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Israeli security forces demolish a Palestinians' house in Hebron, West Bank on November 3, 2021. (Photo: Hisham K. K. Abu Shaqra/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The Danger of Israel's New Travel Restrictions in the West Bank

New Israeli restrictions on Palestinians with foreign passports are receiving condemnation from legal experts, while the Biden administration does little to defend the rights of U.S. citizens.

Michael ArriaYumna Patel

 by Mondoweiss

If a Palestinian-American wants to travel to the occupied West Bank to visit their family, they will soon need to apply to the Israeli government for advanced permission, reveal the personal information of the relatives they plan on visiting, along with data of any land they own or stand to inherit in the territory. 

And even then, they could still be denied entry for “any relevant considerations,” as so deemed by Israeli authorities. 

These are just some of the invasive restrictions that Palestinians who hold foreign passports would be subjected to according to a new ordinance published by the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Israeli government agency responsible for enforcing Israeli policy in the occupied territory. 

The new regulations are set to go into effect on July 5th. Published by COGAT earlier this year, the restrictions were initially scheduled to go into effect on May 22, but were temporarily halted by a petition to Israel’s High Court from the human rights group HaMoked.

The COGAT revisions have received strong criticism from human rights groups and legal experts, who say that they will make life even more difficult for Palestinians. The West Bank isn’t part of Israel, but the country has controlled entry to and movement within the area for decades, imposing draconian restrictions on the population. 

Ninety-seven pages worth of rules constitute the COGAT policy, which doesn’t apply to individuals visiting any of the West Bank’s many Jewish settlements. The policy refers to the area as “Judea and Samaria,” a biblical name preferred by the Israeli government.

“This is Apartheid in action,” Ahmed Abofoul, a lawyer with Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq told Mondoweiss of the new policy. 

“Say for example, an American Palestinian and American Jew come [to the West Bank] together. The Palestinian would be treated differently from the Jew,” he said. 

“It’s all part of the apartheid system. What we are seeing is representative of how Israel applies its apartheid laws to Palestinians everywhere, both in the occupied territory and abroad. Israel targets Palestinians simply for being Palestinians.”

De Facto Annexation

Human rights experts say the new restrictions laid out by COGAT are particularly dangerous due to the fact that it assumes Israeli sovereignty and jurisdiction over the entirety of the occupied West Bank. 

For years Israel has sought de jure annexation of the occupied territory, but has faced significant political pushback. But rights groups say the government has practiced de facto annexation in the West Bank for decades, as millions of Palestinians are subject to Israeli laws and policies, but enjoy no rights under the law. 

Using terminology like Judea and Samaria, for example, seeks to blur the borders and treat the occupied territory as a part of Israel. And while Israel has always controlled the borders between the West Bank and the outside world, by enacting these exhaustive new restrictions, the state is formalizing what it views as its sovereignty over the territory. 

“Israel seeks to bureaucratize its de facto control of all Palestinian land by introducing new procedures of intelligence gathering that will be employed to further dispossess Palestinians of their land and identity,” Dr. Osama Abuirshaid, Executive Director of Americans for Justice in Palestine Action (AJP Action), told Mondoweiss.

“Israeli authorities understand that – according to international law – they do not have the legal right to sovereignty over the occupied Palestinian territory. Therefore, they aim to circumvent this reality  through subversive tactics that treat Palestinian land as their own.”

“Israel is betting on the complicity of the international community through its inability – for decades – to deter violations of its legal obligations as an occupying power,” he continued. “It believes that this new violation against the Palestinians will pass after a storm in a teacup, similar to the storm that ensued regarding the American recognition of Jerusalem as its capital. The new COGAT rules are part of Israel’s broader effort to Judaize the occupied Palestinian territories and dismantle inactive and evidently ineffective international resolutions from within, one by one.”

The Rules

Are you a Palestinian with a passport from a foreign country? You’ll have to hand over the names and national ID numbers of your family if you want to travel. Planning on moving into the same apartment as your Palestinian partner? You’ll have 30 days to notify the Israeli government. Looking to study at a West Bank university? Your options will be limited to certain disciplines, assuming Israel hasn’t already filled its own student quota.

The restrictions place a cap on the amount of students and teachers allowed to attend and teach at Palestinian universities annually to 150 and 100, respectively, and limit the amount of time that visiting professors and students are allowed to remain in the West Bank. 

The rules also state that Israeli officials can determine what subjects the visiting professors would or would not be allowed to teach.

“They are determining what people can study, who can teach, and how many people can study,” Abofoul said. “And according to rules, these decisions are made ‘to the satisfaction of the authorized COGAT official’.”

“So essentially, you have one military officer deciding for a whole nation what the nature of their academia and academic institutions will look like. They will decide what subjects Palestinians can study, what professors can come or not, and what students can come from abroad to study.”

“It is a very dangerous, and flagrant form of domination,” Abofoul said. 

Abofoul pointed to what he described as the absurdity of some of the rules, including one rule which requires foreign nationals to declare any new relationships with a Palestinian to the Israeli government within 30 days of the beginning of the relationship, or risk not qualifying for residency status in the future case of marriage. 

“Such rules are very outrageous and intrusive,” Abofoul said. “It’s ridiculous that they expect you to even know what the future will hold for whatever relationship you’ll get into within 30 days of it starting.”

Abofoul said, like the other restrictions, it’s not about the relationship itself, but about the control over Palestinian lives. 

