It might seem that there is no less appropriate moment than now to discuss bureaucratic troubles, even if they are the lot of thousands of people who live in the Gaza Strip and on the West Bank, and whom Israel forbids to return to their homes and families. How can we talk about closed border crossings when in the Gaza Strip and in Israel families are mourning their dear ones who were killed, and Israel is on the verge of war on several fronts?
But on the other hand, the bureaucratic troubles are also a front in and of itself - the demographic front. And on this front, Israel is actually chalking up successes. The latest is an expulsion order that it is implementing mainly with respect to Palestinians who are citizens of the United States and other Western countries, and also in the cases of non-Palestinians who are married to Palestinians, and of people working in the territories. As opposed to the belligerent declarations on the military front, the civilian generals from the Interior, Justice and Defense Ministries have not publicly announced their expulsion order.
There are four specific categories of people who are citizens of Western countries, who are affected by this order: Palestinians born in the territories (including East Jerusalem), whose Palestinian residency was revoked after 1967; Palestinians born abroad; non-Palestinians who are married to Palestinians; and foreign citizens who work in academic institutions or humanitarian organizations in the territories.
The vast majority are Palestinians who have returned to live here with their families on their private and national land, have come to invest in the private sector, or have joined research-related and academic institutions. Until recently, their American and European passports protected them, even after Israel issued (in late 2000) a similar expulsion order against citizens of Arab countries who have families and work in the occupied territories. All these are people living in the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank - not in the State of Israel.
Israel did not permit those included in the first three categories to register as residents, but allowed them to remain as tourists - i.e., to leave the country and to renew their visas every three months. The same was true for members of academic institutions and other non-Palestinians. But suddenly, since March or April, it turns out that a change has taken place in the long-standing policy: People went abroad to renew their visa and when they returned, Israel's Border Police refused to give them one. Do you have an elderly and ailing father? Are your children in school? Were you born here, like your parents and grandparents? Is your work here? Who cares. Israel is the sovereign and Israel decides.
In addition to the hundreds who have already received the expulsion order de facto, and many thousands who will be affected, there are also tens of thousands of Palestinians who come to visit their families here every year. Most of them are and will be forbidden to enter.
Although the Interior Ministry repeatedly claims that this is not a new policy, but only a "refreshing of procedures," the State Prosecutor' Office (its High Court of Justice department) defines this as a "policy" (whose formulation is still pending). Because a change in the practice and the procedures that were in force for many years is not a matter of "refreshing," but a policy.
The U.S. Embassy, which is aware of the new problem being encountered by its citizens, says it cannot intervene in the sovereign decisions of a state. And that is the issue: Israel - by its very control over entry via the international borders (including Rafah, where only Palestinian residents may cross), and over the Palestinian population registry - continues to be the sovereign in the Gaza Strip and on the West Bank. Even without a military presence there.
The lowliest clerk in the Interior Ministry and Population Registry has the authority and the opportunity to intervene in the critical affairs of every Palestinian man and woman: when and whom they will marry, whether they will live together, whether they will raise their children together. The power of the most minor Israeli clerk over the lives of the Palestinians is greater than that of any minister in the Palestinian government.
And yet the Western countries continue to demand that the Palestinian Authority behave like a sovereign with respect to a territory and a population that are under Israeli control, and they continue to be tolerant of another policy of mass expulsion that Israel is implementing against their citizens as well.
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