The bureaucracy developed by Israel to control the Palestinian population living under occupation puts millions of people at the mercy of decisions made by Israeli military authorities and security agencies. It is an invisible, insidious system which permeates every aspect of day-to-day life, yet it rarely, if ever, makes headlines or captures public attention.
Under the permit regime, Palestinians in Gaza are only eligible to apply for a travel permit in a rigid and narrow set of circumstances; Israel’s criteria are purposefully strict so as to deprive the vast majority of the population from even being considered for travel. Under the rubric of what it calls “exceptional humanitarian circumstances,” Israel allows residents of Gaza to apply for travel to visit first-degree relatives only if they are dying, have died, or are getting married. Israel also accepts applications to travel for studies abroad, to receive life-saving medical treatment that is not available in Gaza, for a limited number of traders and businesspeople, and recently also for manual labor in agriculture and construction in Israel, among a few others.
Yet even for the few who do meet the criteria, the application process is a labyrinth of bureaucracy and often leads nowhere. The Israeli authorities routinely fail to answer applications, sometimes answering at the very last minute or even after the requested date of travel has passed. Thousands of permit applicants are placed under “security blocks” that turn out to be arbitrary and baseless. The Israeli authorities frequently exploit applicants’ desperation to extort information about neighbors or relatives. They compel those among the applicants who have registered addresses in the West Bank, particularly women, to give up their status in the West Bank, a practice that constitutes “forcible transfer,” a war crime under international law.
These practices, and others, are part of a system used by Israel to deny Palestinians their right to freedom of movement, and with it, their ability to make choices and control their own lives.
In a collection of testimonies published by Breaking the Silence, Israeli soldiers who served in the unit of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), either under the Civil Administration in the West Bank or in the Coordination and Liaison Administration (CLA) in Gaza share their perspective as enforcers of the permit regime. The violence towards and contempt for the people whose future depends on their response are unmistakable, as is the way Israel’s control over access is used as a means of pressure and punishment, with systematic evasion of responsibility for the consequences for the well-being of millions of people.
A., S., M., and K., are four Palestinians who needed to travel to or from Gaza to fulfill basic, pressing needs. We share their testimonies to offer a glimpse into the other side of the story, from the perspective of those who are directly harmed by the conduct of the Israeli authorities and the bureaucratic violence they routinely inflict.
He told me, “We’ll let you visit your family on one condition: You and your children have to give up your West Bank address”
Israel bans family reunification for Palestinians from Gaza in Israel and the West Bank. A., a 28-year-old Palestinian woman, was born in the West Bank and moved to Gaza eight years ago after marrying a resident of the Strip. A permit application she submitted in late 2021 to travel to the West Bank with her two young children to visit her mother, who was sick, received no response from Israel. Following Gisha’s inquiries, A. was told her travel was denied due to a “security block.” Gisha petitioned the court on her behalf, the “security block” was lifted, and her exit was approved. When A. arrived at Erez Crossing with her children on the day she was due to exit, however, an Israeli official at the crossing said her travel was conditioned on her signing a document stating that she was effectively waiving her status as a West Bank resident and with it, her right to live in the West Bank in the future. This practice by Israeli authorities, which Gisha has seen applied in other cases as well, may amount to ‘forcible transfer,’ which is strictly prohibited under international law.
With Gisha’s help, A. was able to travel through Erez Crossing to the West Bank without giving up her residency there. A permit application she filed recently to travel out of Gaza for her sister’s wedding in the West Bank received no response from Israeli authorities.
