Israel is working to block Palestinians from the Gaza Strip from settling in the Palestinian enclaves in the West Bank.
As of the middle of this year, 2,671 Gazans (0.14 percent of Gaza’s population) were living in these enclaves without Israeli permits. More than half of them, 1,397, had received a permit to leave Gaza for medical reasons, either as patients or chaperones, but they did not return. Most of those who got medical exit permits but did not return, did so since 2017. Only 262 of them left and did not return before that year.
All this emerges from a response by the state prosecution to a petition heard Wednesday by the High Court of Justice. Israel regards these Palestinians as “illegal aliens,” and in the words of the state’s response, it is making efforts “to halt the growth” in these numbers and to “prevent their settling” in the West Bank.
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According to the state, very often families move “in stages” from Gaza to the West Bank. One person, who gets a permit, leaves and then other close family members get to the West Bank on the basis of some humanitarian permit (to visit a sick person or to get medical treatment) and then they don’t return. According to the response, the state fears that the Hamas government in Gaza will exploit the Gaza natives in the West Bank for their own purposes. The District Coordinating and Liaison Office in Gaza, which is subordinate to the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, has since February 2016 included the fear of not returning as one of the considerations for refusing requests for permits, including from people who need medical treatment.
Indeed, the Al Mezan human rights group in Gaza, and Physicians for Human Rights–Israel has noticed that over the past year and a half there has been a rise in the number of patients who’ve been denied exit permits on grounds that their relatives are “illegal aliens.” Testimonies received by these organizations and by Haaretz indicate that in at least some cases these patients have been told that they will get a permit only if their relatives return to Gaza.
Both organizations, through attorney Tamir Blank, petitioned the High Court and asked that it strike down the criterion of “concern of illegally remaining in the West Bank” as grounds for refusing a medical exit permit, and to also invalidate the demand that relatives return as a condition for a permit. Justice Isaac Amit, Alex Stein and Ofer Grosskopf dismissed the petition, because the state declared that there is no such criterion, and that the return of relatives is not a condition for granting an exit permit for medical treatment. Therefore, one can view the dismissal of the petition as merely technical, because the court essentially accepted the petition’s demands. The justices said that if it turns out that what the state said does not correspond to the situation in the field, the parties can return to district court to make a claim.
The prosecution’s response to the petition said that around a third of those who got medical exit permits and did not return had first-degree relatives in the West Bank who were living there without permits, but that the number of permits refused out of fear they would be misused were few. In 2018 and 2019 there were 198 medical exit permits refused for fear the permit would be misused, and not just because of close relatives, the response said. After a reevaluation, the state added, 58 of those who had been refused got the exit permit in the end.
In 2018, Israel issued some 60,000 exit permits from Gaza (in many cases a single person received multiple permits). Some 16,000 of them were permits for medical treatment, and 12,000 were for those accompanying the patients. Of the 33,000 permits issued in the first half of 2019, some 15,000 were for patients and chaperones together.
According to the prosecution’s response, there’s no way of knowing how many people who never returned to Gaza may be living illegally in Israel proper. But experience shows that the chances of being caught in Israel and returned to the Gaza Strip are higher, which is why they remain in the Palestinian cities in the West Bank, primarily Ramallah, where they generally work at odd jobs. In fact, since they lack an Israeli permit, Gazans generally remain in one Palestinian enclave and don’t travel much between them, so as not to be caught by policemen or soldiers at the checkpoints or in Area C, under full Israeli control.
For every person who managed to get to the West Bank with a permit and remain there, there are dozens, or perhaps more, who tried and were unsuccessful. All of them are part of the phenomenon of Gazans who have emigrated or who are seeking to leave the Strip because of the deteriorating conditions there, the high unemployment, the Israeli blockade and their opposition to Hamas. Of the tens of thousands who have emigrated in recent years, many traveled to Turkey on a tourist or student visa and remained there, or went from Turkey to Europe without a visa in an attempt to get political asylum. Others have tried to leave Gaza by sea and drowned.
But the West Bank is not “abroad” for the Palestinians, and under the Oslo Accords the West Bank and Gaza are supposed to be a single territorial unit. Despite the geographic separation, the political-governmental divide between the two areas and the different legislative systems that have evolved in them since 2007, both populations share the same governmental systems and the same extra-governmental systems and their registration as residents is done in the same fashion and in the same database (of the Palestinian Interior Ministry in Ramallah, under Israeli supervision and final approval). All carry the same Palestinian passport.
According to the Palestinian Authority and human rights groups, defining Gaza residents as “illegal aliens” in the West Bank contravenes the Oslo Accords and the basic social reality. Until 1991, Gaza residents were able to move to and live in the West Bank with no problem; Israel viewing them as “illegal aliens” began only in the second half of the 1990s, in parallel with the negotiations with the PA.