Gaza After the Pullout / Israeli Control Over the Population Registry Means Continued Control Over Gaza Strip

Next month, as is the case every October, the Palestinian Interior Ministry in Gaza will begin issuing 16-year-olds their first identity cards. Each 16-year-old will bring photographs and documentation to his school, which will pass them on to the ministry. And, just as it has every year since the Palestinian Authority was established, the ministry will pass all the information on to Israel's Interior Ministry. Despite Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian ministry still cannot issue identity cards unless Israeli clerks approve the applications.

Ever since Israel conquered the territories in 1967, all Palestinians have been registered with Israel's Interior Ministry. Neither the PA's establishment nor the Gaza disengagement changed this situation.

According to Palestinian sources, the issue was not even raised during Israeli-Palestinian disengagement talks, and the Palestinians understood that this arrangement would continue. Indeed, Israel's liaison office with the PA informed the Palestinian Interior Ministry that its relocation to new offices outside the Gaza Strip would result in a 10-day hiatus in updating Population Registry data. Once the office resumes work - assuming the security situation permits - a Palestinian clerk will cart boxes full of reports on recent births, deaths and marriages to the liaison office, which will use them to update Israel's computer files.

Regarding the issuing of initial identity cards to those born in the territories or registering births and deaths, updating the Israeli computers is a purely technical matter. On other matters, however, the PA's dependence on Israel is absolute. The PA, for instance, has no right to grant "citizenship" to a Palestinian born abroad who wishes to live in Gaza or the West Bank. It also has no authority to reissue identity cards to the tens of thousands of Palestinians born in the territories who have lost their residency rights under Israel's policy of stripping residency status from anyone who stays away from the territories for more than three years without visiting.

Moreover, there are tens of thousands of Palestinian couples in which one spouse was born abroad, and therefore, is not considered a resident of the territories. But Israel retains sole authority to approve "family unifications" for such couples - and for the last five years, the approval process has been frozen.

There are 54,000 Palestinians in the territories who entered legally, as tourists, on foreign passports, with the hope of eventually being granted "citizenship" pursuant to the Oslo Accords. If caught at an army checkpoint, they are liable to be deported, even if they have a spouse and children in the territories. Nor can they go abroad, even for emergencies, because, since they stayed here illegally after their visas expired, Israel would not allow them to return if they left.

The PA cannot act unilaterally and issue Palestinian identity cards to people without Israel's consent, because the country's control over the PA population registry is rooted in its control over the international border crossings and Palestinian movement within the West Bank: the minute an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint or border crossing checked such a card, he would discover that its holder does not appear in Israel's computers, and treat the card as invalid.

Israel also controls changes of address. According to the Oslo Accords, Palestinians merely need to notify Israeli authorities of a change of address, and Israel must record it. But in practice, Israel did not automatically approve moves from Gaza to the West Bank, or vice versa, even before the intifada began - and since the intifada started, it has not approved a single change of address from Gaza to the West Bank. Therefore, thousands of Gazans currently living in the West Bank are considered illegal residents and, if caught at a roadblock, could be deported back to Gaza.

The Palestinians never considered demanding that Gaza's population registry be disconnected from Israel's computers following the disengagement, since in their view, Gaza and the West Bank are two parts of the same whole, so disconnecting only Gaza would be meaningless. But as long as Israel retains control over the Palestinian population registry, this is a sign - in Palestinian eyes, and probably in those of the world as well - that Israel's occupation of Gaza continues even after the disengagement.