I’ve wanted to visit my family for a really long time. I have a right to visit them and see them. When I went to the Palestinian Civil Affairs Committee [a Palestinian Authority-run body in Gaza that channels permit applications by Gaza residents to the Israeli authorities], they told me I couldn’t file an application to visit my family ‘without a reason,’ and that I needed written proof that there was a ‘special event.’ In November 2021, my mother wasn’t feeling well. She was in hospital. She has heart disease. It was considered an ‘event,’ so I thought they’d let me see her. I filed an application to visit her, but I didn’t get an answer even though I sent medical documents proving that she was sick and hospitalized. I filed another application, and you [Gisha] came into the picture too, vis-à-vis the Israelis, and then my permit was refused and they said I had a ‘security block.’ I was very surprised. What’s the reason? Is it a crime that I want to see my family who I’d lived with for 21 years? Isn’t it enough that we live in different cities? I haven’t seen them in five years
And then we submitted a petition against the denial of your permit on the grounds of a ‘security block.’
The Civil Affairs Committee told me [that the Israelis said] I had to go through a security interview to know why the application was denied. I went there [to the Israeli side of Erez Crossing], totally confident, because I know there’s nothing; why would there be a security block on me? I told myself, I’m going there; I’m not afraid; it’s just an excuse to stop me from seeing my family. I left at 6:30 A.M. and waited until 3:00 P.M. to be let in for an interview. I just kept waiting and waiting. And when you’re alone, waiting, you start to get frustrated. When I went in, I don’t know; it’s scary. They didn’t even bring me into a room. Four stood around me – the commander who interrogated me, and there was an assistant [female] with him and two soldiers. I didn’t even have anywhere to sit. I insisted and told them I had nothing. I told them I wanted a chair, that I couldn’t stand. They asked me a lot of questions, and I wanted to know why they say ‘security denial.’ Is it a crime for me to want to visit my sick mother? That I’m worried about my relatives and that I miss them? After that, they told me, ‘You can go. We’ll make a decision in two weeks whether you may visit your family or not.’ God only knows what a hassle they gave me.
In the end, they approved your request. What happened at the crossing?
Yes, it was in January. They [Palestinian Civil Affairs Committee officials] called and said I had coordination to cross at Erez. I understood that I’d be allowed to go visit. I was very happy. But when I got to the crossing, there were a lot of people, and I watched everyone go through except me. And my kids who were with me were driving me nuts too; you know what it’s like when you’re alone with kids. Then the commander came and told me: ‘we’ll let you visit your family on one condition: you and your children have to give up your West Bank registered address and register it in Gaza.’ I asked him why and he answered, ‘that’s the law.’ You have to understand, I was exhausted. I’d been at the crossing since 9:00 A.M. and they didn’t call me until 4:30 P.M. to tell me ‘You have to go back to Gaza and do it’ [make an application for a change of address and come back tomorrow]. The permit I was given was only for five days, and so I’d already lost one. It was cold too, and it was really tough for my kids. So after all this hassle to get here, when I’m thinking I’m going out for a visit with my children, you want to have me sign I’m changing my address? I told the commander no; I couldn’t go back. So he told me, ‘okay, we’ll let you pass, but on condition you don’t come back to Gaza.’ I thought, I do really miss my parents and want to visit them, but I also have to go back home [to Gaza] after, where my life is. So he said, ‘then do the change [of address] when you’re in Hebron, and then you can go back to Gaza.’ I went along with it. I told myself, that the main thing is that I can go to the West Bank and see the family, and God is great. I’m grateful you [Gisha] helped me visit my family without these conditions, and that I could get to my parents and then go back to Gaza without changing my address. It is my right, but you do need someone to help you and stand by your side.
How was it to see your family?
It wasn’t enough. They barely gave me four days, and with all the trouble they gave me. We didn’t have the reunion I would have wanted. I hoped they’d let me go to my sister’s wedding with my children. It was supposed to be in April, but because my application wasn’t answered, my family decided to put it off for another month to see if we could make it too. I waited until the last minute, maybe an answer would come. It didn’t, and so, very regrettably, my children and I missed another chance to see our relatives for a few days and celebrate with them.
