Human Rights Watch: Israel must stop tearing Palestinian families apart

Human Rights Watch issued a 90-page report yesterday on Israeli occupation policies affecting Palestinian residency rights in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel has arbitrarily denied thousands of Palestinians the ability to live in, and travel to and from, those areas, says the rights group.

“Israel should immediately stop denying or cancelling the residency of Palestinians and close family members with deep ties to the West Bank and Gaza, and end blanket bans on processing their applications for residency,” Human Rights Watch recommends.

Israel’s control of the population registry has profound implications for Palestinian life, according to a Human Rights Watch press release accompanying the new report:

Israel requires Palestinians to be included in the population registry in order to be considered lawful residents and obtain Israeli-approved identification cards and passports. In the West Bank, Palestinians need the ID cards to travel internally, including to schools, jobs, hospitals, and to visit family, because Israeli security forces manning checkpoints require these cards before allowing passage. Israeli officials, who control all West Bank borders, also require Palestinians entering or leaving the territory to present an identification card or passport.

In many cases, arbitrary policy changes have divided families: Israeli border officials have denied entry to the West Bank to Palestinians from Gaza, even if they had previously lived there or are close relatives of West Bank Palestinians, and to foreign-born spouses, and have denied re-entry to people living in the West Bank who have traveled abroad. In Gaza, where Egypt controls the southern border, Egyptian officials also continue to demand that Palestinians present such documents in order to leave and enter Gaza.

In September 1967, Israel conducted a census in the West Bank and Gaza three months after it occupied these territories, counting 954,898 Palestinians who were physically present. The census excluded at least 270,000 Palestinians who had been living there before the 1967 war but were absent during the census, either because they had fled during the 1967 war or were abroad for study, work, or other reasons. Israel did not include these Palestinians in the population registry and shortly afterwards prevented many of them, including all men aged 16 to 60, from returning, stating that they were ineligible to apply for residency.

Israel also struck from the registry thousands of Palestinians who traveled and stayed abroad for long periods; from 1967 to 1994, it did this to 130,000 West Bank Palestinians, thereby preventing them from living in the territory as legal permanent residents. A survey conducted in 2005, on behalf of the Israeli rights group B’Tselem, estimated that more than 640,000 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza had a parent, sibling, child, or spouse who was unregistered.

Israel further tightened its restrictions on Palestinian residency in September 2000, at the beginning of the second Palestinian “intifada,” or uprising. It barred Palestinians whom it had not registered as West Bank residents from entry there, and similarly barred unregistered Palestinians from entering Gaza, where it completely controlled all border crossings, to both Israel and Egypt, until 2005.

Also beginning in 2000, Israel refused to process applications for registration and residency by unregistered Palestinians, their spouses, and close relatives, even if they had lived in the West Bank or Gaza for years and had families, homes, jobs, or other ties there.

Israel also barred entry to the West Bank to virtually all Palestinians whom it had registered as residents of the Gaza Strip and refused to allow Palestinians living in the West Bank, but registered in Gaza, to change their registered addresses to the West Bank. Around 35,000 of these “Gazans” had entered and resided in the West Bank using temporary permits that have expired, according to Israeli military records. Under Israeli military orders, they are now considered unlawful “infiltrators” in their own homes.

Since 1967, thousands of spouses or close relatives of registered Palestinians had moved to the West Bank and applied for residency status through a process known as family reunification. However, Israel processed such applications slowly, often imposing low annual quotas and using arbitrary criteria that failed to take into account genuine familial or historical ties, until it stopped processing such applications altogether in 2000.

Since 2000, unregistered Palestinians who traveled abroad have been systematically denied re-entry when they tried to return to the West Bank; those who remained inside the West Bank are at the mercy of soldiers at checkpoints, who have in some cases detained them for residing there “unlawfully.”

Israeli authorities have justified these policy changes by arguing that the second Palestinian intifada resulted in a “breakdown” in cooperation with the Palestinian Authority (PA), which in 1995 took on the role of transferring the applications for registration to the Israeli side for approval. In fact, the PA continued to send the applications, but the Israeli side refused to process them. Israel received as many as 120,000 such applications from 2000 to 2005 that it did not process. Israel’s policy of refusing to process applications for family reunification has continued long after the ending of the second intifada.

From 2007 to 2009, Israel processed some 33,000 registration applications as what it called a political gesture during peace talks with the PA, and in 2011, it allowed around 2,800 Palestinians registered as residents of Gaza to change their addresses to the West Bank. These steps have not cleared the backlog. Israel has argued that it has no obligation to process Palestinian applications related to the population registry, but may do so at its discretion. In cases where Israeli rights groups have petitioned against these policies, the Israeli authorities have argued, and the courts have accepted, that since the blanket restrictions are a political matter tied to Israel’s relations with the PA, Israeli courts are not competent to adjudicate them.

