Amira Hass | Ha’aretz
13 August 2009
Israel has recently been putting up more obstacles for foreign nationals who enter the country if they have family, work, business or academic ties in the West Bank. It now restricts their movements to “the Palestinian Authority only.” The people concerned are citizens of countries that have diplomatic ties with Israel, mainly Western countries.
In imposing such restrictions, Israel is in breach of the Oslo Accords.
For about the last three months, border control officials at the Allenby Bridge have been stamping visitors’ passports with a visa and the additional words “Palestinian Authority only.” Officials from the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), who are also present at the Allenby crossing, have in some cases told visitors that they must apply to the Civil Administration for a permit to leave the West Bank and enter Israel.
According to Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Haddad, the same procedure also exists at Ben-Gurion International Airport, though Haaretz has not encountered any such cases. However, Interior Ministry officials at the airport have been known to require foreign nationals to sign a pledge that they will not enter the PA without permission from COGAT.
Officials have also warned tourists who want to visit the West Bank that the next time, they should enter via the Allenby Bridge. Haddad confirmed that anyone “entering Palestinian Authority territory should go via the Allenby Bridge.”
But the practice of restricting visitors to the PA only has not yet been applied to all visitors entering the country via the Allenby Bridge. Haddad declined to answer Haaretz’s question as to why this rule was being applied selectively and who decides on its application.
The people on whom travel restrictions have been imposed, and with whom Haaretz has spoken, include businesspeople and foreign investors, people with relatives in the West Bank, university faculty, and international development and welfare workers. All are citizens of Western countries.
“PA territory” comprises the 40 percent of the West Bank (Areas A and B) over which the PA has civilian authority. These areas are enclaves interspersed throughout Area C, which is under full Israeli control. Theoretically, therefore, these tourists may not leave one enclave for another, enter the Jordan Valley, or cross to the other side of the separation fence.
When asked whether the limitation to the “PA only” indeed referred to Areas A and B, Haddad said: “Because this issue involves an army permit, the question must be referred to the army.” The Israel Defense Forces Spokesman said the question must be referred to the Defense Ministry. A Defense Ministry spokesman initially said this question and others must be referred to COGAT, while COGAT’s spokesman said that “most of the questions” should be referred to the Interior Ministry. On Monday night, Haaretz was told that COGAT’s response would be included in the Defense Ministry’s response. However, no such response had been received by press time.
Another question that thus remains unanswered is whether legal experts in the interior and defense ministries are aware of the fact that the travel restrictions Israel is imposing are a violation of the 1995 Interim Agreement, also known as Oslo-2. The agreement states that citizens of countries that have diplomatic ties with Israel may enter the West Bank and the Gaza Strip on their Israeli visa and a valid passport.
According to Interior Ministry spokeswoman Haddad, the new procedure is based on “a 2006 decision by the interior minister and the defense minister [Roni Bar-On and Amir Peretz, respectively] that any foreign national who wants to enter the Palestinian Authority must have a permit from the army, and entry is permitted only into PA territory.” But Haddad refused Haaretz’s request for a copy of the text of the decision, and a similar request to Defense Ministry spokesman Shlomo Dror received no response at all.
In early 2006, Israel annuled a rule that had been in place for decades whereby foreign nationals – whether of Palestinian origin or not – were permitted to visit, live and work in the territories based on tourist visas that they renewed every three months. Thereafter, Israel began preventing the entry of thousands of people, including businesspeople, investors, students, university faculty and spouses of Palestinians.
Several of these people launched an international public campaign against the restrictions. Foreign embassies protested, and America’s then-secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, also voiced criticism.
As a result of the pressure, the interior and defense ministers canceled the restrictions in December 2006, and GOGAT was told to revise the procedures. However, both the text of the procedures that was sent to the PA on December 28, 2006 and a letter the Foreign Ministry sent to foreign embassies and consulates on March 5, 2007 revealed that Israel had created a new restriction: Entry to the West Bank was henceforth conditioned on “the military commander’s consent … the foreign national will be required to keep the consent form with his/her passport.”
In contrast to Haddad’s response, however, the text states that the area in question is “the West Bank,” not “PA territory.” And neither of these documents states that entry to Israel is prohibited or requires additional bureaucratic steps.
The new procedure effectively places many tourists and visitors under closure and discriminates against them compared to their compatriots who do not have relations with the Palestinian community and whose main destination is not the West Bank. (Israel has kept the number of foreign nationals it allows into Gaza to a minimum since the August 2005 disengagement.) Closure has been the permanent state of affairs in the occupied territories since January 1991, when Israel forbade Palestinians to enter its territory without a permit from the Civil Administration.