My application to enter Gaza to mourn my brother when he died was denied because the death certificate said ‘State of Palestine’
In early 2022, S., a 72-year-old Palestinian citizen of Israel, asked to enter the Gaza Strip to mourn her late elderly brother. When her request went unanswered, Gisha contacted the Gaza CLA on her behalf. The CLA responded laconically, stating that “the documents are insufficient.” This kind of response from Israeli authorities, without further explanation, is common, leaving the applicant hanging. In several instances, we discovered that the reason the authorities found the documents insufficient was because the documents attached to the request, such as medical reports or death certificates, bore the stamp ‘State of Palestine.’ Such was the case with S. After the words ‘State of Palestine’ were blacked out, Israel approved her application.
I’m originally from Gaza. Until my visit there in February, I hadn’t seen my family in 15 years. My parents and three brothers lived in Gaza. Now one last brother remains there with his children, and that’s it. I tried many times to visit without success. My daughter has filed an application to enter for me before, and my nephews [in Gaza] also filed applications for me, but they weren’t approved. In January , my second brother passed away and… you know what happened. I wanted to visit him before he died. He was very sick. I asked, but I didn’t get an answer. After he passed away, I asked again, and again I didn’t get [an answer]. You helped me, and then I managed to come for a short visit to his grave. I didn’t manage to see my mother or sister before they died either. My applications weren’t answered. [My family in the Strip] didn’t tell me when they died so I wouldn’t be sad.
Did you receive an explanation as to why you didn’t get the permit?
I understood from you that my application to enter Gaza to take part in mourning over my brother who died was denied because the death certificate said ‘State of Palestine.’ They don’t want it [to say that], but what does that have to do with me? Why? We want peace, don’t we? So I thought it was denied, and that was that, and it was very hard for me. I was very sad. After you helped me, I got a permit in February and went into Gaza, and so I managed to visit my third brother, the last who’s still alive. My family in Gaza would tell me, ‘You’ll manage to come only after he [the third brother] dies.’ It’s turned into this sad joke.
How was the visit?
I didn’t have trouble coming in now. My son came with me to [Erez] Crossing to help me. They [the Israelis] took his ID card and let him stay with me until I went over [to the Palestinian side of the crossing], and then he went home. On the other side of Erez, I got help too. I was asked why I came, and I told them, ‘My brother passed away,’ and I was helped all the way to the car, so it was easy for me. I wish it was always like that and things get better. Someone from Lod came to visit me on Friday and said they were going to open up access to Gaza, and we could all visit. I told her if only, what good news, but she said that not for everyone, just old folks, like us. Unfortunately, it’s just rumors, just talk. I wish it was the case. I would very much like to travel to Gaza again, but under happy circumstances, God willing. It was important for me to visit. I hadn’t been there for so long, and everything looked different. It took me a long time to find my mother’s grave and my sister’s. I was there just for the few days they gave me. I was very sad I couldn’t see them before they died. I don’t know why they didn’t let me. I’d always send applications and get no answer.
Why did they take my permit?! I don’t get it. I returned home, went straight to bed and didn’t get up for four days
M., 58, is a plasterer by profession and a father to six adult children. In late 2014, following Operation Protective Edge, Israel began granting more “trader” permits to exit Gaza, turning a blind eye to the fact that many with these permits used them to access manual labor jobs in Israel. In August 2021, Israel reinstated the permits after cancelling them in March 2020. M., who had received several permits in the past, was notified he’d been approved for a renewal, but when he got to the Israeli side of the crossing, the permit was taken from him by Israeli officials, citing an inexplicable ‘security ban.’ The same thing then happened three more times, a permit was granted and then taken away at the crossing. A petition recently filed by Gisha on M.’s behalf was unsuccessful and the ban remains in place. The state claimed that the successive permit approvals were granted in error.
