Israel refuses to renew travel documents for Jerusalemite in Canada

Palestinians born in Jerusalem are treated as immigrants in their own city.

Mohamar Awad APA images

In May of this year, Tamam Zubaidi received deeply disturbing word from the Israeli consulate in Toronto. Her travel documents would not be renewed and her permanent residency status in Jerusalem had expired.

Tamam, a Palestinian from occupied East Jerusalem, had moved to Vancouver with her husband, Sobhi, and their five-year-old daughter, Kenza, in 2006. Sobhi was studying for a doctorate at Simon Fraser University.

With the expiry of her permanent residency status, Tamam had lost her only tether to any state. This meant she would lose her travel documents and could not renew the visa on which she had been living in Canada for the last eight years.

She had become, essentially, stateless, and risked falling out of “legal” status in Canada, which would render her unable to work, receive health care or enroll her child — also from Jerusalem and in the same situation — in school.

Tamam and Kenza are technically supposed to benefit from an “implied status” until Canada’s immigration agency rules on their case. But Vancouver authorities have already begun nullifying their rights: Tamam can no longer drive, Kenza may not be able to enroll in school if the district asks for renewed documents, and both will have considerable difficulty accessing non-emergency health care.

Every year since 1967 a steady stream of Palestinians lose their permanent residency status, being stripped of them by the Israeli interior ministry with little explanation and next to no opportunity for recourse. In total, Israel has denied more than 14,000 Palestinians from returning or remaining in their home city of Jerusalem.

For the last eight years Sobhi has pursued his studies; the couple had a second child, Malika, and all the while, the family fully expected to return to Palestine once Sobhi completed his doctorate.

Every year Tamam would send her travel documentation to the Israeli consulate in order to renew her travel documents and residency status. And every year — until this one — the Israeli interior ministry would renew it.

In most other countries, including Israel, citizens do not need to tend to their citizenship status while living, working or studying abroad in order to maintain it. Most Palestinians from Jerusalem, however, are not citizens of any state.

Tenuous status

Following Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem in June 1967, a Palestinian resident of Jerusalem has been called a “permanent resident.” That tenuous status does not actually confer the guarantee of permanence. Maintaining that status requires scrupulous precautions.

Palestinians from East Jerusalem are ruled by the same statute, Israel’s 1952 Law of Entry, that governs all immigrants who are not on the path to aliyah — the process reserved exclusively for Jews or descendants of Jews that allows them to immigrate to Israel under the 1950 Law of Return.

“The Law of Entry was not meant originally for this strange situation — for people who didn’t enter Israel but quite the opposite, Israel entered their homeland,” Adi Lustigman, an immigration lawyer in Jerusalem, told The Electronic Intifada.

Lustigman is representing the Zubaidis in Israel. Since 2001 she has helped Palestinians from East Jerusalem navigate the legal terrain that controls their residency status and much of the rest of their lives.

“But Israel decided that there was no other law to apply to them: there was the citizenship law and the Law of Entry. It was decided that there was no other option,” she said.

Palestinians from East Jerusalem have the option of becoming citizens of Israel but most decline for political reasons.

One of the consequences of being regarded as an immigrant is that Palestinians from East Jerusalem must go through an annual exercise of proving that the city is their “center of life.” This can be satisfied by submitting to the interior ministry documentation of paying rent, water and electricity bills in Jerusalem, payments to the National Insurance Institute (the equivalent of social security), and proof that children attend Jerusalem schools.

Seven year alarm

Furthermore, they cannot live outside of the country for more than seven years, nor can they become permanent residents or citizens of another country.

In telling contrast, as much as 70 percent of Jewish Israelis may hold second passports. Observers have noted the inclination for young Israelis to spend years studying and living abroad before returning to the country.

The Zubaidis were well aware of all of this. After moving to Canada they continued to pay their municipal taxes on a home in the Kufr Aqab area of Jerusalem.

They originally expected Sobhi’s degree to be completed in the summer of 2014, allowing the family to return to Jerusalem before the seven year alarm sounded.

However, Lustigman states that the seven year timer should only have started after Sobhi completed his program, pointing out that this was how the courts have repeatedly ruled in similar cases. This is the fulcrum of Tamam’s appeal of her revocation.

Yet ultimately Lustigman opposes any such limit on the time Palestinians can remain away.

“Treating them as immigrants is against international law which says anyone can return to their homeland,” the lawyer said. “This is a situation where people are jailed in their own country; they fear going outside of their territory for studying, working — the way of living in a global modern world.”

Meanwhile in Canada, because they have has lost their residency status in Jerusalem, the mother and daughter have had to obtain legal services to secure their status in that country.

Vancouver-based immigration lawyer Tim Bailey is representing Tamam and her daughter to attempt to secure temporary visas so they can stay while Sobhi finishes his studies. Bailey is seeking to convince Canadian immigration bureaucrats to renew the mother’s and daughter’s temporary residency permits despite having no travel documents.

