Status: the legal position of a person, group, or country ~ Oxford Learner’s Dictionary
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The hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Jerusalem hold a precarious status in the Israeli-Palestinian arena: Most are citizens of nowhere. This Backgrounder explores the historic reasons for that status; the rights, obligations, and risks that it entails; the complex web of rules and regulations that controls their access to obtaining any status; and the impact of precarity on their daily lives and collective psyche.
Status: the legal position of a person, group, or country ~ Oxford Learner’s Dictionary
Status before Israel: Nationals and Citizens
Before Israel was established in 1948, Palestinian Jerusalemites were nationals and citizens of the independent nation of Palestine, as determined by both international and British Mandate law.1 Before the Mandate, under the Ottoman Empire, they had been Ottoman citizens (see Palestinians’ Historic and Legal Rights to Palestinian Nationality).2 Many of them could trace their family roots in the city back for centuries.3 Others might have been later to arrive but were nonetheless entitled, under the law, to citizenship, by virtue of permanently or “habitually” residing in the country for at least two years.4 As citizens, they were entitled to hold passports issued by the British High Commissioner for Palestine that were called, “British passport, Palestine.”5
Rupture of Status
Under international law, when the British terminated their Mandate on May 14, 1948, and withdrew from the country, Palestinians who had been citizens under the Mandate should have automatically acquired the nationality of the state that arose in its place.6 Indeed, under the proposed 1947 UN Partition Plan, the three envisaged entities—one Arab state with an overwhelming majority of Arabs; one Jewish state with a bare majority of Jews; and a UN-administered City of Jerusalem with a near-equal number of Arabs and Jews—would each have been required to grant citizenship to all their permanent residents, regardless of ethnic origin, in accordance with international law.7
However, that is not what happened. Rather, their British-issued Palestinian passports became invalid, and Israel subsequently passed legislation that retroactively denationalized all Palestinians who had either left the country (by force or out of fear) or remained and came under Israel’s control in 1948.8 Their citizenship was literally abrogated, and they were made stateless. This was a violation of international law (see Palestinians’ Historic and Legal Rights to Nationality).9
Status from 1948 Onward: At the Mercy of the Conqueror
Since Israel’s establishment on May 15, 1948, for most Palestinian Jerusalemites, their legal status has been determined by Israel and Jordan, unless they happen to have citizenship in another country. In 1948, Israel conquered West Jerusalem. Almost all of the tens of thousands of Palestinians in that part of the city and the surrounding villages—who until that point had been citizens of Palestine—either fled under duress of war or were driven out; many to the eastern side of the city, the rest of the West Bank, and beyond to neighboring countries including Jordan, Lebanon, and others (see The West Side Story).10 Israel subsequently declared them as “absentees,” in accordance with the Israeli Absentees’ Property Law of 5710–1950.11 The state seized their properties and their financial assets and transferred them to a newly established Custodian of Absentee Property, which was then authorized to decide what to do with it and ultimately transferred these Palestinian assets to Jewish use, both private and public.12 Thus Palestinians who had formerly lived in West Jerusalem (many of whom ended up in Jordanian-held Jerusalem after the war) found themselves stateless, homeless, and penniless.
However, Israel failed to conquer the eastern side of the city, and therefore Jerusalem was split in half for the next 19 years. During this period, the legal status of Palestinians on the eastern side of the city was derived from Jordan, which had annexed it. As detailed below, in the late 1980s, shifting regional winds caused Jordan to eventually “disown” the West Bank and retract nationality from Palestinians who originated from there, leaving them stateless once again.
Meanwhile, after Israel conquered the eastern part of the city in 1967 and Jordan retreated, Palestinian Jerusalemites in those areas came under the control of Israel, which conferred upon them only a conditional status as permanent residents and tried in myriad ways to limit the number who would be entitled even to that status.
After the Oslo Accords in 1993, the Palestinian Authority (PA) was established, but its authority to confer status on Palestinians was both geographically and legally limited by the terms of the agreements. Thus, a full appreciation of the highly precarious legal status of Palestinian Jerusalemites requires a historical recounting of the evolution of their status vis-à-vis Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, and Israel.
