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For most teenagers, the world over, the age of sixteen is supposed to be a happy one. However, reaching 16 for Palestinians, especially those living in East Jerusalem, 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 looking close to 16 better have an ID or a birth certificate showing that he/she is under this 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 difficulty, using his mother’s ID (which has his name listed) along with his school picture ID. For Palestinians of Jerusalem, getting a personal ID, which ought to be a simple affair, has become the new via de la Rosa. Unlike Israelis who get a five or ten year passport, Palestinians in Jerusalem can travel only on a laisser passier which can be issued for only a year, thus adding to an exasperating 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 to get official document they need.
Palestinians in Jerusalem wishing to obtain any of these official government certificates (birth, marriage license, travel document or even death certificates) face the impossible task of simply entering the Interior Ministry offices.
A few months ago, my brother had to move the Israeli supreme court to enter these premises without having to wait all day in line – even that doesn’t guarantee you get a turn that day. Entering the Ministry’s office has become next to impossible for years because of a policy of lack of regard for the population, leaving frustrated Palestinians 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 appointment of Avraham Poraz as the new Israeli Minister of Interior, many Palestinians expected he would live up to the name of his Shinui party and actually change the way Palestinians from Jerusalem have been treated at his ministry’s office. Poraz’s initial decision granting residency to non-Jews was seen as a positive sign.
I was one of those people who were hopeful, 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 a lawyer (1,500 shekels and up) or one of the Jerusalem thugs to muscle their way in front of the line and 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 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 faithfulls had taken it upon themselves to help organise the queue. Once you are registered you are expected to come at 10.00pm for a roll call, if you are not present your name is crossed off. You can return the next day at 5.00am for another final call. Great, I thought, and duly registered. Our number was 16. I needed to return when names are announced at 10.00pm and the following day at 5.00am and we are home free.
At 10.00pm 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 in 46th spot. Not good, but if things went well we could go in with the second round. At 5.00am 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 8.00am. Shortly before they opened two police cars arrived and arrested one of the young thugs in line. I later discovered he had slashed the arm of a person pushing him. I took a deep breath and kept calm. No sooner had the gate opened than a spate of fights started.
By 11.00am more than eight separate fights for places in line had taken place, both on the men’s as well as the women’s sides. 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 could get in and they would motion to her to wait. But it was a bluff. No one else would be allowed in after the last group that entered at 10:30am. 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 the Israeli ministry was short staffed that day and they could only handle so may. By 3.00pm, dejected and angry, Tamara returned home with her cousin who also failed to make it into the fortress of a building titled the Ministry of Interior.
For Tamara and her cousin, sixteen is not sweet at all. Because of her college orientation in a few days, she will be travelling 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.
Our children were tired and angry. The main question they repeated was simply: isn’t there anyone that cares? A more sinister person might say that this is part of the "transfer" policy which right-winger Israelissupport – making life so difficult that Palestinians leave voluntarily.
DAOUD KUTTAB is a leading activist in Jerusalem and a respected commentator on Palestinian matters. This column originally appeared on Gulf News.