Israel to Resume Issue of Visas for Foreign NGO Workers in West Bank

Bowing to international pressure in wake of Haaretz report, Interior Min. reverses September 2009 order.

Bowing to international pressure, the Interior Ministry has announced it will resume granting work permits to foreigners working in most international non governmental organizations in the Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem.

As Haaretz reported about six weeks ago, the Interior Ministry stopped issuing work permits to non governmental organization workers as of September 2009 and told them they would have to make do with tourist visas, which do not permit employment.

Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon last week notified John Holmes, outgoing UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, of the policy reverse.

The Foreign Ministry sent a letter to the Office of the United Nations Special Coordinator saying "an inter-ministerial committee has been established to formulate a comprehensive procedure to be introduced as soon as completed."

The Interior Ministry has not started issuing the work permits yet, but ministry clerks have received the foreign nationals' visa applications, promising to issue them as soon as a "bureaucratic problem" is resolved.

The Social Affairs' director who had recommended issuing the visas has retired and no one has replaced him, holding up the process.

In addition to stopping the work permits, the ministry said the aid workers must register with the coordinator of government activities in the territories, who is subjected to the Defense Ministry, instead of with the Social Affairs Ministry, as they had done until then.

The overhaul of regulations practiced since 1967 had not been discussed with the coordinator or the defense and foreign ministries.

The change did not apply to 12 organizations that had been registered in Jordan prior to 1967. About 150 organizations operate in the territories today.

Aid organizations feared the new order was intended to prevent them from working in East Jerusalem, where working would constitute a violation of their tourist visas. They also feared the Interior Ministry's intention was to close down offices in Jerusalem, forcing them to relocate to West Bank cities, thus causing more difficulties to work in areas designated under full Israeli control and areas close to the separation fence.

They made it clear that as organizations committed to the Red Cross ethics code, they could not be subject to the Defense Ministry - which is directly in charge of the army.

The organizations complained to the diplomatic community, which protested the restrictions Israel had imposed on their workers.

Last year the Interior Ministry altered entry procedures into Israel. Foreign nationals who had family and business in the West Bank received, to their dismay, visas saying "to Palestinian Authority areas only" (i.e. not to East Jerusalem or areas under full Israeli control, which make up 60 percent of the West Bank).

Following their cries of discrimination - compared to other foreign nationals - and of the violation of previous agreements, the Interior Ministry stopped issuing these restrictive tourist visas.

Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Hadad commented: "The issue is still pending. However, as we have said before, it is being discussed and until a decision is made the previous situation will be restored."