Report of Campaign Meeting on Entry/Re-Entry to OPT

Held at Ambassador Hotel

On 6th Sep, 2006

 

 

Introduction

Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, and the Campaign for the Right of Entry/Re-Entry to the Occupied Palestinian Territory organized a campaign meeting at the Ambassador Hotel, Jerusalem on Wednesday, Sep 6, 2006. Over 100 people attended this two hour meeting held between 3-5 p.m. Palestinian, Israeli and International participants representing different sectors along with journalists and representatives of different embassies actively engaged in the proceedings.

 

Opening Remarks

The program began with opening remarks by IPCRI co-CEO Dr. Gershon Baskin, in which he sought the collaboration of journalists, diplomats and civil society organizations in this campaign to reverse the unjust policies and practices regarding the entry and re-entry into Occupied Palestinian Territories for non-resident Palestinians who have been living in the area for years and for non-Palestinian foreign nationals who are spouses of resident Palestinians.  He shared that the official reason given to many people is that the Residency issue falls under the joint Civil Affairs Committee established within the Oslo agreement, which has not convened since the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000. 

 

Dr. Baskin noted that the Director General of Israeli Ministry of Interior was invited to attend the conference but was unable to come because of the late date of receiving the invitation just two days before the meeting.  The Director General will send an official response on this issue. He also shared that a hearing on this issue will be conducted in the Knesset Interior Affairs Committee and the Campaign committee will be invited to attend this hearing and give testimonies.

 

Sam Bahour of the Campaign Committee in his opening remarks shared that this issue affects the last remaining unit of the society, the family. The human right to have a family life is affected causing much hardship in provisions of basic human needs such as shelter, right to be with family member, children's right to be with their parents etc. Failure to take corrective measures will only add to the radicalization and make the task of restoring peace and normalization difficult.

 

Presentation by B'Tselem and HaMoked

 

Antigona Ashkar of B'Tselem began her presentation with video testimonials of two families affected by the Israeli policy and practices of denying the right to return after having traveled abroad. Children, spouses and grand parents interviewed shared the agonies and suffering that the separation brings as well as the humiliation they experience by the denial of their right to be with their family members.

 

In explaining the background of the issue she observed that the census taken after the Occupation in 1967, registered those physically present in the Population registry and children below sixteen were registered with the parent who had a Palestinian ID card. Those not registered during this time can only reside through 'family unification program'. This program was seen as a special benevolent act on part of the Israeli's and not seen as a fundamental human right. Prior to Oslo Accord, Israel was administering the registry on its own. After Oslo, it claims to have transferred the registry to the Palestinian Authority, but the reality is that the registry remains in control of the Israelis. After the 2nd Intifada, Israel froze the 'family unification program'. This resulted in breaking up the family unit and leading to single parent families with spouses, one parent living abroad as they were denied entry on their return; people who had gone for medical treatments being denied entry; people not traveling even when they need to, due to fear of being denied entry, thereby causing enormous social, economic and emotional strains.

 

According to a survey done by B'Tselem in 2005, close to 72,000 families had at least one person who had submitted family reunification requests and the dominant practice on the Israeli side is to deny such requests, which sometimes is challenged in the court by people who could afford the expenses and the high court often directs a review of the denial of request on a case by case basis. The reasons usually used for denial is 'security threat', but upon review rulings are often given based on 'humanitarian consideration' of the particular case and the government would review its decision and grant permit. She shared that on one hand the state of Israel encourages uncontrolled immigration of Jewish settlers in the Occupied Territories and on the other denies the right of the Palestinians and people who marry Palestinians to be with their families. The reviews of the cases in court indicate that security was not an issue which led to reversal of the decisions, so what seems to be the real reason for such a practice? Demographic changes seem to be the aim of such a practice she observed. It appears that the state of Israel wants to empty as many Palestinians possible from their domain, a blatantly racial policy that is in violation of international laws, norms and standards. She concluded by sharing, "While security issues must be addressed, it should not be used as an excuse for trampling on the human rights of the people Israel has occupied."

 

Bítselemís report: Israel's freeze policy on family unification in the Occupied Territories splits tens of thousands of Palestinian families can be found at:  http://www.btselem.org/english/Press_Releases/20060815.asp

 

 

Explanation of Campaign Activities

 

Anita Abdullah (a Swiss national married to a Palestinian ID holder and one of the campaign activists) shared her personal story as well as the activities of the campaign. She described the many stories of people who had been denied re-entry. The depression and humiliation Palestinians and Internationals go through as a result of being denied entry when they state genuine reasons of wanting to visit or return to their families seems to be pushing people to become liars and force people to try and find alternatives of gaining entry. This has also resulted in some Israeli and Palestinian lawyer-entrepreneurs to set up business of assisting in obtaining 2-3 week permits costing as much as $4000. She shared that since March there seems to have been an intensification of denial of permits and it may not be appropriate to approach this issue on a case by case basis. So the campaign started to get people together who have experienced these challenges and now has held meetings and decided that this issue needs to be brought to light and there is a need to review the policy leading to establishing procedures that will help addressing needs of everyone affected by such a policy.

