Ramallah, Occupied West Bank – “Exile is like death,” Ahmad Attoun, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), told Al Jazeera. “I can’t explain my relationship to Jerusalem. It is part of my soul.”
“Jerusalem is now just a few metres away from me, but I can’t enter. There are no words to describe the pain we are feeling,” he said.
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Attoun, along with PLC members Mohammad Totah, Mohammad Abu Teir and former Palestinian minister Khaled Abu Arafeh, were forcibly deported from occupied East Jerusalem in 2011 after Israel’s interior minister revoked their Jerusalem residencies over allegations of “breaching loyalty” to the Israeli state.
Attoun’s deportation from the city put his life in disarray. He only sees his family on weekends when they travel to Ramallah, where he now resides. His eight-year-old daughter has never experienced living with her father.
“I wish I could see her just once in her school uniform when she comes home,” Attoun said, noting that his family has continued to reside in Jerusalem despite his expulsion.
“Despite the suffering, in my heart I know we are right. In the natural order, I must return to Jerusalem.”
On April 29, Israel’s Interior Minister Aryeh Deri upheld the deportation of the four parliamentarians, after Israel’s parliament passed a law in March granting the interior minister full power to revoke the Jerusalem residencies of Palestinians over allegations of “breaching allegiance” or “loyalty” to the Israeli state.
Rights groups have raised serious concerns over the new law, noting that the legislation is a clear breach of international law and threatens the basic rights of Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem.
Palestinians fear the legislation will speed up the expulsion of Palestinians from the city, and be used to target Palestinians who criticise the Israeli state.
‘You will never return to Jerusalem’
Israel occupied and subsequently annexed East Jerusalem in 1967 – a move which was not accepted by the international community – with the exception of US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Israeli control over the occupied city in December 2017.
Palestinians residing in East Jerusalem following Israel’s occupation were not granted Israeli or Palestinian citizenship, but were instead issued Jerusalem residency ID cards, which can be revoked by Israel at any time.
Last year, Israel revoked the residency of 35 Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem, including 17 women and four minors, according to Israeli rights group Hamoked.
Since 1967, almost 15,000 Palestinians have had their Jerusalem IDs revoked, mostly for failing to prove to Israeli authorities that Jerusalem or Israel was the centre of their life.
Attoun and the other Palestinian parliamentarians were targeted by Israel in 2006, after being elected to the PLC on the list of the Hamas-affiliated Change and Reform Movement in Jerusalem.
Israel considers Hamas, one of the most popular Palestinian political parties, a “terrorist” organisation.
Abu Arafeh was appointed the Palestinian Minister of Jerusalem Affairs.
Following the elections, then Israeli interior minister Roni Bar-On initiated the process of revoking their Jerusalem residencies over allegations of being “disloyal” to the Israeli state, owing to their membership to the PLC.
The four were subsequently sentenced to prison. Attoun, Totah and Abu Teir all spent four years behind bars, while Abu Arafeh served three years.
Upon their release in 2010, they received an official deportation notice from Israeli authorities, notifying them that they had just 30 days to leave Israel’s territory.
The parliamentarians decided to fight the decision.
Attoun, Totah and Abu Arafeh launched a nonviolent movement inside the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Jerusalem, where they erected tents and lived inside the building in protest of Israel’s decision for a year and a half. Abu Teir was arrested by Israeli forces two days prior to the action.
However, in September 2011, members of Israel’s special police unit, disguised as lawyers, entered the ICRC headquarters, and violently dragged Attoun out of the building. Totah and Abu Arafah were arrested in similar fashion a few months later.
Attoun spent four months in Israel’s Al-Moscobiyeh detention in Jerusalem, before being forcibly transferred to Ramallah.
On that December day, he was told by an Israeli soldier at Israel’s Qalandiya checkpoint, standing between him and his home: “Now you are in the West Bank, and you will never return to Jerusalem.”
‘Leaving Palestinians stateless’
The exiled parliamentarians won an appeal against the interior minister’s decision in the Israeli Supreme Court last year. However, the Israeli government was given a six-month period to formulate legislation that could uphold their decision.
The new “breach of loyalty” legislation also applies to cases in which Palestinians provided false information to acquire their Jerusalem residences or have committed crimes.
Danny Shenhar, head of the legal department at Hamoked, told Al Jazeera that there were two other cases in which Palestinians had their Jerusalem residency status revoked owing to allegations of “breaching loyalty” or “allegiance” to the state.
One of the cases was Abed Dawiyat, a teenager who threw stones at an Israeli vehicle in Jerusalem in late 2015, resulting in the death of the driver. He was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 18 years in prison.
The two other teens who were with Dawiyat at the time were also facing the revocation of their Jerusalem residencies after being accused of abetting the crime. However, their cases are still pending.
Shenhar said that the decision to retroactively apply the “breach of loyalty” law to these cases that occurred years ago “contravenes any idea of the rule of law”.
Under international humanitarian law, Israel, as an occupying power, cannot demand allegiance from an occupied population. However, “this is exactly what Israel is doing,” Shenhar noted.
“We adamantly oppose this law,” he added. “The decision is flawed on so many grounds.”
Palestinians in East Jerusalem are considered protected persons, and under international law, their forcible transfer from the city is prohibited.
“Through this decision, Israel is leaving Palestinians stateless,” Shenhar told Al Jazeera.
Israel’s interior ministry did not reply to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on the matter.
Munir Nuseibah, the director of the Community Action Center in East Jerusalem – which provides legal support to Palestinians who have lost their Jerusalem residency status, said that the law also punishes the perpetrators twice for the same crime, noting that Palestinians already face heavy sentences in Israeli courts and controversial punitive policies targeting their families.
Following the stone-throwing incident, Dawiyat’s family was displaced from their home after Israel decided to shutter the premise as a punitive measure against the family – a common Israeli policy condemned by rights groups as a form of “collective punishment”.
Owing to the ambiguity of what exactly constitutes a breach of loyalty or allegiance to the Israeli state, Palestinians and rights groups fear that the new law will have far-reaching consequences for Palestinians in East Jerusalem.
“If you leave such a draconic law with this much ambiguity surrounding it, then you give the state very strong powers to erode people’s basic rights,” Shenhar said.
In the case of the deported parliamentarians, Shenhar said the implications were “frightening to think about”.
“If the state uses this legislation to fight the [Palestinian] population, then you’re looking at a very problematic situation of mass residency revocations.”
The targeting of the parliamentarians has raised fears among Palestinians that the legislation could be applied to Palestinian activists in East Jerusalem, or worse, all Palestinians.
“Every Palestinian holds principles against the occupation and against the Israeli state,” Nuseibah said. “No one knows how far Israel will go with this law, but it’s clearly very dangerous.”
The legislation “gives Israel more control over Palestinian politics and activism, because the possibility of being kicked out of the city scares us,” he continued. “It will give Israel another opportunity to displace more Palestinians from the city.”
According to Nuseibah, even lawyers are at a loss as to how to defend Palestinians who could be targeted with the new law.
“How do you defend someone who is being accused of breaching allegiance to the Israeli state?” Nuseibah stated.
“Do we tell the judge he will kiss the Israeli flag every morning?”