Status vis-à-vis Jordan: From “All in the Family” to “Not One of Us”
1948: Palestinians become part of the Jordanian sociopolitical fabric
In the period of the 1948 War and the catastrophe that it brought upon Palestinians, at least 70,000 to 100,000 Palestinians fled to Jordan (East Bank), which itself had only gained independence two years earlier and had a population of 433,000.13
Palestinians therefore came to comprise a significant part of Jordan’s population. In fact, today, more than half of Jordan’s population is originally from Palestine.14 In the newly divided city, Palestinians who found themselves under Jordanian rule on the city’s east side were granted Jordanian citizenship only on December 13, 1949, when King Abdullah of Jordan passed an amendment of the 1928 Law of Nationality and granted Jordanian citizenship for residents of the West Bank, including Arab (East) Jerusalem.15
The connection between Jordan and the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem was growing. In December 1948, a conference of 1,000 leaders from all over Palestine met in Jericho and voted unanimously to request unity with Jordan.16 Such was the affinity that the structure of the Jordanian parliament was even changed to guarantee that half of the seats in a newly expanded lower house would be reserved for Palestinians from the West Bank and Jerusalem. The union of central Palestine and Jordan (or the “East Bank” of the Jordan River with the “West Bank,” referred to as the “Unification of the Two Banks”) was ratified unanimously on April 24, 1950, when Jordan annexed the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and provided a pathway for full Jordanian nationality for Palestinians.17
In 1954, Jordan amended its Nationality Law to extend Jordanian citizenship to Palestinian refugees living in the country. Specifically, Article 3 conferred nationality upon, among others, “Any person who, not being Jewish, possessed Palestinian nationality before 15 May 1948 and was a regular resident in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan between 20 December 1949 and 16 February 1954.”18
By 1967, on the eve of the war, 47 percent of Jordan’s population lived in the West Bank, and Palestinians had both benefited from citizenship and contributed in fundamental ways to the country’s development.19
1967: Jordan loses control of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and gains more Palestinian refugees
In 1967, Israel conquered the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip,20 and Jordan’s annexation came to an end. However, while Palestinian Jerusalemites’ status under Israel changed to that of permanent residents (see below), they were largely allowed to maintain their Jordanian citizenship, which was important as most had no other type of citizenship.
At the same time, Jordan faced an influx of 400,000 Palestinians “internally displaced” from the West Bank (including about 175,000 who were refugees from the 1948 War).21 In fact, at a certain point in the late 1960s, Palestinian-origin Jordanians outnumbered the “original” East Bank Jordanian population, leading to tensions.
Post-1967: Militarization of the Palestinian struggle and Black September
After the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was founded in 1964, and Palestinian nationalist ideology began to take shape, its growing sphere of influence in Jordan and its cross-border retaliatory raids against Israel caused increasing concern. Ultimately, this erupted in a civil war known as Black September (Aylul al-Aswad) between the Jordanian Armed Forces and the armed wing of the PLO. By July 1971, Jordan had expelled the PLO fighters from the country and signed an agreement with PLO leader Yasser Arafat to regularize their presence in Jordan. After this, the government undertook a wide-scale purge of the bureaucracy and the military, with the aim of ridding them of elements, mostly Palestinian, that supported the Palestinian forces. These events were a turning point toward the development of a distinct Jordanian identity.22
1983: Jordan introduces a status change for Palestinians of West Bank (including Jerusalem) origin
On June 1, 1983, Jordan began requiring Palestinians of West Bank (including Jerusalem) origin to obtain a “crossing card” that was issued at the Allenby Bridge before they entered Jordan. There were two classes of cards, each with very different status and implications (Table 1):23
Table 1: Jordan’s status cards for Palestinians of West Bank (including Jerusalem) origin
|YELLOW border crossing bridge card||GREEN border crossing bridge card|
|Persons eligible for card||West Bank-origin Palestinians (including Jerusalemites) who moved from the West Bank to Jordan to live permanently before June 1, 1983, and had a family reunification card||West Bank-origin Palestinians (including Jerusalemites) who moved to Jordan after June 1, 1983, or remained living in the West Bank|
|Status type conferred by card||Permanent status in Jordan||Temporary status in Jordan|
|Type of crossing||East Bank residents crossing to West Bank for a visit||West Bank residents crossing to East Bank for a visit|
|Allowed duration of stay in Jordan||Permanent||1 month at a time|
|Type of residency rights||Full residency, full citizenship rights||No right of residency|
|Passport type to which
cardholder is entitled
Passport, valid for five years
Bestows citizenship rights to holder
Contains a national identity number (required to be recognized as a Jordanian citizen; introduced in 1992)
Temporary two-year “renewable” Jordanian passport; used solely as travel document*
Does not bestow citizenship rights to holder
Does not contain a national identity number
* In 1995, validity of this temporary “travel document” passport was extended to five years by royal decree.
