Will Barak stop "ethnic cleansing" of East Jerusalem?

The fight of a Jerusalem-born Palestinian scholar to keep his residency could prove a key test of the new Israeli government's commitment to peace.

Published August 10, 1999 10:30AM (EDT)

People with high hopes for Prime Minister Ehud Barak's new Israeli government are looking anxiously at the case of Musa Budeiri, a Palestinian academic and Jerusalem native who has had his residency rights revoked. In effect, Budeiri is being told to go "home" to Britain, although he was born in Jerusalem, where his family has lived for centuries. Some Israeli and Arab commentators describe the policy that could force Budeiri and other Palestinians out of East Jerusalem as "ethnic cleansing, domestic style."

Ironically, Budeiri is head of the only graduate program of its kind in the Arab world, the Center for Israeli Studies at Al-Quds University. He was born in what became Israeli West Jerusalem in 1946, and the family moved to the east of the city when it was partitioned. In 1967, when Israeli troops took the West Bank, he was studying at Oxford University in Britain.

In 1971, Israel allowed Budeiri to return under the family reunification program, and gave him and his British wife Israeli identity cards. When Israel annexed East Jerusalem, it offered Arab residents Israeli citizenship. In common with the rest of the world, most Arabs refused to recognize the annexation, and refused the offer. As a result, if they want to travel, they have to do so with an Israeli document, a laissez-passer.

In 1980, Budeiri was in London on a sabbatical when he noticed that his laissez-passer was due to expire. The Israeli consulate did not renew it, and told him that he had to return on a foreign passport. He got a British passport through his wife, and the Israelis put a residency visa in it, renewable every three years.

It was not easy. I met him once in New York in 1990 and I can only describe him as disconsolate, after an unhappy visit to the Israeli consulate on Second Avenue to renew his visa. After negotiating with him via a remote video link through a closed door, the staff refused to let Budeiri in the office, and told him to go away. Budeiri's Israeli friends had to intercede to persuade the staff to relent and renew his visa the following day.

This summer, he went to renew the visa at the Interior Ministry in Jerusalem so that he could go with his family to London during the university break. The bureaucrats decided that he spent too much time abroad, so they would not give him a visa and revoked his residency rights. Officially, he has to leave by Aug. 22.

"In fact, this academic year I spent 22 days in Britain, seven in Cairo, and four in Jordan," Budeiri calculates. But he agrees that in the past, like many academics, he has traveled more. In fact, he spent a year at Princeton as a visiting scholar, where he was following in the footsteps of none other than Nathan Sharansky, who had also been a visiting scholar there.

Ironically, Sharansky, the Russian Jew whose struggle to emigrate to Israel won worldwide support, is now the interior minister. Of course no one ever held Sharansky's time at Princeton against his residency rights in Israel. Now Sharansky's staff is denying the Jerusalem-born Budeiri the right to stay and work in the city of his birth, where he has lived most of his life.

Budeiri is fairly confident that in the end a deal will be made -- not least because Israeli bureaucrats don't want his case to go to the courts, where precedents could be set that might limit evictions. Since the Oslo peace agreement in 1993, the Interior Ministry has revoked the residence rights of 1,600 East Jerusalem Arabs.

"It's nothing personal against me," Budeiri told Salon News. "It's against anyone they can get rid of. If they can find a loophole to edge someone out, then they will. It's happening every day," he explains. "Usually it's a question of people being married to someone in the West Bank. Instead of being allowed to bring their spouses to live in the city, they are forced to move to the West Bank."

If that seems a counterintuitive way to behave during peace negotiations, it is not. In advance of the final status talks between Israel and the Palestinians, which include the contentious issue of East Jerusalem's status, the Interior Ministry has been trying to create a new demographic reality, by reducing the Arab population while boosting the Jewish population. The Arab east has been surrounded by an almost continuous isolating ring of Jewish settlements, while Arab building has been strictly limited and what the Palestinians call the "quiet transfer" of Arab residents goes on.

The Israeli press is looking carefully at Budeiri's case for a hint of whether the new government will break with the policies it has inherited. Where the American press stands can be gauged from the reaction of one reporter for a major U.S. daily who was approached about the story. "She said that she didn't want her first story about Barak to be a negative one," laughs Budeiri. He is still hoping for a positive end to his own story.

By Ian Williams

Ian Williams' book "Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776" is due in late August 2005 from Nation Books. His last book was "Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Own Past."

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