More than 95 percent of Palestinians who appeal for help from Israeli courts or authorities because their lives are endangered, due to their cooperation with Israel, are denied asylum or protection, Haaretz has found.
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In a typical case, the High Court of Justice last week rejected a petition from a West Bank Palestinian who sought protection because his life was in danger. His community suspected he had cooperated with Israel and had been involved in selling land to Jews.
Only a few days earlier, Israeli leaders roundly condemned a left–wing activist who said he had turned over to the Palestinan Authority Arabs who had sold land to Jews and could, as a result, face death. The leaders also denounced the Palestinian Authority for its brutal conduct.
The activist, Ezra Nawi, was documented in the Uvda (“Fact”) TV program boasting that he had turned over to the PA Palestinians who had sold West Bank lands to Jews. Nawi said in the program that the land sellers faced torture and death in the dungeons of the Palestinian Preventive Security Force.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said “the expose was further testimony to the PA’s brutality, that tortures and murders Palestinians whose ‘crime’ was selling lands to Jews.” Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said “under guise of concern for human rights some [left–wing] activists engage in inciting against Israel, spreading lies and as it transpires – endangering the lives of Palestinian land sellers by exposing them to the PA, which imprisons them and even executes them.”
But what happens when the same land sellers appeal to the Israeli authorities for help, claiming that they are threatened in the PA territories and ask for asylum?
Haaretz’s examination finds that Israel denies the Palestinians’ request for asylum or protection even when they have been sentenced to death in the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinians who ask for help are suspected not only of selling land – in some cases they are suspected of cooperating with the Israeli authorities in other ways.
A committee of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), a unit in the Defense Ministry, meets once a month to discuss requests of Palestinians who have asked Israel for help, after their lives have been threatened for cooperating with Israel.
The committee learns of requests for help only from the summary a COGAT officer makes after questioning the Palestinians under threat. The officer must clarify the factors behind the threats against the applicant, what steps the Palestinian Authority has taken against him and where he is staying – in Israel or in the West Bank. Then COGAT’s regional coordination and liaison administration officer decides whether the applicant will receive a permit to stay in Israel for a month, until the committee deals with his request more thoroughly.
Even if the committee decides that the applicant’s life is in danger, the permit he receives does not allow him to work or entitle him to any medical or other assistance.
Every year the relevant team in the COGAT coordination administration examines whether the Palestinian is still in danger, and if it decides the danger has passed, the Palestinian is asked to return to the West Bank.
Most requests are denied. Haaretz found that in 2014 only three requests out of 136 were granted. In 2015 nine out of 222 requests were granted.
Officially, the committee deals with cases of Palestinians who claim they are threatened following cooperation or suspected cooperation with Israel. There is no uniform policy to deal with land sellers.
COGAT replied to Haaretz’s query that the committee will not deal with Palestinians who sold land to a private person at all, and only deals with cases in which land was sold to a state institution, like the World Zionist Organization or Jewish National Fund.
However, it said that if a Palestinian asks for help, saying his life is in danger for selling land to a private person and his claims are verified, he would receive “temporary assistance,” although this would be an exception.
Despite COGAT’s assertion that private real estate deals are not within its jurisdiction, Attorney Michael Teplow, who represents Palestinians in such cases for more than 20 years, said that in requests by land traders COGAT has never distinguished between private deals and sales to state institutions.
“In cases I have handled there were suspicions of cooperation with the security forces, but they always involved land sales as well, so the argument that they don’t handle private deals is new to me. It sounds like part of a move to reduce authority, which has been happening in the committee [dealing with threatened Palestinians] for years,” he said.
Attorney Ronen Cohen, who deals with numerous petitions like this, said COGAT has recently changed its policy. “Since September, four Palestinians I’m representing were told that land sales isn’t within the committee’s authority and it’s dealing only with those threatened for cooperation with Israel. In the past they did deal with these cases. Saying that land trade isn’t cooperation with Israel is simply groundless,” he added.
Cohen appealed to the High Court of Justice against the committee's decision not to discuss the requests, and the state has yet to answer the appeal. In a similar past petition, the prosecution put forward a document that stated that the committee must deal with requests relating to land trade. In 2014, as part of an appeal by a Palestinian who argued that his life is in danger because of his sexual orientation in the West Bank, the state enclosed a report submitted by an inter-ministerial team headed by an official from the Prime Minister's Office that was required to deal with handling claims of threats by Palestinians that were not related to cooperation with Israel.
