Two HCJ petitions filed on behalf of Palestinians whose applications for inclusion in the change-of-address gesture have not been answered. HCJ 5939/13 Walid ‘Aqel v. Minister of Defense; HCJ 5934/13 Nahed Abu Mater v. Defense Minister
On February 4, 2011, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced a series of gestures toward the Palestinians. The gestures included, among other things, approving a change of address from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank for 5,000 Palestinians who moved to the West Bank before 2008 but could not change their registered address due to Israel’s 2000 freeze on changes of address from Gaza to the West Bank. The change-of-address issue has an enormous impact on almost every aspect of everyday life for these residents. Since army officials are instructed to rely on the population registry, Palestinians living in the West Bank but registered with Gaza addresses are routinely detained at checkpoints and face many other bureaucratic obstacles because of their outdated address. Since the gesture was announced, a few lists of about 3,000 names of people whose address was changed have been published. None of them contained the names of the two petitioners.
The two petitioners have been living in the West Bank since the 1990s, but their registered address is still in the Gaza Strip. Although both meet the criteria for the change of address as part of the gesture, and both filed applications for a change of address with the Palestinian Authority in early 2011, they have received no response to date. All attempts made by Gisha to find out why the petitioners’ addresses had not been changed have been met with no response as well. Instead of stating whether their applications had been received, approved or denied by Israel, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) – which decides on such applications – has avoided providing an answer by referring the petitioners to the Palestinian Authority (Hebrew). When the petitioners contacted the Palestinian Authority, they were told that the applications were stuck on the Israeli side and no answer had yet been given.
Applications filed under the Freedom of Information Act 5758-1998 to inquire after the status of the petitioners’ applications have come up empty. COGAT rejected these applications on the odd claim that revealing information about the individual applications made by the petitioners would damage Israel’s foreign relations (Hebrew).
Therefore, on September 1, 2013, two separate petitions were filed with the Supreme Court sitting as the High Court of Justice. The court was asked to instruct the authorities to explain why they should not respond to the petitioners’ applications and change their addresses as requested. The legal arguments presented in detail in the petition are based on the obligation of an administrative authority to respond to applications it receives. This obligation has long since been entrenched in both law and Supreme Court rulings and it must be fully complied with even when the applications concern a political gesture. The arguments were supported with examples from Supreme Court judgments regarding the clear distinction that must be made between the political and the procedural aspects of political gestures. For example, while the state does not have an obligation to approve all change-of-address applications, it still, as would any administrative authority, has a duty to respond to them.
Gisha also argued that the authorities’ refusal to respond to the petitioners is arbitrary. As a matter of practice, all applications made by Palestinians to Israeli authorities are submitted through Palestinian Authority representatives, and this does not prevent the Israeli authorities from responding to inquires made by residents, via counsel, about the processing of their requests. It is unclear why in these particular two cases, the authorities decided to refuse to answer and to instead refer the petitioners to the Palestinian Authority, which is nothing more than a channel for notifying applicants of Israeli approval.
Another claim made in the petitions is that the authorities’ refusal to provide answers violates the petitioners’ rights to due process and to counsel, when their future is unclear. Their rights to family life, freedom of movement and freedom of occupation are also curtailed as a result of the restrictions they experience as a result of the refusal to change their registered address to reflect where they actually live.
To read the petitions: