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From the occupation beginning in 1967 to the day after the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1994, Israel used a covert procedure to banish Palestinians by stripping them of their residency rights. This was revealed in an official document drawn up by the Israel Defense Forces’ West Bank headquarters, published by Haaretz on Wednesday.

A letter sent to the Center for the Defense of the Individual says the procedure, enforced on Palestinian West Bank residents who traveled abroad, led to the stripping of 140,000 of them of their residency rights. Israel registered these people as NLRs − no longer residents − a special status that does not allow them to return to their homes. The document makes no mention of the number of Gaza Strip residents who traveled abroad for studies or work and were permanently banished from the region by the same procedure.

The sweeping denial of residency status from tens of thousands of Palestinians and deporting them from their homeland in this way cannot be anything but an illegitimate demographic policy and a grave violation of international law. It’s a policy whose sole purpose is to thin out the Palestinian population in the territories.

It would be reasonable to assume that many family members of the Palestinians uprooted between 1967 and 1994 joined their relatives in exile and became homeless refugees themselves. The gates of the West Bank and Gaza Strip were also locked to the NLR’s children and descendants who were born outside the territories. After the Oslo Accords, Israel allowed a relatively small number of NLRs to return to the territories. Since the second intifada broke out, the people exiled between 1967 and 1994 have been prohibited from visiting their homes, even as tourists.

The covert deportation of West Bank residents in order to increase the number of Jews in the West Bank, like the declaration of land as “state land” to build settlements on it, is an example of the occupation’s rotten fruit. Israel opens its gates to people from all over the world, who have the right of return. It lets them settle in Hebron and at the entrance to Nablus. It must immediately rectify the ongoing injustice caused to tens of thousands of Palestinians who were born in Hebron and raised children in Nablus.

The government would do well to remove the NLR stigma from these people, restore their residency status as quickly as possible and permit them to return home and unite with their families.