Among other things, it said that already at the beginning of its work, "it was clarified to the team that claims of threats relating to selling lands to Jews are being checked and discussed by the committee because of the security aspect deriving from claims of cooperation with Israeli elements." The report also said that "the attitude of Palestinian society toward those who sell land to Jews is one of severe and degrading treatment, since selling lands is seen as damaging the Palestinian national effort to create an independent country. The [Palestinian] Authority investigates and brings to trial those suspected of such things, and the accepted punishment is prolonged incarceration the maximum penalty is the death penalty, but in practice, according to information provided to the team, it isn’t implemented."
Attorney Yadin Elam, who also represented Palestinians who claimed that they were being threatened, told Haaretz that "if the state does believe that the lives of people suspected of trading lands with Jews in the territories are in danger, then it's only right that it gives those people protection in Israel. In practice, as far as I can see, on the one hand the state doesn’t protect them, and on the other, when claims of a man who turned in a land seller surface, it asserts that he turned him in to a place where he faces torture and death. This is not consistent with one another."
Indeed, despite the fact that the state acknowledges the hostile attitude of the Palestinian Authority toward people who sell land to Jews, in recent years the bar that the committee put in place to receive a permit was very high. This, for example, can be seen in the tale of a Palestinian who doesn’t have a record of criminal or security offenses and who was arrested a few years ago by the security services on suspicion of trading properties with Jews. After being questioned, and according to him also tortured, he was indicted. He was incarcerated for two years until he was released on bail, and then he fled to Israel. The committee rejected his request for a permit to stay in Israel, and determined that "there is no indication of current threats." He has since returned to the West Bank, where he says a few attempts to capture him were carried out and an arrest warrant without the possibility of release was issued against him.
In a different case, the committee used the same justification when it determined there was no reason to extend the residency permit given in the past to a Palestinian who had been sentenced to death and two 15-year prison sentences with hard labor for selling land to Jews and for collaboration. This man cooperated with the Shin Bet security service and the IDF's Civil Administration, and for that reason he was arrested and served six years in prison in the Palestinian Authority. He escaped from prison when IDF soldiers raided the facility where he was held, and two weeks later he was shot in at the entrance to his home by armed men. A family member was murdered because of suspicions he collaborated with Israel; another relative of the plaintiff, who was not accused of similar crimes, was also arrested, and claimed he was harshly tortured during interrogation and one of his eyes was pulled out. While the plaintiff resided in Israel, he was convicted in absentia in a Palestinian court and sentenced to death. But after receiving a number of short term residency permits and being asked to provide the committee with a long list of documents, it was decided not to extend his residency permit again because there was no threat to his life in the PA.
The committee's justifications are not available to the public, but they are given to the lawyers for those who apply to the committee. This is how the requests for recognition as "being under threat" were rejected, with the explanation that the person filing the request travels every day between the West Bank and Israel and does not act like someone who is in danger in the territory of the PA. The committee examines the criminal past of those filing requests too in order to determine if his entry into Israel would endanger public safety. In the past, a request was rejected even though the Palestinian was determined to be in danger when it was found out that he had raped mentally disabled people. The committee even asks to examine, using intelligence means, the Palestinian court decisions and sentences concerning those who apply to the committee. In a number of cases, they brought such intelligence assessments to reject requests for safe haven, explaining that the PA does not carry out these sentences in practice.
"I can come with a case of a collaborator who was arrested in the PA, and they will say - and it has happened many times - that there is a suspicion of collaboration but his life is not in danger," said Teplow. "I cannot understand the logic behind such a sentence. We are in fact saying that if a person is jailed for five or 10 years, that is okay, because they are not killed. There is an attempt to find reasons not to grant the permit, and they also make mistakes. I had clients who they determined they were not under threat and were killed in the territories, there were assassinations of people who they said there was no danger to their lives. So what can we do? It's too late."
COGAT said in response: "So far, we do not know of requests of those claiming they are threatened because of the sale of land to private Israelis. If another need arises, it will be provided with a response through the use of the toolboxes at our disposal. When a request is received from someone who claims they are threatened, it is passed on for comment to the professionals who sit on the committee, and include among them security officials. The committee meets every month and discusses all the requests, and following the committee's decision a letter is sent to the claimant with the decision and its reasoning. We would like to emphasize that until the committee convenes, the person claiming to be under threat is provided with a solution on the part of the authorized bodies."