More Palestinians in east Jerusalem are applying for Israeli citizenship in hopes of swapping their vulnerable status as mere city residents for the rights and ease of travel that come with an Israeli passport.
But after long touting its offer of citizenship to them, Israel is now dragging its feet in granting it, those who track Palestinian applicants say. Lawyers said their Palestinian clients now wait months for an appointment with the Interior Ministry and an average of three years for a decision.
Israeli officials denied they were trying to discourage applications through stalling tactics, saying delays resulted from a rise in the number of requests.[caption id="attachment_53905" align="alignright" width="350"] In this Tuesday, March 14, 2017 photo, a cancelled Israeli passport of a Jerusalem born Palestinian Israeli Ruba Mueller, is seen AP[/caption]
The citizenship debate reflects the unsettled status of Jerusalem's 330,000 Palestinians, who make up 37% of the city's population, 50 years after Israel captured and annexed the eastern sector. The vast majority have city residency documents, allowing them to work and move about, but aren't citizens of any country. For travel abroad, they use temporary documents issued by Israel or Jordan.
Asking for an Israeli passport still carries the stigma of implied acceptance of Israeli control, and only about 15,000 Palestinians have requested one since 2003; of those, fewer than 6,000 were reportedly approved.
An Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is meant to end the uncertainty one day. Palestinian leaders hope east Jerusalem will become the capital of a Palestinian state that will also encompass the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territories Israel captured in 1967.
But prospects for statehood remain distant, while Israeli rule in east Jerusalem is becoming more entrenched. Over 200,000 Jewish Israelis now live in east Jerusalem settlements built to solidify Israeli control. Israel considers the areas to be neighbourhoods of its capital.
Many Arab east Jerusalem residents also feel neglected by the Palestinian autonomy government, which runs parts of the West Bank but is barred by Israel from operating in Jerusalem.
Palestinians who have sought a passport said they had to be pragmatic.
Israel's 1967 annexation of east Jerusalem, opposed by most of the world, did not come with an offer of automatic citizenship for the tens of thousands of Palestinians living there.
The alternative of residency made sense at the time, said Daniel Seidemann, a Jerusalem expert who tracks and writes about Israeli policies in the city. "We never seriously offered citizenship, the world would never have allowed that and the Palestinians didn't want it."
Israeli officials subsequently suggested citizenship was still on offer, even if most Palestinians chose not to seek it. Mayor Nir Barkat, when asked to respond to complaints of official discrimination, has said the path to citizenship is open.
Palestinian officials said east Jerusalem's globally recognised status as occupied territory won't change if more Arab residents get Israeli passports.
Still, there has been a rise in applications. In 2016, a peak year, 1,081 families submitted applications, compared to 69 in 2003, 547 in 2008 and 704 in 2013, the Interior Ministry said.
According to figures first published on the Times of Israel news site in September, the processing of requests has slowed dramatically since 2014. Out of more than 4,000 individual applications, only 84 were approved, 161 were rejected and the rest were pending.
Since 1967, Israel has revoked the residency rights of 14,500 Palestinians, often on grounds that they were absent from the city for more than seven years, even if they moved to nearby West Bank suburbs for cheaper housing.
Yoav Yeivin, a member of Jerusalem's municipal council, said Israeli authorities are concerned about absorbing more Arab citizens, who already make up more than one-fifth of the state's population.