palestinian-Jordanians rendered stateless by the revocation of their citizenship. The report prompted much-needed press coverage of the situation in Jordan, and a good reminder of the fact that this situation is neither new nor unique. Acknowledging the unlikely prospect of a timely solution to the conflict, Arab and Israeli governments should work to ensure that Palestinians living in the diaspora are not punished needlessly in the meantime.

In Lebanon, 400,000 Palestinian refugees who fled their homes after the 1948 partition and the 1967 war are denied the most basic rights. Despite having lived in Lebanon for over half a century, they lack access to employment, education, and health care benefits. As a result, they live in permanent limbo within the confines of their refugee camps. They are forced to rely on handouts from a thinly spread U.N. agency, which was originally created with the sole purpose of providing temporary relief. Instead, it now finds itself playing the role of a de facto state. Generations of Palestinian refugees have been born into this situation, yet the Lebanese government continues to deny them citizenship, and initiatives to ameliorate their situation are quickly shut down.

Traditionally, Palestinians have fared better in Jordan. But according to the Human Rights Watch report issued this past February, the Jordanian government has now divested over 2700 Palestinian-Jordanians of their citizenship. Many of these individuals have never known a home other than Jordan, much less been considered eligible for citizenship elsewhere, including in Israel. As a result of Jordan's divestment, they are now stateless again. The NY Times story noted that it was often a routine trip to the Jordanian Interior Ministry that triggered the divestment. Such fateful bureaucratic encounters are a hallmark of stateless people's common experience: day-to-day transactions such as renewing a driver's license or changing an address turn into an inquisition with devastating consequences.

Parallel encounters happen daily at the Israeli Ministry of the Interior, where Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem are required to prove their "center of life" in Jerusalem in order to maintain the right to reside in their city of birth. In these interactions, any indication of an alternative residence - pursuing an education abroad, marrying a foreign citizen, or relocating to the West Bank for work - may trigger the process that ultimately results in the revocation of residency rights. Most Jerusalemites have no ties to any other states. In 2008 alone, Israel rendered 4577 East Jerusalemites stateless through this process.

Ironically, it is by pointing to such Israeli policies that Jordanian, Lebanese, and other Arab governments justify denying citizenship and normalized status to Palestinians. Their policies are rationalized by a rhetoric that weds the right of return for exiled Palestinians to their continued statelessness. Arab governments argue that granting Palestinians equal status will deny them the opportunity to acquire Israeli or Palestinian citizenship in the event of a final resolution. For Palestinians struggling to get by, this is a high price to pay for an ever-elusive peace. The legitimate claims Palestinians have against Israel are not weakened by efforts to mitigate the hardships of their current situations. Similarly, their civil and political rights within Israel should not depend on its good graces. In both cases, those basic rights follow from Palestinians' economic, social, and cultural contributions to the societies in which they reside.

It is high time to stop holding Palestinians hostage to the peace process. Whatever the ultimate resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Arab and Israeli governments alike must ensure that in the meantime, Palestinians have access to the basic dignity of membership in the polities where they reside. As the United States engages in the Middle East process, it should ensure that these men, women, and children do not fall through the cracks of broader ideological goals and disputes. In order to do so, it must begin by ensuring that the eventual rights of Palestinians are not contingent on their continued statelessness.

Sirine Shebaya and Diala Shamas are members of the Yale Law School class of 2012 and 2011, respectively.

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