Groups Balk at Demands on Seam-line Workers

An Israeli demand that Palestinians working for international organizations request a permit to enter the seam-line area between the West Bank separation fence and the Green Line has generated tension between the security establishment and the international groups.

At the end of February, international organizations received an e-mail from Lieutenant Colonel Offer Mey-Tal, head of the Civil Administration's foreign relations and international organizations branch, saying that as of March 1, all organizations that have not submitted a list of Palestinian employees for 2006 and a list of authorized employees requesting permits "will not be able to receive permits for their Palestinian staff, no exceptions."

It appears that all the international organizations that assist the Palestinian population - which has suffered particularly in the seam-line area - have rejected the demand. They say that obeying the order would be a sort of recognition that Israel has in effect annexed parts of the West Bank.

The international organizations said they think Israel has backed down from its demand for a list of the employees, but continues to insist that the approximately 1,700 Palestinians employed by the organizations submit requests to enter the seam-line area. The Israel Defense Forces has declared the entire area a closed military zone, meaning that Palestinians are allowed to pass through the gates and roadblocks manned by soldiers only if they have entry permits provided by the Civil Administration. Until the last few weeks, delegations from international organizations - foreigners as well as Palestinians - were permitted to enter the area without permits.

According to the Civil Administration, the international organizations in the territories include 35 governmental organizations and 74 non-governmental organizations (among them about a dozen United Nations groups).

A member of one of the organizations told Haaretz that his group understands the Israeli security establishment to be relating to the seam-line area as Israeli territory: Just as entry into Israel requires authorization for Palestinian workers, so too for entry into the seam-line zone. The organizations - the largest of which is UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East - regularly submit requests for their Palestinian workers to enter Israel (including East Jerusalem) or to travel between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

"There is a contradiction between the public declarations of their desire to make our humanitarian work easier and help out, and the limitations that hamper our ability to work," said an official from one of the organizations.

The Civil Administration spokesman said its request for updated lists of the organizations' Palestinian workers who regularly receive permits to enter Israel was intended "for the purposes of increasing the efficiency and improving the work we do with the organizations."

The demand for permits is one of several steps that Israeli authorities have taken to curb the freedom of movement of Palestinians who work for international organizations and limit the number of people who can enter East Jerusalem, where most of the organizations' main offices are located.

Israel is also demanding that the international organizations note who on their lists of Palestinians seeking permits to travel from Gaza to the West Bank and East Jerusalem is a "senior" employee and who isn't. The organizations are refusing to make this distinction and said they will continue to submit their requests for permits on the basis of work needs and not on the basis of seniority. The organizations are well aware that the Civil Administration could refuse to issue permits to those not considered "senior."

The security establishment has also asked the organizations to select "essential workers" who live in the West Bank, with the intention that only these workers will be authorized to enter East Jerusalem when the army imposes a total closure on the territories.