East Jerusalem has always been a contentious issue within the Israeli-Arab conflict. Aside from holding religious significance to the Jews, Muslims and Christian, all three Abrahamic religions, it also represents the geo-political tensions in the area. Palestinian leadership views East Jerusalem as the prospective future capital of Palestine, and its annexation in 1967 left many disheartened about the future of Palestinian sovereignty. On the other hand, the Knesset proclaimed the entirety of Jerusalem as the united capital of Israel in 1980.
In the background of these political and religious tensions, live the inhabitants of East Jerusalem, 61% of whom are Arabs, whose status in Israel is that of permanent residents. It has long been taboo among these communities to seek Israel citizenship. Unfortunately, the social stigma surrounding citizenship is not the only barrier. Those who are brave enough to apply for citizenship were faced with a lengthy wait time and other difficulties engineered by the Israeli Ministry of Interior.
In this article we will review the plight of ten East Jerusalem residents, represented by Advocate Nechama Ovadia, head of the Israeli immigration department in our law firm, who took the Ministry of Interior to court and succeeded in forcing the State of Israel to dramatically reduce wait times for naturalization applications.
Arab permanent residents apply for Israeli citizenship
Ten permanent residents living in East and Central Jerusalem applied for Israeli citizenship. Among them, three applied at the Ministry of Interior’s East Jerusalem office and were initially scheduled for appointments two years later. These appointments were subsequently postponed, resulting in a total wait time of four years. The remaining seven residents attempted to apply through the office in Central Jerusalem, which does not suffer from such severe wait times. However, their address was not recognized and they were directed to apply through the East Jerusalem branch of the MoI.
Why is this Discriminatory?
Israeli residents any citizens generally have the right and obligations to receive service from the nearest Ministry of Interior office (Misrad Hapnim) to their address of residence, as it appears in their ID card (Teudat Zehut). Other cities with multiple Ministry of Interior offices, such as Tel Aviv, do not restrict access to specific offices based on the location of residents within the city. Therefore, it was shocking that the seven of our clients were turned away.
Such prolonged wait times makes the naturalization process practically impossible because Israel naturalization law requires permanent residents seeking citizenship to prove they have lived in Israel for at least three of the past five years. In practice, a four-year wait renders initial application documents obsolete by the time of the appointment and requires submitting new documents. In addition, this poses a challenge to permanent residents, especially young ones who may wish to travel abroad for education.
Petition to the Jerusalem District Court
To address this, the ten petitioners, represented by lawyer Nechama Ovadia, filed a court petition in January 2019. They requested the court to mandate either a reduction in appointment wait times to a maximum of 90 days from the application date or permit them to apply at the central city bureau. The first hearing took place in May 2019, where the Ministry of Interior argued that reducing wait times was impossible. However, by the fourth hearing in March 2020, the Ministry had made significant strides: opening a new office in Qalandia to accept citizenship applications, hiring more staff, and introducing an online application system, all contributing to reduced wait times.
The Ministry of Interior claimed that they had begun the process of reducing wait times before the petition, however, Ovadia asserts that this claim was a fabrication created to evade compensating the petitioners for their substantial legal costs. Judge Bezek Rappaport ruled in favor of the petitioners, ordering the Ministry of Interior to pay them a total of 67,500 NIS.
Since the 2020 ruling, citizenship applicants from East Jerusalem now experience a significantly shorter wait time of 6-12 months, a drastic improvement from the previous four years. Following this improvement, the petition was withdrawn. The hard efforts of Nechama Ovadia and her ten clients helped to break down a significant barrier and is considered a huge victory for Arab permanent residents seeking Israeli citizenship.