East Bank Jordanians who were not of Palestinian origin were not included in this card system and were considered bona fide citizens. Thus, as of June 1, 1983, three classes were created:
Note that a good number of Palestinian Jerusalemites, especially those who frequently traveled back and forth to Jordan, fell into the second class—perhaps as many as one-third.24 But many more fell in the third class. They could apply for a temporary passport at a West Bank Jordanian passport office. The passport is identical in appearance to the actual Jordanian passport, except that it has no national identity number, which is the critical requisite for bona fide citizenship.25 Essentially it is a mere travel document and does not grant the holder any rights or status.
1988: Jordan severs its relationship with the West Bank, stripping thousands of citizenship
In July 1988, six months into the First Intifada, Jordan severed all its legal, administrative, and financial ties (faq irtibat) with the West Bank, renouncing responsibility for it and ceding its claims to the West Bank to the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.26 Therefore, those who were eligible for yellow cards remained Jordanian citizens, but those eligible for green cards became Palestinians with no status in Jordan. For the most part, the former category included Palestinians of West Bank origin (including Jerusalemites) who resided in the East Bank, while the latter included those living in the West Bank or a third country.27 Indeed, Article 2 of Jordan’s official disengagement instructions reads: “Every person residing in the West Bank before the date of 31/7/1988 will be considered as a Palestinian and not as a Jordanian.”28 An estimated one to one-and-a-half million Palestinians overall were stripped of national rights and citizenship in this way.29
Overnight, unless they held citizenship elsewhere, Palestinian Jerusalemites along with all other Palestinians of West Bank origin became stateless, in contravention of international law and in a stroke of fate that echoed eerily with the earlier watershed of 1948. According to international law lawyer Anis al-Kassem, interviewed by BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights:
[W]hen the disengagement was declared, the color of the cards (yellow and green), that had been used as a statistical device, became the criteria for determining the citizenship status of a citizen. The government issued instructions to the effect that those who habitually lived in the West Bank, that is green card holders, on 31 July 1988 were “Palestinian citizens,” while those who were living in Jordan or abroad were Jordanian. Put another way, over one-and-a-half million Palestinians went to bed on 31 July 1988 as Jordanian citizens, and woke up on 1 August 1988 as stateless persons.30
Among those affected were many tens of thousands—if not hundreds of thousands—of Palestinian Jerusalemites, although exact numbers are not known.
In the case of families, the impact of the loss of nationality went far beyond one individual. According to Jordanian nationality law, citizenship of children derives from the father’s nationality. Therefore, when a father lost his Jordanian citizenship, all his children (regardless of age) automatically lost it too, even if they were born in Jordan and had lived there all their lives.31 Under Jordanian law, even if the father is married to a Jordanian wife, he does not have the right to residency in Jordan without a residency permit, which is very difficult to acquire and only good for one year. Non-citizens also cannot work in Jordan.32 This caused an upheaval for many families.
For many Palestinians living in Jerusalem, this sudden rupture meant that their legal status in the world became extraordinarily precarious, and the need to hold onto their Jerusalem residency became an urgent and paramount one.
While initially it seemed as if yellow cardholders would be allowed to retain their Jordanian nationality, eventually, without any fanfare, even this began to change. In July 1990, a spokesperson for the Jordanian Ministry of Interior was quoted as saying that “every person residing in the West Bank before 13 July 1988 is considered to be a Palestinian national, and not a Jordanian, including those Palestinians present in the kingdom [of Jordan] or outside holding green bridge cards.”33
1991: Gulf War leads to Palestinian exodus from Kuwait, changing Jordan’s demographic balance
During and after the Gulf War, when Iraq invaded, occupied, and annexed neighboring Kuwait, and Yasser Arafat aligned with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in its claim to Kuwait, the nearly 400,000 Palestinians living in Kuwait were profoundly affected.34 They began leaving the country in waves—before, during, and after the occupation.35 Those in the first two waves formed the majority, and after the war they were prevented from returning. After Iraq withdrew from Kuwait, the Kuwaiti leadership embarked on a sustained months-long effort to encourage or force the remaining Palestinians to leave the country:
The months of March to June 1991 were witness to a sustained Kuwaiti campaign to expel the Palestinian population using methods that combined bureaucratic means and terror. The discourse of “cleansing” was even employed by the Kuwaiti monarch to justify the forced displacement. The great majority of Palestinian civil servants were simply fired or not rehired; Palestinian children were expelled from public schools; educational subsidies were terminated; and heavy financial burdens were placed on Palestinians who wished to remain (such as new health fees and demands by Kuwaiti landlords to pay back rent for the war period). For those who didn’t get the message, there was always the threat of arbitrary arrest, torture, rape, and murder, all of which were regularly practiced in Kuwaiti police stations and impromptu interrogation centers.36
Ultimately around 200,000 Palestinian-origin Jordanians left Kuwait and went to Jordan.37 Other sources put the number around 300,000.38 Most of these people, categorized as “returnees,” had emigrated from the West Bank in the 1950s when it was under Jordanian control, or were descendants of such emigrés, and thus had never lived in the East Bank.39 This influx had a significant impact on Jordan’s demographic balance and socioeconomic fabric, which eventually boomeranged back on Palestinian-origin Jordanians.
