Israel is reportedly moving to make it easier for Arab residents of East Jerusalem to receive citizenship, aiming to shorten the process from the current four-six years at best, to one year.
Since Israel captured East Jerusalem during the Six Day War in 1967 and subsequently claimed sovereignty there, it has formally offered residents living in that area the option to apply for Israeli citizenship. Until around a decade ago, very few did, as the vast majority identified, and still do identify, as Palestinian.
Recent years, however, have seen a surge in the number of East Jerusalemites seeking Israeli citizenship, but the majority of those applications have yet to be processed.
The process of naturalization for East Jerusalemites, when successful, takes an average of more than four years, and often as many as six. Just to receive an appointment to begin the process takes up to three years.
Many applicants can also go years without getting an update about their applications, or a response to inquiries, according to a decision handed down by Supreme Court Justice Yoram Danziger in July 2017.
The hurdles and bureaucracy have faced growing criticism from activists, politicians — including right-wing lawmakers such as Likud MK Yehudah Glick — and Israel’s top court.
According to a report Tuesday in the Haaretz daily, the Population and Immigration Authority (PIBA) has promised to make significant changes. Hagit Tzur, head of PIBA’s East Jerusalem bureau, said last week that a new office has been introduced in Qalandiya in northern Jerusalem that will contain eight new service booths in addition to the current 12.
Tzur said 12 more service booths will be opened in the coming months at a new National Insurance Institute building in East Jerusalem, according to the report.
The Interior Ministry will also for the first time allow East Jerusalem residents to receive partial services in offices in the city’s west.
PIBA has reportedly told the High Court it is committed to dramatically reduce waiting times, saying that all citizenship requests filed in 2016 will be dealt with by April, all requests filed in 2017 will be dealt with by July, and all 2018 applications will be decided by the end of the year.
All 2019 requests are to be ruled on in 2020, and some requests that are considered unproblematic are already being dealt with, Haaretz said.
The report quoted officials, experts and East Jerusalemites as saying the move will prompt many residents to file citizenship requests, having being deterred from doing so thus far due to the long wait.
Currently, there are more than 350,000 Arab East Jerusalemites, around 37 percent of the capital’s population. As permanent residents, they pay taxes and are entitled to state benefits like healthcare and social security.
However, they cannot vote in national elections, apply for an Israeli passport, or run for mayor in their own city. They can vote in municipal elections, yet most choose not to in protest of what they — and much of the international community — consider Israel’s illegal occupation of their land.
Around 80% of East Jerusalemites live below the poverty line, according to the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.
Historically, around half of East Jerusalemites have their applications for citizenship rejected.
Applications are usually rejected because the applicants either can’t prove they live in East Jerusalem, can’t show Hebrew fluency, or fail to win a recommendation by security authorities.
In the last five years, East Jerusalem residents filed 4,908 requests for citizenship, 54% of which were approved, Haaretz said.
Between 2014 and September 2016, the processing of citizenship applications for thousands of East Jerusalemites came to an almost complete halt, The Times of Israel reported at the time.
During those years, of the 4,152 East Jerusalemites who applied for citizenship, only 116 were approved and 161 were rejected. The rest of the applications were pending — formally, still being processed.
The Interior Ministry previously argued that the fact that so few applications are processed, and that it takes years to do so, is due to a rapidly growing workload in recent years.
Applicants must submit a wealth of documentation proving Jerusalem is their main area of residence, including three years of water, electricity and municipal tax bills, bank slips, confirmation by social security offices and letters from employers, and, if they have children, the youngsters’ vaccination records. They must also know Hebrew and swear an oath of loyalty to Israel.
In July 2017, the Supreme Court ordered the Interior Ministry to submit a formal explanation as to why the process takes so long, why applicants can go three years without receiving an update, and what internal procedures exist to deal with the problem.
Experts say that behind the surge in citizenship requests by East Jerusalemites is a desire to protect their ability to live and work in Jerusalem. In 1995, Israel began a policy of revoking, sometimes retroactively, the ability of East Jerusalemites to live in their city if they move away or have lived abroad for more than five years at any time. This policy hit its peak in 2008, during which an unprecedented 4,577 East Jerusalemites had their residency statuses revoked.
In 2017, the Supreme Court ordered the Interior Ministry to treat East Jerusalemites as “indigenous” to the city when deciding whether to revoke or restore their residency status.
Until then, East Jerusalemites had been considered as having the same legal standing, in terms of their rights to live in Israel, as a foreigner who attains permanent residency status.
Times of Israel Staff contributed to this report.