I started working in Israel 45 years ago, when I was 13. I’d go back to Gaza only on holidays. When there’s no work in construction, I try to find some in the corn fields, and when there’s no option to go to Israel, I work growing corn in the Gaza Strip. I can’t read or write at all, but I did learn Hebrew, and I speak Hebrew really well. In late 2018, I heard that it was possible to exit Gaza again, with a merchant permit. That’s what everyone did. In January 2019, I applied for a permit too. Nine days later, I got the approval and a permit for a month, and then I asked again, and it was renewed. That happened four or five times. I worked in Israel for almost a year, and then COVID happened, and Israel prohibited exit. I made an application to renew the permit in February 2021. It was approved in August. I’m responsible for providing for the family and helping my children and their families. None of them can find work in Gaza, including my sons’ spouses, who are university graduates. After waiting in Gaza to return to work in Israel for a year and a half, I started preparing myself to go, but Israel won’t let me.
You got a permit to work in Israel. What do you mean it won’t let you go?
When I got to Erez Crossing [in August 2021], the officer told me to go back, sit and wait. After I had waited for two hours, she told me my permit was denied because of a security ban. I was very surprised. What do I have to do with security stuff?! I’ve never had problems. I’ve never fought with anyone or hurt anyone. Why did they take my permit?! I don’t get it. I returned home, went straight to bed and didn’t get up for four days. I suffered from an increased heart rate, gallbladder stones, and other problems. After a while, I got a little better, and I went to the Palestinian Civil Affairs Committee [the Palestinian Authority agency in Gaza entrusted with forwarding permit applications to the Israeli side]. They checked and told me there was no ban, and I should file another permit application. Two months later, I got the approval for another permit. I went to Erez Crossing in November , and again the officer told me my permit was denied. At the beginning of the year , I got another permit, valid for six months. I went to Erez Crossing again, but for the third time, my permit was denied. I was exhausted by this point. I contacted [Gisha], and like you recommended, I made a new application. Two and a half months later, I got a permit, and you checked with the Israeli side if they’d let me out with this permit this time. A few weeks later, you received the response that the permit was good and active, but in late April , I came to the crossing and again, for the fourth time! It was taken away. That time, I refused to leave until they told me why.
What happened then?
I demanded to see the ISA [Israel Security Agency] man. He came after four and a half hours. I asked him what the reason was that I kept being given permits, and then they were taken away. He told me, ‘You’re a good man with a good heart. There’s nothing on you. The problem is the people around you.’ I asked what he meant, my kids? He said they had nothing to do with it. I asked if I had been somewhere I shouldn’t have, maybe I’d spoken to someone by accident. He said no. He asked why my youngest hadn’t gotten married yet. I told him the truth, that I don’t have the money to help him, I don’t. He said he hoped the coming days would be better, that he didn’t have anything specific on me, that he might check with the commander in charge of my area. You see, it’s like having a neighbor who’s accused of auto theft, and because he’s your neighbor, you’re accused too! It took all day. I was there [Erez Crossing] from 6:30 A.M. to 4:00 P.M., and only then went home, totally disheartened.
The problem is the lack of certainty. It’s a state of constant worry
K. is a mental health expert and a father of four. He travelled to and from Gaza several times while completing a Ph.D. in psychology at a university abroad. Israel does not allow Palestinians to fly via its international airport and will only allow Gaza residents to travel abroad in rare cases, via Erez Crossing and Allenby Bridge into Jordan. Two and a half years ago, K. traveled to take an exam to complete his Ph.D. but was stranded abroad for seven months due to the “coronavirus closure” Israel was enforcing at Erez Crossing, well after it had removed internal restrictions on movement. Between May and November 2020, the Palestinian Authority froze coordination with Israel in protest over its declared intentions of formally annexing parts of the West Bank. Israel used this as an excuse to further evade responsibility for enabling travel. Following a petition submitted by Gisha on his behalf, K. was eventually allowed to return to his home and family in Gaza. His testimony describes some of the hurdles involved in the process of applying for travel and traveling between Erez Crossing and Allenby Bridge Crossing.
