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Expatriate Palestinians irate over revoked residency permits

From Ivan Watson, CNN
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Right to reside lost?
  • Mahmmoud Hujaij has been told he no longer has a right to live in his city of birth, Jerusalem
  • Under Israeli law, Palestinians lose residency if they leave for more than seven years
  • Same law applies if Palestinians acquire residency or citizenship in another country
  • Former Israeli official: "We also cancel the residency of Jews who are not living here"

Jerusalem (CNN) -- In 1954, Mahmmoud Hujaij was born with the help of a midwife in a small East Jerusalem house.

Half a century later, he is fighting for the right to continue living in the city of his birth.

On a 2006 trip to visit his sister and ailing mother, Israeli authorities informed Hujaij that his residency permit in Jerusalem had expired.

"They called me and said 'oh, you are not living in Jerusalem you are living outside the country,'" Hujaij recounts. "They said you have to give up your ID and leave within 30 days.'"

The slender, white-haired Palestinian had broken an Israeli law, which strips Palestinians of their Jerusalem residency if they spend more then seven years living overseas, or if they acquire residency or citizenship in another country. Hujaij had spent some 16 years living in the United States, where he had a wife and home and a U.S. green card.

Hujaij faced a difficult choice, return to his wife in the U.S. or stay in Jerusalem to fight in court to win back his residency.

"I chose my home," Hujaij says. "It's where I'm born, where I live, where I grew up."

Since December 2008, Hujaij says he has remained in Israel, hiring expensive lawyers to argue his case while risking the loss of his marriage, house and job in the U.S.

Thousands of Palestinian natives from East Jerusalem face similar scenarios.

The Israeli Ministry of Interior revoked the residency permits of 4,577 East Jerusalemites in 2008.

This marks a dramatic change in policy. From 1967 to 2007, with the exception of 2002 during which no statistics were available, Israel revoked 8,558 Jerusalem identity cards.

"Revocation of residence has reached frightening proportions," wrote Dalia Kerstein, of the HaMoked: Center for the Defense of the Individual, an Israeli human rights organization which obtained these statistics through Israel's Freedom of Information Law. "The Interior Ministry campaign in 2008 is only a part of a general policy whose aim is to limit the Palestinian population and preserve a Jewish majority in Jerusalem,...the Palestinians are natives of this city, not residents who have recently arrived."

It's where I'm born, where I live, where I grew up
--Mahmmoud Hujaij

Meir Sheetrit, the former Israeli Interior Minister who claims responsibility for the crackdown on expired residency cards, bristles at accusations that the policy is part of a broader push to alter the demographic balance between Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem.

"5,000 people out of 270,000?" he asks, citing the current Palestinian population in Jerusalem. "That's crazy, it's not serious."

Sheetrit, now an opposition lawmaker in the Israeli Knesset, argues that the spike in revocations was the result of his efforts to streamline lapses in Israel's immigration policy.

"The situation here in Israel is that there are a lot of people who are living outside of Israel in different places who are still enjoying all the entitlements of the country without having been residents. No country in the world would accept it," Sheetrit says. "We also cancel the residency of Jews who are not living here."

After long departures, Israelis may lose their status as residents. However, they are allowed to retain their Israeli passports. In addition, it is common practice for Israelis to hold passports from more then one country. Palestinians do not carry Israeli passports.

As a result, Palestinians like Moheydin Abu Madi lose the right to travel freely in and out of Jerusalem once they lose their residency cards. Abu Madi was born and lived in Jerusalem until his family moved to Finland when he was 16-years old.

"I'm fighting to stay here in Jerusalem," Abu Madi says. "This is my country, and nobody can tear me away from my country. Not Israel. Not any government."

For the last 3 years, Abu Madi has been appealing in court to have his Jerusalem residence re-instated. While his case is being reviewed, he is unable to leave Israel to visit his wife and son in Finland, for fear he will be denied the right to return.

Meir Sheetrit, the former Israeli Interior minister, insists Palestinians who lose their residency permits are always welcome to return to visit their families in Jerusalem by applying for three-month tourist visas.

"Each and every one of them can come as tourists," he says. "We are a free country."

Standing outside the house he was born in, Mahmmoud Hujaij scoffs at this proposal.

"I will never come back to my home as a tourist," he says.