JERUSALEM (AP) — More Palestinians in east Jerusalem are applying for Israeli citizenship in hopes of swapping their vulnerable status as mere city residents for the rights and ease of travel that come with an Israeli passport.
But after long touting its offer of citizenship to them, Israel is now dragging its feet in granting it, said those who track Palestinian applicants. Lawyers said their Palestinian clients now wait months for an appointment with the Interior Ministry and an average of three years for a decision.
Israeli officials denied they were trying to discourage applications through stalling tactics, saying delays resulted from a rise in the number of requests.
The citizenship debate reflects the unsettled status of Jerusalem's 330,000 Palestinians — who make up 37 percent of the city's population — 50 years after Israel captured and annexed the eastern sector.
The vast majority have city residency documents, allowing them to work and move about, but aren't citizens of any country. For travel abroad, they use temporary documents issued by Israel or Jordan.
Asking for an Israeli passport still carries the stigma of implied acceptance of Israeli control, and only about 15,000 Palestinians have requested one since 2003, according to the Interior Ministry, which did not provide early figures. Of those, fewer than 6,000 were reportedly approved.
Some polls have indicated the actual number of Palestinians interested in Israeli citizenship is actually larger, mainly because of the practical benefits they can derive.
An Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is meant to end the uncertainty one day. Palestinian leaders hope east Jerusalem will become the capital of a Palestinian state that will also encompass the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territories Israel captured in 1967.
But prospects for statehood remain distant, while Israeli rule in east Jerusalem is becoming more entrenched. Over 200,000 Jewish Israelis now live in east Jerusalem settlements built to solidify Israeli control. Israel considers the areas to be neighborhoods of its capital.
Many Arab east Jerusalem residents also feel neglected by the Palestinian autonomy government, which runs parts of the West Bank but is barred by Israel from operating in Jerusalem.
Palestinians who have sought a passport said they had to be pragmatic.
"I didn't want to lose my right" to live in Jerusalem, Ruba Mueller, a descendant of the city's prominent Nashashibi clan, said of her decision to become an Israeli.
Married to a German, the 37-year-old Jerusalem native feared that without the shield of citizenship, her extended stays in Germany would enable the Israeli authorities to strip her of her Jerusalem residency.
"I was born here, I am a Palestinian," Mueller said. "I don't want a visa that says I'm a tourist."
Another Arab resident said getting citizenship ended his numerous bureaucratic hassles. The 34-year-old land surveyor, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid being labeled unpatriotic by fellow Palestinians, said he simply wants to "live normally."
Israel's 1967 annexation of east Jerusalem — opposed by most of the world — did not come with an offer of automatic citizenship for the tens of thousands of Palestinians living there.
The alternative of residency made sense at the time, said Daniel Seidemann, a Jerusalem expert who tracks and writes about Israeli policies in the city. "We never seriously offered citizenship, the world would never have allowed that and the Palestinians didn't want it."
Israeli officials subsequently suggested citizenship was still on offer, even if most Palestinians chose not to seek it. Mayor Nir Barkat, when asked to respond to complaints of official discrimination, has said the path to citizenship is open.
Palestinian officials said east Jerusalem's globally recognized status as occupied territory won't change if more Arab residents get Israeli passports.
"The city will be liberated one day and these citizenships will mean nothing," said Adnan Husseini, the official in charge of Jerusalem affairs in the Palestinian Authority.
Still, there has been a rise in applications. In 2016, a peak year, 1,081 families submitted applications, compared to 69 in 2003, 547 in 2008 and 704 in 2013, the Interior Ministry said.
According to figures first published on the Times of Israel news site in September, the processing of requests has slowed dramatically since 2014. Out of more than 4,000 individual applications, only 84 were approved, 161 were rejected and the rest were pending.
Israel's Interior Ministry blamed a heavier work load.
"There hasn't been any slowing in the review process, but there are a growing number of applications every year," said spokeswoman Sabine Haddad.
Lawyers representing Palestinians said they believe Israel wants to deter Arabs from applying.
"We see a clear link between these seemingly innocent bureaucratic measures and Israel's demographic interest to reduce the number of Arabs inside its borders, especially Arabs with voting rights," said lawyer Adi Lustigman, who has represented Palestinians seeking citizenship.
Since 1967, Israel has revoked the residency rights of 14,500 Palestinians, often on grounds that they were absent from the city for more than seven years, even if they moved to nearby West Bank suburbs for cheaper housing.
Arab residents are "subject to constant fear, real fear, to lose their residency," Lustigman said.
For now, citizenship appears to offer the best protection. But the path is often difficult.
Mueller learned recently that her passport wouldn't be renewed because she had left Israel immediately after obtaining it 10 years ago. She won't lose her citizenship, but has to go back to using a travel document that has to be renewed every two years.
Even the fact that her grandmother was a niece of one of Israel's most famous writers, Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon, hasn't helped. The grandmother married into the Nashashibi family in the 1940s and converted to Islam. She later divorced and returned to Judaism.
Applicants need to prove they've lived in the city for at least three years and are asked to provide electricity, water and municipal tax bills for that period. They also need proficiency in Hebrew, even though Arabic is an official language in Israel. Other grounds for refusal include minor criminal offenses or a veto by the Shin Bet security service.
"The main category is the people who don't get an answer at all," Lustigman said.
Yoav Yeivin, a member of Jerusalem's municipal council, said Israeli authorities are concerned about absorbing more Arab citizens, who already make up more than one-fifth of the state's population of more than 8.5 million people.
On the other hand, he said, awarding citizenship to east Jerusalem residents would hasten their integration into Israeli society, strengthen Israel's claim to the city and help reduce years of neglect of Arab neighborhoods.
"If they (Palestinians) live under our rules, we want them to have the same that other citizens have in Jerusalem," he said.