March 21, 2017
The Procedure for handling applications by Gaza Strip residents for settlement in the Judea and Samaria Area (“the settlement procedure”) sets out the exceptional circumstances under which Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip are permitted to travel to the West Bank with the purpose of resettling there. The criteria outlined in the document 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. 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 shared 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 bureaucratic process in order to obtain a permit to remain in the West Bank. This 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.
As a matter of fact, the State of Israel requires Palestinians who have lived in the West Bank for many years, including those born there, to file an application under this procedure if their registered address is in the Gaza Strip and they wish to update it to the West Bank.
Whether a Palestinian’s address is officially registered in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip has significant impact on his/her freedom of movement. Palestinians who live in the West Bank and have officially registered West Bank addresses can obtain permits to exit the West Bank and travel to Israel or abroad, and even visit Gaza, subject to the criteria imposed by Israel. On the other hand, Palestinians living in the West Bank whose registered address is in Gaza are defined by Israel as “illegal aliens” in the West Bank. They cannot obtain permits to travel from the West Bank to Israel or abroad, are at risk of being removed to Gaza at any time, and, if they travel to Gaza to visit family, are unable to return to their homes and jobs in the West Bank.
This is why the settlement procedure, which ostensibly allows Palestinians to obtain status in the West Bank, is so important. The procedure was first published by COGAT in 2009, and an updated version was published in 2013, in response to criticism from the Supreme Court. Despite alterations, the new version still failed to comply with the court’s comments regarding the need to expand the criteria.
On January 15, 2017, Gisha and ‘Hamoked: Center for the Defence of the Individual’ filed an application (Hebrew) under the Freedom of Information Act 5758-1998, requesting information regarding implementation of the procedure during the previous year. Similar applications had been filed since the procedure was published in 2009. On March 21, 2017, COGAT replied (Hebrew). Their answer exposes alarming figures, indicating that the settlement procedure continues to function as an instrument for officially rejecting applications for settlement in the West Bank, rather than a means to approving them: the most disturbing figure in COGAT’s response was that since February 11, 2016, only one application filed under the procedure has been processed.
This sole application, regarding two minors, was processed by COGAT only once a High Court petition was filed. No applications for settlement by elderly people or chronic patients who require care from relatives in the West Bank were processed (nor were any filed).
A review of COGAT’s responses to Freedom of Information Applications from 2014 and 2016 reveals that in the eight years that have passed since the settlement procedure was published, only five applications have been processed, all following High Court petitions. Of these five, the four applications that were approved related to minors who had no relatives to care for them in Gaza. In the meantime, there are about 20,000 Palestinians who want their registered address changed to the West Bank, to reflect where they actually live.
The response provided by COGAT demonstrates, once again, that the process outlined in the settlement procedure precludes any real possibility of filing applications and having them approved. The criteria set forth in the document are so limited and stringent that it is near impossible to meet them and as such, the procedure is essentially a dead letter, defunct and ineffectual.