Palestinian Residency Rights: Important Court Ruling

The Israeli High Court of Justice this week issued a precedent-setting verdict regarding Palestinian residency rights in Jerusalem. In that ruling, the Ministry of Interior was ordered to restore the residency rights of Akram Abd al-Haqq, a Palestinian born in Jerusalem before the 1967 war. Abd al-Haqq left Jerusalem with his parents at the age of 9. When he tried to return nearly two decades later, Israel denied his right to reside in Jerusalem, based on the policy that East Jerusalem Palestinians enjoy limited residency rights akin to foreign immigrants who move to the city. According to longtime Israeli practice, these limited residency rights are forfeited by an extended absence from Jerusalem. Abd al-Haqq sued to regain his right to reside in the city of his birth.

Abd al Haqq’s plight exemplified one of the pillars of Israeli occupation in East Jerusalem: while the Palestinians of East Jerusalem have no political rights, they are not without other rights, including rights to property, residency, health care, etc. However, these are not the inalienable rights of the citizen, but the “alienable” rights extended by the “magnanimity” of an occupier. These rights always hang by a thread.

This phenomenon is demonstrated clearly with respect to residency status. In 1967, Israel neither offered nor imposed its citizenship on Palestinian East Jerusalemites (unlike Arabs left living inside Israel after 1948, or Arabs living in the Golan). Instead, they were defined as “permanent residents” under the Entry into Israel Law – treating them legally as if they were foreign, non-Jewish residents newly arrived, rather than an indigenous population with roots to the place that are thousands of years old (Jewish foreigners arriving in Israel automatically qualify for citizenship).

In their decision, the judges stressed that East Jerusalem Palestinians have a special status as “native residents” rather than immigrants who have received residency rights, and that Jerusalemite Palestinians’ strong affinity with the place where they born should be considered.

This verdict is, under current circumstances, a courageous one. It acknowledges, for the first time since 1967, the absurdity of viewing the Palestinians as “foreigners” or “newcomers” in their own city, and highlights the devastating impact such a view has had on this community. In doing so, it makes the thread by which the residency rights of Palestinians hang somewhat thicker, and it stands to help an indeterminate number of vulnerable individuals retain or reclaim their rights to live in the city.

At the same time, this verdict is limited in both its impact and its implications. Yes, it will make occupation more bearable to some degree and for some people. And yes, it will allow Israelis, when challenged about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, to rightly note that Palestinians can obtain favorable judgments in Israeli courts, albeit rarely. But the decision in no way makes Israel less of an occupier, nor does it change the fact that the best Palestinians can hope for today is occupiers’ justice, defined by occupiers’ law. That reality will change not with a court verdict, but when the rights of Palestinians in Jerusalem are as deeply rooted and as inalienable as those of Israelis – something that will happen only when East Jerusalem becomes the capital of a Palestinian state.