Arbitrary Rules Force Palestinians to Choose: In or Out

Sulieman Illo spends his days driving to and from Israel’s largest airport. The Ben-Gurion Airport, named after Israel’s Founding Father, saw over 17 million international passengerspass through its gates in 2016.

Illo drove a countless number of these passengers entering or exiting Israel. None of the entering passengers, however, was his Jerusalem-born wife living in Chicago. Nor was any person exiting, Illo himself; father of three, an American resident, but born in the Old City of Jerusalem in 1951. It was not because he and his wife did not want to visit each other. It was not because they couldn’t afford it. It was because, through opaque Israeli policy, they were not allowed to visit each other.

Illo returned to Jerusalem two and a half years ago after spending 15 years living and working in Chicago. Illo graduated from Bethlehem University, earned a master’s degree from Beirut Arab University, and attained a permanent US Visa through theDiversity Lottery program. Every year, however, he came back to Jerusalem for two months in order to pay his taxes and maintain his residency. In 2003, Israeli authorities discovered he also had American residency and gave him a month to sort his status or leave.

Illo hired a lawyer, extended his Jerusalem residency and thought it was fixed. In 2006, the same procedure happened, but again, nothing was permanently established. From 2003 until now he has been battling to keep his residency. In 2015 Illo was denied renewal outright, forcing him to stay�fearing he could never get a residency back if he left. Now, he’s a taxi driver, living with his sister.

Palestinians born in Jerusalem are in a precarious position. Unlike Jews born in Jerusalem, Palestinians are not citizens of Israel. Residents of Jerusalem are residents of Israel but resident status, by law, is not permanent. Residents are granted access to Israeli Health Care and Social Security, however, these benefits expire along with their cards. Due to a judgement passed in 1988 by Israel’s High Court of Justice, a resident must prove Jerusalem, for the previous seven years, was one’s center of life. What exactly center of life means and how once can prove it is not entirely clear.

On March 6th, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) released a statement from their Executive Committee Member Dr. Hanan Ashrawi. “Since 1967, Israel has revoked the residency status of more than 14,500 Palestinians from Jerusalem using the pretext of its illegal and draconian laws.”

Illo has been in Jerusalem for two and a half years trying to prove his residency and renew his resident ID. His children’s IDs are invalid, as they work and live in the US. In 2015 Illo’s wife attempted to extend her visa through the proper channels. The application went through the Palestinian Authorities in Ramallah and then back to Jerusalem where it was rejected. The lengthy process and ultimate denial made her overstay her visa by two days. Israeli authorities then banned her, a woman born in Jerusalem, from returning for five years. This is not an uncommon outcome.

Illo, however, feels he can not give up his home. I’m not going to raise my hands, I am not going to give up.

Sometimes, he said, my wife asks, do you love Jerusalem more than you love me?

Right to Enter (RTE) is a grassroots campaign for the protection of foreign passport holders residing in and/or visiting the occupied Palestinian territories. Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American living in the West Bank. He is a businessman, entrepreneur and was a founding member of the RTE campaign in 2006.

The major issue for the campaign is the arbitrary and opaque nature of the the Israeli policies. Why a person has a visa rejected or a residency denied is never defined. This person has been banned for 5 years (Illo’s wife). We’ve had cases where people were banned for 5 years or 10 years but within 24 hours were back in the country, Bahour said. It’s unknown what the policy is that is actually being applied.

The total number of people denied entry to Palestine by Israel is unknown by anyone other than the Israeli Authorities. For Bahour, the cases collected by RTE prove there is no rhyme or reason for why a person is rejected. All we can see is its a policy to [force] people make the decision to not want to be here, Bahour said.

Illo’s two forms of ID makes it extremely difficult to renew his Jerusalem residency. The use, or even the possession of foreign passports can result in revocation of their Israeli residence status. The ministry has made it clear, Illo said, if any resident takes any foreigner passport, their residency will be suspended.

Why a citizen can hold two residencies but a natural born resident cannot was made clear to Illo. He offered to give his American residency up but the Israeli’s wouldn’t let him. They told him no, he said, you hold it, then you don’t need our residency.

Illo’s only son is to be married on the 25th of March but he is still unsure if he will be able to attend the wedding in America. He assumes Israel will let him leave, but he is unsure if they will allow him back. He is torn between this monumental family event and a life in Jerusalem. He is working with a lawyer to attain a travel permit that would guarantee his ability to return but isn’t confident it will come. All I want is to come and go like them [Israeli Citizens], Illo said.

While the specific policies at play are unknown and the enforcement seems random, for Bahour, the ultimate policy is clear. Israel wants to force Palestine to function with fewer and fewer resources, including human resources.

Illo has watched East Jerusalem shrink. He has seen the suburbs diced up and cut off by walls�forcing previous residents to lose the benefits of being considered Jerusalemites. He has seen settlers come and settlements creep closer. He has experienced residencies, visas and entry be denied. For Illo it is clear, Israel wants to change the demographics the goal is to keep Jerusalem clean of Arabs.

On March 7, the Israeli Parliament passed a new law guaranteed to exacerbate the circumstances for the Palestinians of Jerusalem. The law gives the ministry of interior broad authority to revoke the residency rights of any Palestinian Jerusalemite if they breach loyalty to the State of Israel.

Illo spends his days driving to and from an airport he can not use for fear he may not be allowed to return. I was born here, before 67, Illo said. I was here when you [Israeli’s] came to the city. You are the tourist, not me. I’m not a tourist.

In contrast to Illo, David Ben-Gurion, the airport’s namesake, was born in Plonsk – modern day Poland.

Source: Palestine Monitor