“Canadian law creates the circumstances for a stateless person, but it really only becomes a problem for people who are from countries where their status is uncertain — so Palestinians or people from countries that have [collapsed] or are on the brink of collapse,” Bailey told The Electronic Intifada.

Bailey is hopeful. “The teenage girl still has to go to school, the woman still has to work,” he said. “It’s a bad idea to strip them of their status and let them float around without status.”

There is not a large Palestinian community in Vancouver and this case is Bailey’s initiation into the peculiar legal status of Palestinians from East Jerusalem.

Bailey has worked with the Zubaidis since 2010. He admitted that he may have been naive to think Israel would continue to renew their travel documents.

He described Israel’s policy of revoking residency status as a breach of international norms: “It is kind of irresponsible that Israel creates people who can’t return to Israel and makes other countries have to deal with them.”

Demographic “balance”

But handing Palestinians off to other countries appears to be precisely the state’s objective.

In the mid-1990s a rash of revocations tossed many Palestinians out of Jerusalem. Hundreds of Palestinians who had lived, worked or studied abroad came home to discover that their right to live in the city had been taken away by Israel’s interior ministry.

In 1997, 1,067 Palestinians lost their rights to live in Jerusalem. This figure was more than ten times that of any other single year since 1967, when Israel militarily occupied Jerusalem. College students, travelers and others who happened to be abroad at the time discovered they could never return to their families and homes.

“There was never a formal answer to why so many were revoked in the 1990s,” said Lustigman, who used to work with Israeli human rights organization HaMoKed. “But what we see is that there was a radical change in the policy. Before there was an ‘open bridges’ policy that ensured that Palestinians who lived abroad would keep their residency if they came back.”

In 1997, in response to an investigation conducted by HaMoked and another Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, into the revocations, the interior ministry claimed that since the Oslo accords had been signed between the newly created Palestinian Authority and Israel, Palestinians had been “streaming back” to Jerusalem and the ministry was merely enforcing the rules for permanent residents.

In 1994 Israel had also canceled its policy of denying women from Jerusalem the right to family unification — that is, giving residency rights to their husbands if they came from anywhere outside of Israel, like the occupied West Bank or Gaza.

Israel’s ardent enforcement of the vague laws governing Palestinians from Jerusalem revealed the state’s aspiration to impose a Jewish majority in all of the city by artificial means.

Since 1973 policy in Jerusalem has been guided by the recommendations of the Interministerial Committee to Examine the Rate of Development for Jerusalem — also known as the Gafni Committee — which resolved that the “demographic balance” in Jerusalem should be maintained at 73.5 percent Jews and 26.5 percent Palestinians. In spite of this, the ratio has not bended to Israel’s will: the proportion of Jerusalem’s population that is Palestinian has grown from 26 percent in 1967 to 36 percent in 2011.

While the committee describes this ratio as a “balance,” it would be more accurately described as an advantage — as B’Tselem pointed out in its 1995 report “A Policy of Discrimination.” Refusal to allow Palestinians to build in neglected East Jerusalem neighborhoods, routine home demolitions and revoking residency status are all seen as means to achieve this ratio.

For almost a decade after 1997, however, a relatively smaller — but nonetheless steady — number of statuses were revoked. Then in 2008 alone, 4,577 Palestinians lost their status, a figure that constitutes 50 percent of the total number of revocations from the preceding four decades.

HaMoked found that these were mostly people who had lived abroad for more than seven years, like Tamam and her daughter.

Moreover, a HaMoKed investigation concluded that “most revocations were performed almost spitefully during a campaign which the ministry initiated, [during which they] actively sought out Palestinians living outside.”

B’Tselem asked the interior ministry for information to explain the staggering figure. “They said it was a matter of efficiency, that they wanted to clean their houses, so to speak; so they examined their registry and revoked all the permits they could find fault with,” Lustigman added.

“We see it as another example of a problematic situation with the ministry of interior, that they see revoking residency from people as a matter of efficiency.”

“From what I’m seeing the ministry of interior is trying to revoke as many as possible — even though the courts have ordered them to apply the law more narrowly.”


And while the courts have shown some leniency in this arena, Lustigman emphasized that many Palestinians are not able to access or afford attorneys to help them challenge the interior ministry’s indiscriminate revocations.

“If the revocations are not stopped by the court, then the ministry of interior succeeds.”

Lustigman expects the interior ministry to respond to Tamam’s appeal within the next month. Failing a reversal she will take Tamam’s case before the immigration tribunal established by Israel this past June.

The Zubaidis have been advised by their state representative in Canada not to speak further to the press while their case is pending.

In Canada, the Zubaidis will try to continue living as they have for the last several years as they accommodate for their loss of privileges and wait for bureaucrats to determine where the family can live together.

Charlotte Silver is a journalist based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter: @CharESilver.