Israel tightens restrictions on travel to occupied territories

It was Sandra Tamari She was traveling to a family wedding in the West Bank when security officers at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport pulled her aside. For hours, they asked her about her parents, grandparents, her employer and her past travels. They instructed her to write down the names and contact details of each person she plans to visit and made her entire email address list. Then a security officer turned the computer screen toward her and instructed her to log into her Gmail account.

That’s when I said, ‘Impossible,’ Tamari, a US citizen of Palestinian descent, told The Intercept. When she refused, she was held overnight and then deported to the US. An officer told her she was being denied entry because she posed a security threat.

While the West Bank and Gaza are occupied territories and not part of Israel, Israeli officials control access to them, monitoring the movement of anyone traveling there — and regularly denying entry to foreigners visiting the country for personal, family or professional reasons. For years, international travelers, particularly those of Palestinian descent, have been under the whims of border officials. The process was often humiliating, unexpected, and arbitrary.

Now much of this process has been codified through the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, known as COGAT, a unit of the Israeli Ministry of Defense tasked with managing civil cases in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. In a 97-page document released earlier this spring, Office for the Coordination of Government in the Territories (COGAT) officials presented a list of severe restrictions on international travel to the occupied West Bank, which they refer to as “Judea and Samaria.”

“Before that, it was kind of like Russian roulette when you arrive at an Israeli border crossing if you hold a foreign-Palestinian passport: You never know, are you going in, are you not going to get in,” said Zaha Hassan, a human rights attorney and fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, For The Intercept.” At least now you know what the rules are, and it’s all in one place. But the rules are pretty awful.”

The new rules formalize the invasive questions that have long been a reality for those who travel to the regions. Some – such as the requirement that those visiting Palestinian family members disclose a series of personal details about them – have always been the norm. But the rules also include a new list of restrictions that Palestinians in the diaspora have warned would severely limit their ability to visit their families and homeland. They include a requirement that visitors disclose details about any land they may own or expect to inherit in the areas, a limit on the number of trips one can take, and a requirement that visitors apply for a permit 45 days in advance of travel – a procedure introduced during The Covid-19 pandemic, ostensibly for public health reasons, which Israel is now seeking to make permanent.

The rules also limit the travel of non-Palestinian visitors to the territories, including limiting the number of visiting scholars and students. But it does not apply to those seeking to travel to Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which are illegal under international law but which Israel effectively treats as an extension of its territory. The rules were due to go into effect later this month, but a legal challenge by an Israeli group temporarily delayed implementation until early this summer.

While they apply to Palestinians who hold any foreign passports, as well as non-Palestinian foreigners visiting the territories from elsewhere in the world, the rules have raised particular concerns for Palestinian Americans, many of whom have long felt the US government does too much. Little to address Israel’s discriminatory policies towards them. At least two draft letters are now being circulated to lawmakers, asking US officials to address new Israeli restrictions on travel to the West Bank. A US State Department spokesperson wrote in a statement to The Intercept that officials there “continue to study the new regulations and are communicating with Israeli authorities to understand their application and encourage additional consultation with stakeholders prior to implementation.” “We seek equal treatment and freedom of travel for all citizens of the United States, regardless of their national origin or race,” the spokesperson added.

An Israeli Defense Ministry spokesperson referred questions to the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, which did not respond to a request for comment.

Critics of the US rules note that they come at a time when US officials can wield a certain influence, as Israel is currently seeking to join the US Visa Waiver Program, which allows visitors from participating countries to travel to the US for business or tourism without the need for a visa. In March, the United States and Israel signed an information-sharing agreement that brings Israel closer to agreeing to the program. The State Department spokesperson said officials are “reviewing the regulations in detail in order to determine if there is any link to the requirements of the Visa Waiver Program.” “The US government continues to work with Israel to meet all program requirements, including the granting of reciprocal benefits to all US citizens and citizens on arrival – including Palestinian Americans,” he added.

Participation in the Visa Waiver Initiative is based on reciprocity – meaning that Palestinian Americans seeking to enter Israel and the West Bank should expect the same guarantees as Israeli citizens traveling to the United States. ID cards are strictly prohibited from accessing Ben Gurion Airport and you must travel through Jordan, while other US citizens can travel through Israel.