Two and a half years ago, I went to university abroad for the last stages of my Ph.D. Countless interrelated details had to line up for the journey to be successful. It’s a whole package. Everything is connected to everything else, and each tiny component is a gamble. You don’t know if you’ll win or if the package will fall apart. You’re dependent on Israel’s bureaucracy, and everything else flows from that. For instance, you have to attach an airline ticket valid for the requested day of passage or up to two days after it to your application. If no answer comes, you’ll have to update your documents again to file another application and wait for an answer, and then you have to change the flight accordingly and pay for the ticket change. If Israel shuts down the crossing, like it did during the pandemic, you have to wait for its decision to open up and start the whole application process over again, with everything that entails.
Until there’s Israeli approval to pass through Erez [Crossing] to travel to the Palestinian crossing, Allenby Bridge [in order to reach the airport in Amman], you’re constantly stressed, asking yourself what date to push the flight to and hoping you won’t have to change it more than once. It costs money. The problem is the lack of certainty. It’s a state of constant worry. There is financial strain, mental fatigue, you can’t make your own schedule, and you have no choice. You don’t know when exactly you’ll be able to say goodbye to people, to the family, until the last minute. All day, you’re preoccupied with waiting, and you’re considered a lucky one because not everyone can file an application to exit [with Israel]. And you can’t say, okay, I’ll travel through Rafah, because you have to put your name on the waiting list for that, and you’ll only know if you’re really going to get across on the day of travel. And even if you do, the journey [to the airport in Cairo] is difficult and takes two or three days.
Tell me about the journey itself, about Erez Crossing.
The problems start even before, with packing, especially when traveling for a long time, like several weeks or months. You can’t enter Erez [Crossing] with trolleys or hard-sided luggage. You’re only allowed fabric bags. You’re not allowed to take perfume, shampoo, deodorant, etc. You’re supposed to get to your destination and buy everything there again. It’s a tiring process, and again, there’s a cost. About three years ago, I left my laptop at home, because you’re not allowed to go through Erez with a laptop and bought a new one when I got to Jordan. Last time, I was allowed to go with a laptop thanks to special arrangements, so I got by. Returning to Gaza is its own procedure. You have to make sure that the date of return to Jordan falls on the days of the shuttle [a direct shuttle that transports Palestinians between Allenby Bridge and Erez Crossing.]. I had an airline ticket for a Saturday, but the Civilian Affairs Committee [a Palestinian Authority agency entrusted with forwarding travel applications by Gaza residents to the Israeli authorities] told me I wouldn’t be able to go to Allenby Bridge from Jordan the next day like I wanted to, because you’re only allowed to pass on a day there’s a shuttle, which was Monday. Jordan is expensive, and I made the calculation that paying for food, a hotel, transportation, and everything I needed would cost three times more than putting off the flight, so I preferred paying for the flight change. You have to take the shuttle into account too. If you have no one to share it with, it can cost up to 1,000 ILS.
You had to give up your residency abroad because of the Israeli rules.
Yes, unfortunately. I had [residency], but when I was at Erez Crossing, a soldier told me that if I had residency, I had to sign that I wouldn’t come home [to the Strip] for six months. It used to be a year. So, I gave up [residency] to avoid making that commitment. I still got stuck [abroad] for a long time after I finished the degree because Israel shut down Erez Crossing during the pandemic, and there was a no coordination [between Israel and the Palestinian Authority] too. There was no way to get advance approval from Israel to enter Allenby Bridge from Jordan, and without it, I couldn’t land in Jordan. I didn’t manage to get home until October, and that was thanks to the petition you had filed back in July. That’s how I missed my daughter’s seventh birthday, even though I had planned to return long before specifically to make it. I prepared her in advance for the possibility of a disappointment, but I still hoped I’d be able to surprise her and come. It was very painful for both of us.
To read more testimonies from Israelis who served in the unit of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), in the Civil Administration in the West Bank, and in the Coordination and Liaison Administration (CLA), see the collection published by Breaking the Silence.
Bureaucratic violence (page 27)
She had to go back to Gaza (page 30)
Hang up on them (page 46)
Waiting for Shin Bet approval (page 72)
Strips of control (page 57)