Early 2000s: Concerns over “demographic balance” prompt Jordan to arbitrarily revoke citizenship from thousands more Palestinians
By the early 2000s, the rate of those losing their Jordanian citizenship or green cards was increasing. In a report published in 2010, Human Rights Watch reported that between 2004 and 2008, over 2,700 Palestinian-origin Jordanians had had their nationality withdrawn. According to the report, hundreds of thousands were affected.
Furthermore, those affected were not given notice in a timely fashion. Withdrawal of nationality for green cardholders was typically done in a backhanded and arbitrary manner, generally in the midst of some other bureaucratic encounter. The report states:
No official informs those whose nationality has been withdrawn of that decision: rather, they are told that they are no longer Jordanian nationals during routine interactions with the bureaucracy such as renewing passports, registering a child’s birth, renewing a driver’s license, or trying to sell shares. At best, officials explain that it is due to a failure to renew Israeli residency permits. There is no clear means of administrative redress.40
Jordanian government officials justified this as being done “in order to motivate [Palestinian-origin Jordanians] to consolidate their right to Palestine” and claimed that as soon as the affected individual would secure a family reunification permit from Israel to ensure their right to reside there, they would restore nationality.41 Of course, by that time, such permits were all but impossible to obtain (see Family Unification).
Thus Jordanian citizenship, available as a fallback in 1967 when Israel conferred only permanent residency on this indigenous community, had “gone with the wind” for many if not most Palestinian Jerusalemites, leaving them stateless.42
Part 1 of a two-part series. View Part 2 here.
Susan Akram, “Myths and Realities of the Palestinian Refugee Problem: Reframing the Right of Return,” The MIT Electronic Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 8 (Spring 2008): 183–98; Mutaz M. Qafisheh, “Genesis of Citizenship in Palestine and Israel: Palestinian Nationality in the 1917–1925 Period,” Bulletin du Centre de recherche Français 21 (2010).
Qafisheh, “Genesis of Citizenship,” 1.
See, for just a few examples, Sari Nusseibeh with Anthony David, Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007); Jacob Nammar, Born in Jerusalem, Born Palestinian: A Memoir (Northampton, MA: Olive Branch Press, 2012); Hala Sakakini, “Jerusalem and I,” in My Jerusalem: Essays, Reminiscences, and Poems, ed. Salma Khadra Jayyusi and Zafar Ishaq Ansari (Northampton, MA: Olive Branch Press, 2005), 254–56; ‘Atallah Kuttab, “My City Denied to Me,” in My Jerusalem, 257–61.
Qafisheh, “Genesis of Citizenship,” 5.
Susan Akram, “Palestinian Nationality and ‘Jewish’ Nationality: From the Lausanne Treaty to Today,” in Rethinking Palestinian Statehood in Palestine, ed. Leila H. Farsakh (Berkley: University of California Press, 2021).
Nadia Abu Zahrah and Adah Kay, Unfree in Palestine: Registration, Documentation and Movement Restriction (London: Pluto Press, 2013); Akram, “Myths and Realities.”
Nationality Law, 1952: Part Three, Para.18(a): “The Palestinian Citizenship Orders (1925–1942) Are Repealed with Effect from the Day of the Establishment of the State.”
Akram, “Palestinian Nationality.”
See, for example, Nathan Krystall, “The De-Arabization of West Jerusalem 1947–1950,” Journal of Palestine Studies 27, no. 2 (Winter 1998): 5–22.