One family’s story

Writing for The Electronic Intifada from Doha in 2010, Mohammad Alsaafin harrowingly described the impact Israel’s racist residency policies has had on his immediate family:

My dad was born in the Gaza Strip in 1962, the son of refugees, and left to the United Kingdom along with his wife and first son (myself) in 1990 to pursue his PhD at the University of Bradford. By 2004, I had a brother and two sisters, and our entire family moved back to Palestine, this time to the town of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. My father was working as a foreign journalist licensed by the Israeli Government Press Office and we were living in our country on yearly renewable Israeli work visas.

In 2005, I was turned back by Israeli border agents at the Sheikh Hussein Bridge as I attempted to cross into Jordan to visit my aunt. The agents told me that since I was born in the Gaza Strip in 1988 I had been issued a Gaza ID by the Israeli occupation authority and was therefore not allowed to legally reside in the West Bank. Additionally, I was informed that from then on, Israel would not recognize my British passport. I was able to return to Ramallah that day, but for the next four years I risked daily arrest by Israeli troops on the way to Birzeit University, where I was studying, and for a year after that while I was working in Ramallah. This summer, I left the West Bank to find work abroad, and was told by the Israelis that I would not be allowed to return home.

Despite this reprehensible situation, the rest of the family was thankfully spared such hardship. My dad continued working relatively unhindered as he moved across what is now Israel, the occupied West Bank and Gaza, and my mother and siblings enjoyed freedom of movement across the West Bank and inside Israel. This all changed very suddenly last August when, on a routine trip to Gaza where my dad had several assignments and where he wanted to visit his ailing father, he was detained by Israeli security at the Erez checkpoint, and was harassed, stripped of his press credentials and told — as I was four years earlier — that his British passport was worthless in Israel. He was also informed that he too had an Israeli-issued Gaza ID and thus would be treated as a Gazan, deprived of the most basic freedom of choice and movement and barred from ever returning to his wife and children in Ramallah. He was sent into Gaza, where he appealed to Israeli rights organizations, and as a British citizen to the British consulate and to former Prime Minister Tony Blair, now the Quartet’s Middle East envoy, for the right to leave Gaza and see his wife and children, if only for a day. The Israeli organizations were unable to help, the consulate was unable to circumvent a wall of Israeli bureaucracy, and Tony Blair chose to ignore our letter calling for assistance. In order to save his job, my dad had to give up hope of being allowed back into the West Bank, and left Gaza through Egypt in December.

At the time that my dad was stripped of his press credentials and work visa, my mother and siblings back in Ramallah were forced to accept their own Israeli-issued ID cards. Incredibly, my mother was given a Gaza ID despite being born abroad, raised in the West Bank and still owning a copy of her original West Bank ID! She now lives in constant fear of arrest and deportation by Israeli troops; if she were to leave the West Bank she would also be banned from returning to our family and home in Ramallah.

Meanwhile my brother and sister, who were both born in the UK and are now university students, have bizarrely been issued with West Bank ID cards, even though their parents and older brother were given Gaza IDs.

As a result of all of this, our family has been torn apart. My father is finally out of Gaza, but he is unable to see his children unless they travel abroad to meet him. My mother is in the West Bank, afraid to even leave Ramallah and risk being detained and deported at an Israeli army checkpoint. She is unable to leave the West Bank while my father and I are unable to enter. We don’t know how long it will be before we can see each other again — the Israeli authorities have said that they will not change my mother’s ID.

Mohammad’s mother describes her family’s plight in the above video which Human Rights Watch released along with the new report:

The Electronic Intifada blogger Linah Alsaafin has described the humiliating treatment she has had to endure crossing Allenby bridge between the West Bank and Jordan to visit her father, exiled in Amman:

It shouldn’t be called the Israeli/Jordanian crossing. It should be called the Israeli crossing, period. They have all the control over who gets in and out, and coordinate with the Jordanian side accordingly. They have the power to shut down the crossing whenever they want purely based on a whim, as I discovered last summer after a failed attempt to get back to Ramallah. As with the rest of the checkpoints scattered throughout the Occupied Territories, humiliation is a requirement at the border crossing, with the Israelis never missing the chance to remind Palestinians just who exactly controls every aspect of their lives.



Maureen Clare Murphy

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Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada.