A letter from the European Union delegation to Israel on August 14, 2018 crawled slowly all the way from the EU’s offices in Ramat Gan to its destination, the Foreign Ministry’s Consular Department in Jerusalem. From hints by European diplomats in recent months, it could be concluded that they were astonished at the lack of a response. But only a few weeks ago was the Consular Department made aware of the letter, the Foreign Ministry spokesman told Haaretz on Tuesday.
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Even though almost a year has passed since the letter — officially titled Note Verbale — was sent, it’s still relevant. The issue to which it sought to draw attention continues to burn: the mountains of obstacles faced by European citizens (and not only they) who wish to stay in the West Bank and Jerusalem, some of whose stories have been reported in Haaretz.
The letter also notes the lack of transparency and the difficulty in obtaining precise information on procedures. The procedures have been both tightened and loosened a few times over the past 20 years, and were tightened again about three years ago. The lawyers for these foreign citizens have been told in recent years by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories that a new policy is in the process of being designed for the entry of foreign citizens into the West Bank (meaning to the Palestinian enclaves and not the settlements). For this reason, the State Prosecutor’s Office has repeatedly asked to postpone High Court petitions by foreign citizens and their families on the issue.
Since the matter is still relevant, the polite request by the letter’s authors to the Consular Department is also still valid: to inform "the missions in a clear, comprehensive and transparent matter of any regulations applicable to the granting of visas to European citizens for living, working or studying in Jerusalem or the West Bank."
Indeed, as Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon told Haaretz on Wednesday: “After postponements (not by the Foreign Ministry), a work meeting has been set at the Foreign Ministry next week on the issue with a number of consuls from Europe. Representatives of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories have also been invited, who will consider the issues raised there involving their areas of responsibility.”
Even before the Foreign Ministry’s response was received, the spokeswoman for the EU delegation in Israel wrote Haaretz: "The EU is closely following procedures for granting visas to European citizens living, working or studying in the occupied Palestinian territory, including by engaging with the Israeli authorities through diplomatic channels."
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Complaints keep coming
The brief note hints at an abundance of complaints by European citizens that have accumulated in its various offices. The EU Note verbale details the issues pertaining to three groups:
"1. European citizens married to Palestinians usually don’t receive long-term family-reunification visas even when they live permanently with their family in Jerusalem or the West Bank. Those married to Palestinians with permanent residency in the West Bank face difficulties in entering Israel and/or reaching the West Bank. They receive a B-2 visa with a “Judea and Samaria visit permit” stamp.
There is now also a new visa requirement: Applicants for family-reunification visas must sign a declaration stating they will not enter Israel. On occasion, applicants have also been asked to resign from their jobs before filing an application. Furthermore, whereas visas in this category were previously issued for up to one year, recent cases have often ranged between two weeks and six months.
2. European citizens, whether volunteers or those working in the West Bank including for nonprofit organizations, are also facing difficulties in obtaining visas from the Israeli authorities. lt would appear that foreign staff employed by NGOs are no longer granted B-1 work visas but rather B-2 tourist visas. In the case of these volunteers and employees, who are often taken on for longer periods, it would appear that there is an absence of transparent and easily available information on application regulations.
3. European students, including Erasmus students at Palestinian universities, have informed us that they’re not permitted to remain longer than three months because it is not possible to obtain a visa for a longer period or to renew an existing one.
The Europeans’ involvement in the matter stems from a number of obvious reasons; after all, this is about their citizens and what they experience as abuse.
Even if the EU looks on helplessly at Israel’s annexation tactics, at least declaratively it continues to see the West Bank and East Jerusalem as occupied territory where the people’s interests must be protected. One reason the Israelis often give for postponing visa approval – when a reason is given at all – is the concern about “illegally settling in Israel” while the applicants live with their families, work, study and teach in the West Bank among the Palestinians.
Israel is also breaching mutual agreements, signed or understood, between countries. Consider, for example, the Israelis working, studying and marrying in European countries and receiving visas there based on clear rules, even if they’ve become stricter. And consider the citizens of those same European countries who marry Jews or work and study at Israeli institutions. They don’t encounter such obstacles. That is, people whose destination is the Palestinian community are discriminated against, as opposed to those headed for Israel or the settlements, even though in their countries of origin they’re equal citizens.
