For Palestinians in Jerusalem, it is bitter Sixteen

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For most teenagers, the world over, the age of sixteen is supposed to be a happy one. This is supposed to be a year of care free fun and enjoyment as they celebrate their sweet pre- adult sixteenths birthday.

Reaching 16, for Palestinians, especially those living in East Jerusalem, however, is not much fun. This is the age that they are supposed to start carrying the dreaded identification card and in turn the soldiers (not much older than them) can take pot shots at them without much concern or worry. Any young Palestinian that looks anywhere close to 16 better have an ID or a birth certificate showing that he/she are under this bitter/sweet age.

My daughter Tamara who spent her 16th birthday as a senior in an Ohio High School, as an exchange student, came home for the summer to obtain her ID. Her cousin, Manuel Abu Ali, who just turned sixteen has been moving around Jerusalem with difficulties, using his mother’s ID (which has his # listed) along with his school picture ID. For Jerusalem Palestinians getting a personal ID, which ought to be a simple affair, has become the new via de la Rosa. Unlike Israelis who get a 5 or ten year passport, Palestinians in Jerusalem can travel only on a laisser passier which can be issued for only year, thus adding to an already exasperated problem where 250,000 Palestinians are served by a single office of the Ministry of Interior and are denied the right to use any other office in order to get whatever official document they need.

Palestinians in Jerusalem wishing to obtain any of these official government certificate (birth certificate, marriage license, travel document or even death certificate) face an impossible task of simply entering the Interior Ministry offices. A few months ago, my brother, had to go to the Israeli supreme court demanding the right to enter these premises without having to wait all day in line, a task that doesn’t guaranteed that you get a turn that day. The task of entering has become next to impossible for years because of a policy of lack of regard to the population, leaving frustrated Palestinian men and women to fight tooth and nail just to preserve a place in line, while scores of Israeli police and private security staff watch in amusement.

Following the news of the new Israeli government’s choice for Minister of Interior many Palestinians expected that Mr. Poraz would live up to the name of his Shinui party and actually institute change in the way Palestinians from Jerusalem have been treated at his ministry’s office. Mr. Poraz’s initial decision granting residency to non Jews was seen as a positive omen that finally a man who respects human beings has become the big boss at the Interior Ministry.

I must say, I was one of those people who was swept away by these hopeful thoughts, believing naively that things will change. When my daughter wanted to brave the lines, I supported her, discounting all those who raised concerns that the queues outside the ministry have become nothing short of what a typical crime-festered inner city is like. People were telling me that we would be better off simply paying off a lawyer (1,500 shekels and up) or one of the Jerusalem thugs who muscle their way infront of the line and then sell their place in queue for a couple of hundred shekels. I was determined to go at it alone, she and her cousin will have to wait a few hours in line, I said to my concerned brother-in-law who warned me that young thugs with switch blades, razors and other weapons run the show outside the ministry.

A day before our target date, I visited the location at about 5pm, and pleasantly discovered that the problem was being taken care of. A bearded man was sitting across the street from the Interior Ministry offices with paper and pen, taking names in order. When I enquired, he told me that he and a few other Muslim faithfuls had taken it upon themselves to help organize the queue. Once you are registered you are expected to come at 10 pm for a roll call, if you are not present your name is crossed off, otherwise you can go home and return the next day at 5am for another final call. Great, I thought, and I duly registered and was told that our number is 16. All I needed was to return when names are announced at 10pm and the following day at 5 and we are home free.

Well at 10 pm the bearded man was gone, a well muscled young man was rewriting the list. It had been torn in a fight. Not to worry, I was told, we registered again, this time we were given the 46th spot, not good, but if all things went well we can go in with the second round which takes place at 9:30. At five am the following day, even this young muscular man was gone, and line was already backed up. The list was no longer valid, everyone for himself we were told. We took our place at the end of the line and waited till the Ministry opened at 8am. Shortly before they opened two police cars arrived and arrested one of the young thugs in line. I later discovered that he had slashed the arm of a person pushing him causing 16 stitches. I took a deep breath and kept my calm. No sooner had the gate opened, another fight took place, and another and another. By 11 more than eight separate fights for places in line had taken place, both on the men’s side as well as on the women’s si! de. A few women were ahead of my daughter by this time. However, for some reason, the line seemed to stop. For hours, Tamara would plead with the guards to find out when she can get in and they would motion to here to wait a little. But it was a bluff. No one else would be allowed in after the last group that entered at 10:30. Some said it was because of the fights. Others pointed out that the Israelis were working on a shortened day because the following day was a Jewish holiday in remembrance of the destruction of the Jewish Temple. Some said that only the Israeli ministry was short staffed that day and they could only handle so may. By three pm, dejected and angry, Tamara returned home along with her cousin who also failed to make it into the fortress of a building entitled the Ministry of Interior.

For Tamara and her cousin, the young age of sixteen is not sweet at all. Because her college orientation in a few days, she will be traveling without having taken her ID card, with the hope that maybe next summer she can make into the building and get her personal ID card. Her cousin planned to come much earlier, the following Sunday, hoping to be able to get and to do it without getting slashed or knocked down. At the end of the day, our children were tired and angry. Standing in the hot sun with people pushing you around for ten hours was sheer hell. The main question that was repeated on their lips was simply isn’t there anyone that cares? I was glad, that they insisted on returning another day. Otherwise, I would be afraid that what many believe is a deliberate police is working. A more sinister person might say that this part of the ‘transfer’ policy which right winger Israelis say that the Israeli government should exercise, making life so difficult that Palestinians would voluntarily leave.

Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist from Jerusalem. He is the director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University which owns and runs Al Quds Educational Television. In May 2001, Mr. Kuttab received the International Press Institute’s award as one of fifty press freedom heroes in the last fifty years. He is a regular contributor to Media Monitors Network (MMN).

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