Residency policy reversed for Palestinians in Jerusalem

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JERUSALEM — Interior Minister Natan Sharansky has rescinded the regulation that deprived Arab residents of Jerusalem of the right to live in the city if they had been absent for more than seven years.

Sharansky said he made the move, which was announced Sunday, because the regulations had become a system of harassment.

"It was an impractical policy that served no purpose. I am happy that we are stopping it today," Sharansky said about the practice, which human rights groups had called "quiet deportation" of Palestinians from Jerusalem.

"As someone who believes that Jerusalem must remain part of the state of Israel and under its sovereignty, I believe we must look out for everyone's human rights, including those living in east Jerusalem or in west Jerusalem," he said.

In a similar move, the ministry also changed the regulations regarding Jerusalem Arabs who want to obtain Israeli citizenship. Until now, they had to give up their Jordanian citizenship, but this is virtually impossible under Jordanian law. Now, they will only have to show that they made a serious effort to rescind their Jordanian citizenship.

The ministry announced the changes shortly before Sharansky was to go to the United States to receive a human rights award.

In 1996, 689 Jerusalem Palestinians lost their permanent residency status. In 1997, the figure was at least 606.

Last year, Moked — the Center for the Defense of the Individual — petitioned the Supreme Court, charging that the government had changed its policy regarding residency rights without warning.

After the 1967 Six-Day War, the government offered Israeli citizenship to the Palestinians of eastern Jerusalem. The overwhelming majority, who refused the offer, instead became permanent residents of Israel in accordance with the Entry to Israel Law.

In 1985, the Interior Ministry announced new regulations in which a residency permit would expire automatically.

According to the regulation, the permit expires if its possessor "abandons Israel and settles outside Israel." This was defined as living outside of Israel for seven years or accepting permanent residency status or citizenship from another country.

For the next 10 years, the government followed a consistent policy. Eastern Jerusalem residents who did not return to the city for seven years in a row lost their residency rights.

Those who came and went from time to time deposited their identity cards with the authorities when they left the country and received an exit card permitting them to return. When they returned, they were given their identity cards back for the duration of the visit.

In 1995, the policy suddenly changed. Without warning and without a clearly stated declaration, visits to Israel no longer rewound the seven-year clock. This applied even to eastern Jerusalem Palestinians who had moved to the West Bank and continued to enter Jerusalem on a regular basis.

Many Palestinians who lost their residency rights petitioned the Supreme Court. The most important of these petitions, submitted by Moked, is currently being heard by a panel of five judges headed by Supreme Court President Aharon Barak.

Dalia Kerstein, the head of Moked, said that until she sees the ministry's actual decision, she is not sure of its implications.

"I hope the decision is positive," she said. "But the question is how Interior Ministry officials in the field will interpret the new policy and whether it will be made retroactive to include those who lost their residency rights over the past few years."