Israel Law Resource Center, “Authorized English Translation of Absentees’ Property Law, 5710-1950,” Laws of the State of Israel, last modified February 2007.
Dalia Habash and Terry Rempel, “Assessing Palestinian Property in West Jerusalem,” in Jerusalem 1948: The Arab Neighborhoods and Their Fate in the War, 2nd rev. ed., ed. Salim Tamari (Jerusalem and Bethlehem: Institute of Jerusalem Studies and Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Refugee and Residency Rights, 2002), 167–99; Terry Rempel, “Dispossession and Restitution in 1948 Jerusalem,” in Jerusalem 1948, 200–249; Sreemati Mitter, “A History of Money in Palestine from the 1900s to the Present,” PhD diss., Harvard University, 2014.
Francoise De Bel-Air, A Political Demography of the Refugee Question – Palestinians in Jordan and Lebanon: Between Protection, Forced Return, and Resettlement (Florence: Migration Policy Centre, 2012), 12.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), “Stateless Again: Palestinian-Origin Jordanians Deprived of Their Nationality,” February 1, 2010.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “Unofficial Translation of Jordanian Law No. 6 of 1954 on Nationality (Last Amended 1987),” Article 3.
“West Bank: Region Palestine.”
After 1948, the Gaza Strip was administered by Egypt.
Cathrine Brun, Anita Fábos, and Oroub el-Abed, “Displaced Citizens and Abject Living: The Categorical Discomfort with Subjects Out of Place,” Norwegian Journal of Geography 71, no. 4 (2017): 220–32; Iris Fruchter-Ronen, “Black September: The 1970–71 Events and Their Impact on the Formation of Jordanian National Identity,” Civil Wars 10, no. 3 (2008): 244–60.
For Jordan’s perspective on this move, see King Hussein, “Address to the Nation,” July 31, 1988. Notably, he declared: “Today we respond to the wish of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian People, and to the Arab orientation to affirm the Palestinian identity in all its aspects . . . . At the same time, it has to be understood in all clarity, and without any ambiguity or equivocation, that our measures regarding the West Bank concern only the occupied Palestinian land and its people. They naturally do not relate in any way to the Jordanian citizens of Palestinian origin in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. They all have the full rights of citizenship and all its obligations, the same as any other citizen irrespective of his origin. They are an integral part of the Jordanian state to which they belong, on whose soil they live, and in whose life and various activities they participate. Jordan is not Palestine and the independent Palestinian state will be established on the occupied Palestinian territory after its liberation, God willing. There the Palestinian identity will be embodied, and there the Palestinian struggle shall come to fruition, as confirmed by the glorious uprising of the Palestinian people under occupation.”
HRW, “Stateless Again,” 2.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “Unofficial Translation of Jordan: Disengagement Regulations for the Year 1988,” accessed October 18, 2020, (emphasis in the original).
De Bel-Air, A Political Demography, 20.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “Unofficial Translation of Jordan: Rights and Obligations of Palestinians Living in Jordan without Jordanian Citizenship, not Including Palestinian Refugees Fleeing Syria since 2011, Including Employment, Mobility and Access to Social Services (2013-May 2014),” last modified May 9, 2014 (emphasis added).
Shaul Gabbay, “The Status of Palestinians in Jordan and the Anomaly of Holding a Jordanian Passport,” Journal of Political Sciences & Public Affairs 2, no. 1 (2014): 2.
James Emanuel, “Discriminatory Nationality Laws in Jordan and Their Effect on Mixed Refugee Families,” University of Notre Dame Law School, Spring 2012.
HRW, “Stateless Again,” 13.
Yann Le Troquer and Rozenn Hommery al-Oudat, “From Kuwait to Jordan: The Palestinians’ Third Exodus,” Journal of Palestine Studies 28, no. 3 (Spring 1999): 38.
Toufic Haddad, “Palestinian Forced Displacement from Kuwait: The Overdue Accounting,” al-Majdal, no. 44 (Summer–Autumn 2010): 35–42.
HRW, “Stateless Again,” 2.
Le Troquer and al-Oudat, “From Kuwait to Jordan,” 37.
Le Troquer and al-Oudat, “From Kuwait to Jordan,” 37.
HRW, “Stateless Again,” 3.
De Bel-Air, A Political Demography, 29n67.
HRW, “Stateless Again,” 1–3.