Meanwhile, Europe is still obligated both declaratively and materially to assist in the establishment of a Palestinian state, even if its financial support has shrunk and even if the inter-Palestinian quarrels have become exhausting and predictions about the collapse of the Palestinian Authority are multiplying.
The declarative support for the idea of a Palestinian state also means practical support for various institutions; for example, the legal system, education and welfare institutions. These institutions need the assistance of experts from abroad who live in the region for extended periods, people like university lecturers, businesspeople, music and art teachers, and doctors. In the long term, the denial of work visas sabotages the work of many institutions.
One among tens of thousands
Sabrina Russo, an Italian clinical psychologist, has established a program in clinical psychology at An-Najah National University in Nablus. She also headed a center for the treatment of children with developmental disabilities that’s connected to An-Najah.
She recently founded, with others, an even larger such center in Ramallah, and will soon start teaching at Birzeit University. But Russo is also the mother of an 11-year-old Palestinian boy, from whose Palestinian father, who was born and lives in Nablus, she was divorced three years ago.
While they were still married, their request for family unification was not dealt with by the Israeli authorities (like tens of thousands of other such applications), but Russo managed with her visas and visa extensions each time for a year. When she divorced and requested a visa as the mother of a Palestinian child still a minor, she received visas valid for three months, then two and a half months, then three weeks, until she was turned down entirely in November 2017.
Russo has met eight other Italian women, also married to Palestinians, whose visas were turned down “each for a different reason.” And all of them, like Russo, asked the Italian Consulate to intervene.
When Russo realized that nothing had changed, she asked attorney Yotam Ben-Hillel for help. He began to navigate the typical bureaucratic maze of COGAT. Following Ben-Hillel’s intervention, COGAT agreed to issue Russo a three-month visa, and this on condition she deposited a guarantee of 30,000 shekels ($8,330). The COGAT representative also said that if the PA didn’t submit a request for family unification, “the matter of her residence in the region will not be arranged, and your client will be required to leave the region after this period.”
But COGAT knows that the Palestinian Civil Affairs Authority hasn't submitted family-unification requests to COGAT; PA officials have informed Palestinian applicants that COGAT doesn’t let them forward the requests. COGAT denies that this is the case.
Lawyers like Ben-Hillel say that the family-unification procedure through COGAT was frozen in 2009. COGAT denies that this is the case. But at the same time COGAT’s responses to the court and the lawyers make clear that only extraordinary humanitarian cases are being considered. Plain marriage and parenthood aren’t considered extraordinary humanitarian cases.
Shortly before Russo’s last visa expired, her mother became ill with cancer. “This was the hardest thing: to choose between your mother and your son,” Russo told Haaretz in her home in Nablus. “If I go to her, I might not be able to come back. If I stay with my son, I won’t see her and won’t be able help her and my father in this difficult time. In the end I chose my son because she told me to choose him.”
Russo says her mother had seven operations, and she managed to be with her for only two; once when the visa was still valid, and the second time — after her lawyer, Ben-Hillel, secured her departure and return. Russo missed her mother’s funeral because these exit arrangements, through correspondence with the State Prosecutor's Office — take a few weeks.
Once Ben-Hillel petitioned the High Court to grant Russo long-term visas as the mother of a Palestinian minor, she was protected from deportation. At the behest of the State Prosecutor’s Office, Russo also submitted a visa application based on her place of employment: If the request is approved, she will still receive a tourist visa, but in the Civil Administration computers she will be listed as having a work permit.
At the same time, after special efforts were made, her request for family unification was sent from the Palestinian Civil Affairs Authority to COGAT. (The latter claims now that forms are missing in the application.) Meanwhile, for a few months now, the state has repeatedly requested an extension in submitting its response to her petition.
Other foreign nationals, like Americans or Jordanians, who live with their families in the West Bank, or work and study there, can only envy Europeans who are in the same boat. At least the European representatives have asked the Israeli Foreign Ministry for clarifications and transparency, even though the 10 months that have elapsed since the note was sent, show that also for the EU the matter is not of great urgency.