“It’s about targeting the Palestinian in the relationship, and the Palestinian nature of the relationship. We’ve seen this through family unification bans on foreign spouses of Palestinians, but this is taking it to a whole new level,” he said. 

“These rules do not apply if you’re a foreigner and want to enter a relationship with an Israeli Jew. You wouldn’t have to fill out these special forms, or apply for permits, or undergo extra procedures.”

Surveillance & Censorship

Since the new ordinance was published, Palestinians have also expressed concerns that the new procedures are part of the latest attempt by the Israeli government to ramp up surveillance of their communities. 

Israel has stepped up its surveillance of Palestinians in recent years. In November 2021 the Washington Post reported on Blue Wolf, a facial recognition system that uses smartphone technology to capture images of Palestinians and tries to match them in a database compiled by the Israeli military.

The government has also been accused of carrying out surveillance hacks on Palestinian human rights activists. 

“They not only have the power to  reject people from visiting, but they’re also collecting information on them and those they want to visit,” Abofoul told Mondoweiss, warning of the sinister implications that could come with Palestinians having to declare property that they own or stand to inherit. 

He said there is a serious concern amongst rights groups that the information collected relating to land could be used by the Israeli government in the future to confiscate privately-owned Palestinian land and turn it into state land for the use of settlements or military zones. 

“Informing about your own property and inheritance is part of Israel’s expansionist and settlement enterprise,” Abofoul said. “Israel has no intention of stopping its land confiscating and theft of private Palestinian property.”

“It happened after 1948 with the absentee property law, when Palestinians who had property but were out of the country had their land confiscated. This is the land that became Israel,” he said. 

“Now the same thing could happen in the West Bank.”

Abofoul said the the new restrictions also carry implications for Palestinian activism and international solidarity building. 

“Israel realizes that foreigner visits to the occupied territories exposes Israel’s apartheid policies, and this solidarity with Palestinians is affecting Israel on the international stage, and they don’t want this to happen,” he said. 

“With these rules, they can monitor and collect data on people coming to visit Palestinians or those who are doing solidarity work in the West Bank, which they can use in the future to  prevent people from coming back and participating in these kinds of activities,” Abofoul said. 

“It’s a way of censoring Palestinians and their supporters around the world. It will become more difficult to show the world what’s going on in Palestine,” he continued. “You can report for a million years on what’s happening, but it’s not as effective as when you come and see it in person.”. 

U.S. response

When State Department spokesman Ned Price was asked about the Biden administration’s stance on the new policy on May 2, he had very little to say. “We’re aware of the new procedures for foreigners to enter and reside in the West Bank that were recently published by Israel’s COGAT and they’re due to go into effect, as we understand,” he told reporters. “We continue to study them. We are engaging with Israeli counterparts to understand their applications and any implications of them.”

On May 27, twelve House Democrats sent Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, and Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona a letter, expressing concern about the potential impact that the new travel rules would have on academic freedom. “We remain concerned that the government of Israel maintains entry policies that discriminate against U.S. citizens based on their ethnicity, national origin, religion, and/or political viewpoint,” reads the letter, which was led by Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY). “We are aware, as is shared on the State Department’s website, that these policies disproportionately impact Palestinian Americans who are frequently subjected to humiliating and obtrusive inspection and questioning by Israeli authorities and are frequently denied the opportunity of visiting their ancestral homeland.”

The Bowman letter is just one example of a growing Democratic concern over Biden’s policy toward Israel and Palestine. In May the administration received two letters asking them to take action in the Masafer Yatta villages of the West Bank, where about 1,000 Palestinians are about to be forcibly evicted from their homes so the land can be used by the Israeli military. The more moderate of the two letters was promoted by the liberal Zionist group J Street and received 83 signatures. The second letter was led by Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) and signed by 15 progressive House members. Unlike the J Street effort it refers to the forced removal as a “war crime” and calls on the United States government to condition Israel’s military aid.

Biden has also faced pressure to launch an independent investigation into the death of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed by Israeli forces in early May. Reps. Andre Carson (D-IN) and Lou Correa (D-CA) recently led a letter, signed by almost 60 House Democrats, asking the State Department and FBI to take action.  “As Members of Congress, we are deeply concerned by the death of Ms. Abu Akleh,” it reads. “Journalists worldwide must be protected at all costs.”

One of the signatories, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), also addressed the administration’s policy toward Israel during a live Instagram feed. “We can’t even get healthcare in the United States. And we’re funding this,” she told viewers. “There has to be some sort of line that we draw, it has to stop at some point..it’s always been this political no-go zone for all parties for so long that you’re not allowed to talk about it.”

“Israel’s severe new travel restrictions are blatantly racist and dehumanizing, discriminating against Palestinian travelers in an attempt to sever their precious connection with their families and homeland,” US Campaign for Palestinian Rights Organizing and Advocacy Director Iman Abid told Mondoweiss. “As members of Congress speak up, the Biden administration must take immediate action to stop these invasive and discriminatory restrictions. Palestinian people have a right to visit and return to their homeland.”

Biden is expected to visit Israel later this month.


© 2021 Mondoweiss
Michael Arria

Michael Arria

Michael Arria is the US correspondent for Mondoweiss and the author of Medium Blue: The Politics of MSNBC.

Yumna Patel

Yumna Patel

Yumna Patel is the Palestine correspondent for Mondoweiss. You can find her on twitter @yumna_patel.

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