“In the past, American citizens have complained to the State Department about discrimination, and the American response has always been that Israel has a sovereign right to exclude people it doesn’t want,” Hassan said. But the problem here is that Israel is not sovereign over the West Bank. It is occupied territory.” She added, “This is actually a moment when the United States can very well help change policies affecting Americans trying to work, study and visit in the West Bank.”

A Palestinian passes through an Israeli security barrier from Ramallah to Jerusalem on April 29, 2022, in Ramallah, West Bank.

Photo: Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Monitoring Project

OCGA rules in the new territories appear to serve multiple purposes: by discouraging travel to the West Bank, they further isolate Palestinians and seek to undermine growing global solidarity with them. It limits the ability of foreigners of Palestinian origin to maintain ties with their family and homeland. It enables the large-scale collection of personal data of anyone traveling to the territories, fueling an already underway sprawling monitoring effort that some have dubbed “Facebook for Palestinians” in Israel.

“Israel is in the process of creating this big data project, mapping Palestinian relationships, properties, and all kinds of other information,” Hassan said. “This is something they have always done. But now they want you to proactively give them this information.”

“Israel is in the process of creating this massive project of data, mapping Palestinian relationships, and properties.”

The requirement for those applying for permits to visit the West Bank to disclose details about the land they may own or inherit has sparked particular concern, evoking echoes of the “Absentees’ Property Law” under which Israel has justified the confiscation of the land of the countless Palestinians who left, fled, or were expelled forcibly during its establishment. The provisions in the new rules relate specifically to those who own property in “Area C,” a large swath of the West Bank where illegal Israeli settlements are rapidly growing.

“Maybe if you had property in Area C, you wouldn’t get into it, and maybe under Israeli military law, if a property was given up, the state could take it,” Hassan said, referring to the new travel requirement. The issue is that Israel has extended its sovereignty over the West Bank. And these COGAT rules are just an expression of that. “

Palestinian Americans and others who criticize Israeli policies have long denounced treatment such as that now codified by COGAT—to no avail.

A car passes a road sign indicating the Allenby Crossing to Jordan (in the background), in the occupied West Bank city of Jericho, on January 28, 2021. - The Allenby (King Hussein) Bridge crossing is scheduled to be closed in the evening as part of the restrictions to stop The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.  (Photo by Ahmed Karabli/AFP) (Photo by Ahmed Karabli/AFP via Getty Images)

A car passes in front of a sign indicating the Allenby (King Hussein) crossing into Jordan, in the occupied West Bank city of Jericho, January 28, 2021.

Photo: Ahmed El Gharbaly/AFP via Getty Images

when she was tamari Held at Ben Gurion Airport, she was allowed to contact the US embassy. She remembered that the employee who answered the Citizens Services line immediately asked her, “Are you Jewish?” When she said she was Palestinian, the employee told her, “There’s really nothing we can do for you,” she said.

The issue is that Israel has extended its sovereignty over the West Bank. And these COGAT rules are just an expression of that. “

After returning to the United States, Tamari spoke with her representative in Congress, she and her supporters submitted a petition to the State Department and met with officials involved in consular services in Israel. “None of the information we gave them came as a surprise,” she told The Intercept. “I don’t think there is any motive on the part of the United States to protect the Palestinians.”

The failed trip was Tamari’s last attempt to visit her family’s homeland: “I’ve missed a whole generation of cousins ​​I haven’t met,” she said.

Her plight is unheard of for Palestinian foreign passport holders who are regularly rejected by Israeli officials. “There are hundreds and hundreds of accounts of Palestinians who hold American passports and are denied entry,” Tamari said. “Separating families is part of the Israeli weapon against the Palestinians, and it is unfortunately very painful and painful.”

So far, few US lawmakers have been willing to criticize Israel’s treatment of even American citizens.

“We know that Congress has the ability to really influence these kinds of decisions, especially because at this point, there are a large number of Palestinians in the United States who will be directly affected by this,” said Iman Abed Thompson, national director of advocacy and organization for the American Campaign for Human Rights. Palestinians, he told The Intercept.

“If there’s a silver lining to look at here, it’s the fact that we are now able to literally see what we’ve said,” she added. “The United States can look beyond it, if it so chooses, as it has already done, or it can in fact see what the Palestinians have been saying for decades.”

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