(Jerusalem) – Israeli policies on Palestinian residency have arbitrarily denied thousands of Palestinians the ability to live in, and travel to and from, the West Bank and Gaza, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. 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.
The 90-page report, “Forget about Him, He’s Not Here,” describes the arbitrary exclusion by the Israeli military of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians since 1967 and documents the impact that exclusion continues to have on individuals and families. The way Israel’s military has exercised its control over the Palestinian population registry – the list of Palestinians whom it considers to be lawful residents of the West Bank and Gaza territories – has separated families, caused people to lose jobs and educational opportunities, barred people from entering the Palestinian territories, and trapped others inside them, Human Rights Watch said. Egypt also has problematic policies on Palestinians trying to enter Gaza that are based on the Israeli-controlled population registry.
“Israel has never put forth any concrete security rationale for blanket policies that have made life a nightmare for Palestinians whom it considers unlawful residents in their own homes,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The current policies leave families divided and people trapped on the wrong side of the border in Gaza and the West Bank. Israel should revise these policies and process requests for families to reunite, so that Palestinians can live with their families where they want.”
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.
“Israel should allow Palestinians to live in their homes with their families, and to travel freely, not treat its control over where Palestinians can live as a political bargaining chip,” Whitson said.
Israel has also cited the general security situation during the second intifada as a rationale for refusing to process residency and address-change applications. Attacks by Palestinian armed groups killed hundreds of Israeli civilians during that intifada – attacks that Human Rights Watch has repeatedly condemned. However, after the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000, Israeli authorities rejected many Palestinians’ applications for residency without claiming that the individual applicant presented a security threat, and without providing any individual grounds for the denial.
Israel has never explained why its blanket refusal to process address changes and family reunification applications is necessary for security reasons, or why it does not screen applicants individually for security risks. The Israeli policy of indiscriminately rejecting applications by Palestinians for legal residency vastly exceeds what could be justified under international law as necessary to address legitimate security concerns, Human Rights Watch said.
Israel’s control over the population registry has significantly reduced the registered Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza, probably by hundreds of thousands of people. This reduction has occurred while Israel has simultaneously increased the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank, in violation of international humanitarian law on transferring one’s population to occupied territory.
Israel also continues to control the population registry for residents of the Gaza Strip, years after it withdrew its ground forces and settlements there. From 2000 onward, for instance, Israel denied unregistered Palestinians entry to Gaza, which it completely controlled until 2005 and which remained largely sealed off even after Hamas took over the territory in 2007. During this period, thousands of unregistered Palestinians, as well as Gaza residents’ foreign-born spouses, bypassed Israeli border controls without Israeli military permits – often by using tunnels beneath the Egyptian border – in order to be reunited with their families. Unregistered Palestinians cannot obtain ID cards or passports required to travel abroad; at least 12,000 are estimated to be in Gaza.
In addition, Egyptian policies have the effect of nearly trapping unregistered Palestinians in Gaza. At its border with Gaza, Egypt denies entry and exit to unregistered Palestinians, who do not have Israeli-approved ID cards or passports, even if they have foreign passports. In addition, in the vast majority of cases, Israel systematically denies even registered Gaza residents permission to enter the West Bank, regardless of their family or other ties there. Human Rights Watch identified numerous cases where family members in the West Bank have been separated for years from their close relatives in Gaza.
As noted, since it stopped accepting residency and address-change applications after 2000, Israel has processed a certain number of applications as a “political gesture.” However, Israel is not processing Palestinian applications on an ongoing basis, and the small quotas do not address Israel’s refusal to acknowledge its obligation to respect Palestinians’ rights to live with their families and to move within and travel abroad from occupied Palestinian territory.
“Israel should create an efficient, rights-based, and transparent process based on individual decisions to ensure that Palestinians, including those who have been unfairly stripped of legal residency, can gain that status and the rights that flow from it,” Whitson said.