Israel recently renewed restrictions on the freedom of movement of foreign nationals who live and work in the West Bank that prohibit them from entering East Jerusalem or Israel. The changes were discovered when foreigners learned, after renewing their tourist visas, that the words "Judea and Samaria only" had been stamped inside. Citizens from these countries who come to live in Israel or Jewish settlements in the West Bank are not subjected to these restrictions.
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Neither the Interior Ministry's Population and Immigration Authority nor the coordinator of government activities in the territories responded to questions from Haaretz concerning the number of long-term foreign residents of the West Bank.
Some of these individuals are Palestinians who were born in the West Bank and whose residency status was rescinded by Israel prior to 1994 due to their prolonged residence abroad. Others are married to Palestinians, while still others work in the West Bank, often as university teachers.
The American Consulate in Jerusalem has expressed its displeasure with the restrictions. They contravene prior understandings to lift similar restrictions that the Interior Ministry imposed suddenly in the summer of 2009, when "PA only" was stamped in Western nationals' passports.
Although Israel never officially announced a policy change, this stamp, which theoretically limits people to Areas A and B (which under the Oslo Accords are under full Palestinian control and Israeli security control only, respectively ), has rarely been used in the past two years.
Maj. Guy Inbar, the coordinator of government activities in the territories, told Haaretz in a written statement: "There is no essential difference between the stamps. The agreements and the restrictions in permits remain as they were." He also wrote that the change was not new, and has been in place for more than six months. In response to a further query Inbar said the only change is the language used on the stamp.
Population and Immigration Authority spokeswoman Sabine Haddad also told Haaretz that there had been "no change in the matter." But according to officials in the Palestinian Interior Ministry, the renewed restriction in its new version ("Judea and Samaria only" ) was instituted on November 1. On that date it was applied to all foreign nationals of Palestinian origin, and subsequently to non-Palestinians. Several people interviewed by Haaretz confirmed the Palestinian officials' statements. For example, in the case of one American couple, the woman's visa was extended before November 1 and was not stamped with "Judea and Samaria only." The man's visa was extended after November 1 and did bear that stamp.
Another difference is that three and a half years ago the restricting stamp was applied to passports at the Allenby Bridge crossing from Jordan to the Jericho area by a border official answerable to the Interior Ministry. But the new stamps appear to be employed only when passports are brought in for visa renewal. Bearers bring their passport to the Palestinian Interior Ministry, which passes it on to the Palestinian Ministry of Civil Affairs, which passes it on to the Civil Administration, based at Beit El.
Beyond the restriction itself and the discrimination it represents, the prohibition against leaving the West Bank creates other problems for foreign nationals. It limits academics' access to archives and research institutions in Israel. Foreigners cannot drive cars with PA license plates, and the "Judea and Samaria only" restriction bars them from maintaining vehicles with Israeli license plates. Foreign citizens are also unable to reach their consulates in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. Israel also retains the power not to grant such individuals work visas, but rather only tourist visa, although the authorities know full well that many of these individuals have come to the PA to work, either as business people, academics or in various civil organizations. The people with whom Haaretz spoke complained about ambiguity, lack of transparency and difficulty in obtaining information from the authorities.
Haaretz was unable to obtain a response from the coordinator of government activities in the territories and the Population Registration Authority to questions such as whether the visa is multiple-entry or not, whether foreign citizens must request an entry permit to Israel - as required of Palestinians - through Palestinian coordinating committees; whether business people are exempt from the restriction; and why work permits are not being issued.
An American woman living in Ramallah told Haaretz that a member of the U.S. consular staff in Jerusalem "indicated that the U.S. is irritated because three years ago, the Israelis promised that they would not restrict the visas to PA only and now "they think they can get around it by putting 'Judea and Samaria only." The woman said the consular official also told her that the U.S. Consulate is collecting information on everyone who had received similar visas, with an eye toward issuing an official American response.
The American Consulate in Jerusalem neither confirmed nor denied the information in this report. However, it told Haaretz: "The U.S. Government takes seriously the concerns of American citizens living and traveling anywhere in the world," and that "The U.S. Government continues to engage with the Government of Israel on this issue, noting the necessity of fair and equal treatment of all U.S. citizens regardless of national origin or ethnicity."