Among the many, complicated and vague protocols and procedures that govern (and enable) Israel’s control over millions of Palestinians, there is one that ostensibly allows Gaza residents to change their official address to the West Bank, a would-be crack in the tight closure over the Gaza Strip. It is entitled the Procedure for handling applications by Gaza Strip residents for settlement in the Judea and Samaria Area (“the settlement procedure”) and it has been in place since 2009.
In late March, Gisha received a very laconic response to a Freedom of Information request we filed in January, together with HaMoked: Center for the Defence of the Individual. The response shows (again) that even this tiny crack is, in fact, fiction, and that the procedure is effectively meant to produce a chilling effect on applications of this kind, or reject them rather than accept them. Since February 2016, only one application was reviewed under the procedure, and even this sole application, filed on behalf of two Gaza residents who are minors, was processed only after they filed a petition to the High Court of Justice.
As a matter of fact, in the eight years that have passed since the procedure was introduced, only five applications have been processed under it – all following High Court petitions.
What exceptional circumstances could allow Palestinians from Gaza to resettle in the West Bank? Security clearance is but a prerequisite. Then come the remaining, complex and convoluted criteria. They include Gaza residents suffering from chronic medical conditions that require care by a relative who lives in the West Bank; minors under 16 years of age with a parent living in the West Bank, when the parent living in the Gaza Strip has died, and; elderly people over the age of 65 who are in need of nursing care by a relative residing in the West Bank. In all of these cases, eligibility to resettle in the West Bank is predicated on the condition that no other relative, even a more distant one, who can provide the care needed resides in Gaza. Again, that’s no other relative.
The settlement procedure also includes a clause allowing for review of applications that do not fit any of these categories, but demonstrate other humanitarian circumstances that prevent the applicant from living in the Strip. The procedure clarifies that marriage to a West Bank resident, or having children with a West Bank resident do not constitute humanitarian grounds for relocation to the West Bank. Residents who do meet the narrow criteria listed in the procedure must go through a long bureaucratic process in order to obtain a permit to remain in the West Bank. The permit has to be renewed annually over the course of several years until resettlement is approved and the resident’s address is officially changed to the West Bank. Until then, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) may revoke the permit at any time.
What is the security rationale for, and where is the human compassion in, prohibiting a child who has lost a parent in Gaza from moving to live with her surviving parent in the West Bank, even if she has an aunt or cousin in the Strip? There is no security justification, only a political one – what Israeli officials call “the separation policy.” This is a policy aimed at cutting Gaza off from the West Bank and separating the two parts of the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt). Israel prefers Palestinians remain in Gaza and for as few of them as possible to remain in the West Bank. Palestinians who have lived in the West Bank for years, including those born there, are officially considered ‘illegal aliens’ if their registered address is in the Gaza Strip.
Israel continues to control the Palestinian population registry, common to the West Bank and Gaza. Israel must be updated, in both parts of the oPt, about changes to the registry like birth, marriage, divorce, and death. Changes of address require Israel’s approval. Only after receiving this approval, can the Palestinian Authority issue a valid ID card. Israel’s control over the population registry is one of the ways it controls and limits Palestinian freedom of movement. Palestinians who wish to travel through Erez Crossing or any other Israeli checkpoint or terminal, must present an Israeli-approved identity card.
The figures we received from COGAT clarify once again: the criteria set in the settlement procedure are, in fact, just another barrier that denies Gaza residents their right to freedom of movement and to normal life.