On January 24, 17-year-old Hadil and her three younger siblings arrived at the Erez Checkpoint between Israel and the Gaza Strip. A day earlier, they’d received an Israeli permit to leave Gaza through Israel via the Allenby Bridge to Jordan. Since Israel didn’t let their oldest brother accompany them on the trip to see their father, who lives in Sweden, Hadil got the job of being the responsible adult.
At Erez, a representative of Israel’s Coordination and Liaison Office asked all four to sign a commitment not to return to Gaza during the next year, adding that they wouldn’t be allowed to leave if they didn’t sign. Having no choice, Hadil signed for all of them.
Hadil never dreamed that her signature on this commitment would result in the Liaison Office issuing more stringent instructions to its Palestinian counterpart, the Palestinian Civil Affairs Committee, and in the latter defying the new rules.
This case sheds light on a general problem relating to the status of the Civil Affairs Committee, whose job is to receive Palestinian applications to leave Gaza and transfer them to Israel for approval or rejection. The question that arises here, and not for the first time, is where the border lies between necessary cooperation on civilian issues that affect Palestinians’ lives, and collaboration by Palestinian Authority officials with Israeli bureaucrats who sabotage Palestinians’ basic rights.
Making minors sign such a far-reaching commitment is illegal, according to Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, whose intervention secured exit permits for Hadil and her siblings. Gisha attorney Osnat Cohen-Lifshitz wrote as much to Capt. Nadav Glass, legal advisor to the Liaison Office’s Gaza branch.
“This isn’t the first time Liaison Office representatives have made minors sign commitments whose legality is dubious even when adults are forced to sign them,” she wrote. “This is all the more true when minors on their own are forced to sign a form without their parents’ consent and signature.”
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On February 7, Glass responded that the minors’ signatures were invalid. From now on, he wrote, the office would make sure commitments not to return to Gaza for a year were signed by a minor’s parent or guardian.
“To ensure proper conduct on this issue in particular, and on signing commitments in general, we’ve decided to insist that requests by Gaza Strip residents, adults and minors alike, to enter Israel in order to travel abroad for prolonged stays be passed on by the Civil Affairs Committee with a legally signed commitment form already attached,” he added. “If requests are submitted without the requisite signed form, they will be rejected. A statement to this effect has been sent to the Civil Affairs Committee.”
Since 1997, Israel has forbidden Gazans to travel abroad via the Allenby Bridge without a special permit, given stingily. This new rule was one of many Israeli restrictions on movement that became more stringent after the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993 and gradually disconnected Gaza from the West Bank.
As long as the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt was open more or less regularly, as it was in 1997, this restriction was tolerable. But today, Rafah is open only a few days a year.
Also in 2007, Israel instituted a sweeping ban on Palestinians leaving Gaza through the Erez Checkpoint, except in stringently defined humanitarian cases (sickness, death, weddings of first-degree relatives). Over time, this restriction was loosened a bit, but even today, only a few thousand of Gaza’s two million people are allowed to leave via Erez.
In February 2016, Israel decided to let Gazans travel abroad via Allenby, but only if they promised not to return for a year. This condition didn’t bother the people for whom the change was meant – Palestinians living overseas who got “stuck” in Gaza while visiting, or who planned lengthy stays overseas for school or work.
A Palestinian source said the Civil Affairs Committee and the Israeli authorities devised this arrangement between them. People traveling due to illness or family events and academics going on short trips were supposed to be exempt from the one-year commitment.
Nevertheless, the committee never insisted that people applying for exit permits sign the one-year commitment. Therefore, they were asked to sign it at Erez or Allenby instead. Anyone who refused had to turn around and go home
Following the case of Hadil and her siblings, the committee told Gisha the Israeli Liaison Office had started demanding that a signed commitment be included in every exit request. The office refuses to process requests that arrive without the signed form, but the Civil Affairs Committee still refuses to ask people to sign it.
The Liaison Office has also recently ordered the committee to label more exit applications as being for a “prolonged stay” overseas, even in humanitarian cases like attending a wedding or visiting the sick. Effectively, under the latest instructions received by the committee, anyone traveling abroad must sign a commitment not to return to Gaza for a year.
A month ago, for instance, Gisha petitioned the High Court of Justice on behalf of a young woman, her father and her aunt, who wanted to go to Jordan for her wedding. The Liaison Office told Gisha that all three of their requests would be labeled “prolonged stay,” requiring them to sign the one-year commitment not to return.
The court ordered the office to reconsider, and government attorneys said they wouldn’t insist on the bride’s signature. But when the three of them arrived at Erez, the bride was required to sign the commitment. Only Gisha’s intervention led to it being canceled.
Data Gisha obtained under the Freedom of Information Act from Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories reveal large gaps between the number of Gazans who request exit permits via Allenby and the number approved, and also between that and the number actually used. In August 2017, for instance, 475 requests were submitted, 169 were approved and 39 were rejected. But only 96 people actually left, including 28 minors.
COGAT didn’t say whether this gap was due to a refusal to sign the commitment at Erez. It also declined to say how many Gazans sought to return to Gaza before the year-long commitment expired or to specify the “humanitarian reasons” that enable someone who signed the commitment to ask to return home early.
Asked to explain the logic behind the commitment not to return, a COGAT spokesperson said, “In 2016, a decision was made to help residents of the Gaza Strip who didn’t meet the existing criteria for going abroad (patients, students and academics). As part of this decision, a criterion was added for Gaza residents going abroad via Israel. To implement this decision, they must sign off that this is a prolonged stay of over a year abroad. The procedures for signing this commitment haven’t changed since the above criterion was added. Nevertheless, to regulate and streamline the process, it was recently decided that the signed forms should be transferred well in advance.”
Gisha said the criteria, “which Israel invented and changes when it sees fit,” are rigid, and the demand that people promise not to return for a year is immoral, illegal and inhumane.
The Civil Affairs Committee, as the PA’s representative, is so far sticking to its refusal to send requests for exit permits to the Liaison Office with a signed commitment not to go home for a year. This principled stance means requests for exit permits aren’t being processed, so people can’t go abroad. But it’s quite likely the immediate human need to travel will overcome this principled national stance, as has happened more than once in relations between the PA and Israel.