Gazans Demand Right of Passage to West Bank

Ahead of Cairo talks on easing restrictions at border crossings, residents of Strip want end to 'checkpoint visas.'

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Palestinians walk out of Israel's Erez Crossing after leaving Gaza July 13, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

Following Hamas’ assumption of power in the Gaza Strip in 2006, D.Y., who was born in a Gazan refugee camp, made the decision to leave the region. After a great deal of effort, he was granted political asylum in a European country, and subsequently brought over his wife and adolescent children. His adult children remained in Gaza. D.Y. tries to visit them once a year, traveling to the strip by way of Egypt.

This year, he arrived in Gaza just a few days before the war broke out. As the resident of a foreign country, he could have left, but D.Y. opted to remain in Gaza with his family throughout the bombings. Other Palestinians who reside abroad were able to leave the war zone via the Erez checkpoint – an Israeli gesture toward Western embassies – and were transported from there directly to the Allenby Bridge, the crossing point between the West Bank and Jordan. Israel did not permit them to stop off in the West Bank.

D.Y. told Haaretz, “We in Gaza hope very much that our representatives – whether from Hamas or the PLO – will bear in mind that the closure imposed on the Gaza Strip applies not only to goods and raw materials. We are hoping that when they start to negotiate on lifting the siege, they will also protect our right to spend as much time in the West Bank as we want, without conditions.”

‘Tourist visa’ to West Bank

Of the 1.8 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip, only a few thousand are permitted to apply for an Israeli exit permit allowing them to leave Gaza through the Erez checkpoint. If their declared destination is the West Bank, they are also required to get a sort of Israeli “tourist visa” for the West Bank. The situation is similar to that of a resident of Yeruham or Arad being permitted to visit Tel Aviv and Jerusalem only if he’s obtained a special internal visa. The permit has been dubbed the “checkpoints visa” – and is shown to soldiers so they do not order the Gazan ID-holder’s deportation to Gaza.

HaMoked – the Center for the Defense of the Individual, an Israeli human rights NGO,  discovered the existence of this visa to visit the West Bank quite coincidentally, when it was representing some Gaza natives about to be deported from the West Bank. Inquiries by HaMoked revealed that the Civil Administration had begun to issue the permits without any formal procedure or new legislation. There was no public notice, official or unofficial, of the new policy, which was adopted by the Defense Ministry’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories. It read as follows:

“As of November 2007, any resident of Gaza who is in the West Bank must hold a ‘permit to stay in Judea and Samaria,’ and the permit is intended for that purpose only.”

The visa for Gazans visiting the West Bank is yet another logical step in the bureaucratic evolution of restrictions on movement that Israel has imposed on the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip.

Here are a few of the major chapters in this campaign: Since 2005 (“disengagement”), there has been a sharp decline in the number of Palestinians, as well as in the categories of Palestinians, whom Israel permits to leave Gaza via the Erez checkpoint for the West Bank.

Since the early 2000s, Gazans in the West Bank whose date of return in their permit to cross Israel has expired have been declared “illegal visitors” in the West Bank. Since 1997, residents of the Gaza Strip have been forbidden to enter the West Bank via the Allenby Bridge crossing. Since the early 1990s, Palestinians have only been permitted to leave the Gaza Strip (or the West Bank) with an Israeli permit (a restriction that did not exist in the 1970s and 1980s).

Once a Gazan, always a Gazan

W.A. was a year old when her parents moved with her to the West Bank in the early 1990s. Since then, her parents have divorced and established new families, and she now lives with an aunt in Qalqilya. Three years ago, when she was issued her first ID card at age 17, W.A. discovered that her address appeared as “Gaza,” even though she hadn’t even visited the area since leaving as an infant with her parents.

The Oslo Accords empowered the Palestinian Authority to modify personal details appearing in the ID card (and merely to report the changes to Israel’s Civil Administration) – but from the mid-90s, it became clear that Israel had assumed the authority to determine if the address were to be changed from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank. All of W.A.’s applications to change the address on her ID card have been met with Israeli refusals. Consequently, she does not travel around the West Bank for fear of being detained as an illegal visitor.

She cannot marry, because her status is up in the air. On Ramadan, she could not pray at Al Aqsa. She was not issued a “permit to stay,” but the High Court of Justice has issued an interim order that prevents the state from deporting her.

The latest stage, to date, in this bureaucratic evolution came in 2009, and is entitled “procedure for establishment of permanent residence in the West Bank.” It thwarts nearly any chance Gaza Strip residents once had of moving to the West Bank. Based on this regulation, the only people able to do so are orphaned children and elderly, chronically ill patients who require nursing assistance and who do not have relatives in Gaza. The bonds of marriage or parenthood are not considered adequate circumstances to justify a Gazan’s permanent residency in the West Bank.

The softened version

In 2013, a softened version of the procedure to establish permanent residency was drawn up. It is intended for people like W.A., who have already been living in the West Bank for a long time. They have to prove that the center of their life is in the West Bank; if they are successful, they are instructed to apply for a series of six-month “permits to stay,” for a total of three years. Following this period, the military commander may approve the change of address, although he is under no obligation to do so.

The permit to stay for Gazans in the West Bank, the stringent procedure for establishment of permanent residency status, and the limitations on Gazans’ right to travel to and settle down in the West Bank are contrary to explicit pledges in the Oslo Accords. They are part of an Israeli policy that seeks to sever the Gaza Strip from the West Bank. This policy existed well before the imposition of any restrictions on the passage of goods between these occupied territories.

“We’ve grown accustomed to relating to restrictions as if they were verses from the Koran, thinking that it is impossible to change them,” says D.Y. “And that is a mistake that needs to be corrected.”

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