Scenes from the overcrowded Israeli Interior Ministry office in East Jerusalem, where Palestinian residents of the city must regularly ‘prove’ they still live there or face displacement and exile.
By Amer ‘Aruri
Inside the the Wadi al-Joz Interior Ministry office in East Jerusalem, an elderly man holds a one-year old child. She is crying because of the cramming and pushing among those lined up at the ministry’s outer gate. “Where is the child’s mother?” I ask. He responds that the mother is crying too, and she can’t carry her child. “I am the child’s grandfather,” he says.
Another man tells him: “The child is going to die in your hands, poor thing. Why don’t you ask the security guard to open the door?” I take the girl from her grandfather to enable him to climb through the rotating metal door from the outside, screaming at the security guard to open the door for him. The security guard tells him to shut up and get off the door. The grandfather takes the child back, lifting her for the security guard to see how badly she is crying. People inside and outside the building start to yell, and the security guard is compelled to open the door, allowing the grandfather and his grandchild to enter.
What about the mother? The women at the “women’s line” would not allow her to cut in line, as they themselves have been standing there for a long time. So the grandfather asks the men to make room for the mother of the child. They do not hesitate, showing chivalry and compassion, and step aside to allow the sobbing mother to pass.
* * *
A young man stands next to me, repeatedly saying that he is going to the Ministry of Labor and not the Interior Ministry. He says he fears he won’t be able to make it there before 12 p.m. in order to prove that he showed up on time, which means he won’t get his unemployment benefits for the entire month. All of a sudden, the young man does something that everybody else disapproves of: the second the gate leading to the women’s line is opened, he cuts in line to enter the building. The women begin cursing at him. “You animal, you have no honor,” they yell. The poor guy tries to explain himself.
* * *
People are stuck to each other, trying to find an opening to get to the entrance and make it into the building. Then a woman screams: “Open the door you scumbags! You animals!” The woman holds a crying child in her hands, and yells that her husband is waiting for her inside, asking to be let in. People tell her to call her husband and ask him to speak to the security guards.
Upon entering through the rotating metal door, which looks like a contraption for rinsing chickens,, the security guard begins shouting at the men and women in their respective lines, ordering them to stand behind a red line. He threatens that no one will go through unless we all stand behind it. Every now and then, a security guard yells —“Is there anyone going to the Ministry of Labor?”— and lets those holding the proper documents go through. Some who are in fact going to the Interior Ministry claim they are going to the Ministry of Labor to cut the long line and get closer to the red line.
* * *
A scuffle erupts between a 50-year old and a 20-year-old man. The younger man has had it with people who are crossing the line under false pretenses. He starts screaming that he is going to the Ministry of Labor, and begins pushing his way through to get nearer to the red line. The older man notices and picks a fight with him. They begin threatening each other, causing people to intervene.
* * *
After crossing a security check, people become calmer and kinder; they know that they’ve made it. They are closer to the hall where their applications will be processed. From here on, people can have a sip of water or go to the restroom because they know they are carrying a number slip that no one can take away.
* * *
The employee who hands out our number tells me that I don’t have an appointment. I show him a message from the Interior Ministry asking me to confirm my appointment, which I have done. The employee hands me another number and orders me to wait for my turn to be called. An hour later, at 2:30 p.m., the information desk calls my name and informs me that my appointment was at 11:45. I tell the man at the desk that I was unable to get through due to the overcrowding outside. He hands me another number and asks me to wait, again, for my name to be called.
* * *
My son and I have not had anything to eat since we arrived at the ministry at 10 a.m. I call my wife and ask her to bring us some food. At 3:30 p.m. she arrives and hands me some sandwiches and juice through the exit door. A man waiting for his turn asks me where I got the food. I explain and offer him some of my sandwich, but he declines, and instead calls someone to ask that they bring him something to eat.
* * *
At 4:45 p.m., I finally get called to finalize my application for IDs for myself and my 15-year-old son. The ministry employee asks me for as many documents as she can handle to prove that I am, in fact, a resident of Jerusalem. I hand her water and electricity bills, municipal tax bills, salary slips, and my housing lease. She asks for proof that I have medical insurance, but I tell her I don’t have such proof other than a magnetic card, which leaves her unimpressed.
She asks my son and me some personal questions, giving the whole thing a feeling of a military interrogation. When was the first time you left the country? Do you own a house in the West Bank? What are the names of your wife’s nephews? Why is your water bill so low?
At 5:20 p.m., having proven my Jerusalem residency, we are finally done and able to go back home to Beit Hanina. Until next time.
Amer ‘Aruri is an East Jerusalem field researcher for B’Tselem.