 

Ramifications on Business

 

Zahi Khouri the chairman of National Beverage Company shared the challenges business people face due to such policies and practices of the Israeli government. Business people have to travel, but now they do not travel as much because of the fear that they may not be allowed to re-enter the country. He shared that this issue has made him furious. He shared that the international diplomats are not doing enough to address this issue. He narrated the experience of denial of re-entry of one of the diplomats and how this diplomat immediately called his home country and asked all the Israeli diplomats in his country to be put on house arrest, which lead to immediate reversal of decisions and granting him permission within minutes, to enter Israel. Drawing the attention of diplomats present he shared that merely saying that we are trying is not enough.

 

He also shared that some Israeli businessmen were willing to challenge and bend rules and laws for economic profits in working with Palestinians, yet when it comes to human rights issues of Palestinians they often retreat and say that they have to obey the country's laws and policies. He expressed that the American congress too, is not acting on this issue which affects many US citizens.

 

Speaking on effects on business, he shared that more than 75 businesses have left Gaza and are now do business in Egypt, Jordan, Uzbekistan and Nigeria. The growth rate in Occupied territories is (-30%) minus thirty percent, he shared. Economists know how much suffering people go through with a growth rate of 3-4 %, can anyone imagine how much suffering the negative growth of minus 30% can cause, he asked. There has been much capital flight from Gaza resulting in worsening the unemployment situation. The business community had brought about positive changes leading to good governance initiatives and improving the quality of the work force, but the Israeli policies and practices seem to be creating a Somalia next to Israel. If that is what Israel wants, then it is doing it well, he remarked. Both sides stand to benefit through peace and economic cooperation, but what does Israel really want, he asked. He closed the meeting with expressing the current need of historic leadership and historic decision making.

 

The US Consulate was represented by Mohammed Husseini who works for the American Citizens' Services. He shared that the many US citizens have been denied entry or re-entry and that the US consulate is keeping track of people who have been denied entry or re-entry and he requested people to keep in touch with the consulate when such denials happen. The EU representative was absent and diplomats present from the EU countries did not comment on this issue.

 

A Q&A session followed.

 

Key questions

 

How many people are denied entry or re-entry? Does Israel have a law which allows it to do this? Is there a policy that allows this dehumanizing practice? Is there enough internal reflection on Palestinian side on what is happening on their side that has contributed to the worsening of the situation? Can the Supreme Court intervene and pass a ruling on this issue? What are Israeli Activists expected to do on this issue? What is expected of the Consulates?

 

Responses

"Before Intifada there were about 50,000 requests and after Intifada there were 72,000 requests and so roughly 120,000 people are affected by this policy."

 

"There is no law on this issue and there is no need for a special law. What is happening is that the State of Israel through this policy is violating the International laws and tramples on the human rights of people. And with the collaboration of the high court it allows entry for some people when contested while the vast majority who do not have the means to contest or become tired with the bureaucracy may accept the denial and plan to live abroad. It is a policy of keeping more and more Palestinians, their family members, friends and relatives out of Palestine."

 

"It also affects the peace, human rights and humanitarian work of international organizations. A blanket reason for the denial in most cases is "Security Reasons".

 

"The security rhetoric is used by people in power in Israel to change the demography of Occupied Territories. It is also strange that when it comes to building walls, fences, barriers and checkpoints in OPT there is no consultation with the Palestinian Authority, but when it comes to Human Rights Issues, Family Unification and other such issues Israeli authorities share that Palestinian Authority is in charge and they need to be consulted. This only show that on issues of power over Palestinian people Israel takes absolute control over power, but when it comes to taking responsibility for people affected by its decisions, it refers people to the PA."

 

"The diplomatic community should not be accepting Israeli claims on security threats. Israel has to justify why so many women, mothers, grand children, business people, peace and human rights workers have been denied entry/re-entry. The diplomatic community needs to put pressure on the Israeli government to follows international norms and laws."

 

As to the policy aspect of it, Amira Hass shared that 1991 was the starting point of Palestinians of Gaza being prevented to go to West Bank or if they were found living in West Bank they would be sent back to Gaza. Prior to 1991, Palestinians did not need permits to move within the OPTs. By forcing Palestinians to have permits and then using the permits to restrict the movements of the people, and denying the rights of movement, including denial of permit for Gazan students to study in West Bank is a serious violation and effectively imprisons people.

 

Rafi Benvenisti, board member and chairman of IPCRI remarked that this does not seem like a policy decision taken at the Cabinet level, it seems more like a mid-level decision taken sometime in March, and it would be wrong to attack the Ministry of Interior. He made a suggestion of approaching the Ministry of Defense, which is most likely to have initiated changes since Mar 2006 on re-enter permits.

 

Closing Remarks

 

Gershon in his closing remarks shared that IPCRI and the Campaign Committee would continue to work on this issue and would call on Knesset members, especially the Interior Committee and bring to their attention the residency and re-entry rights of Palestinians and Internationals, and will arrange for meetings with Ministries for Interior, Defense and Foreign Affairs in to bring about policy review on this issue.

 

 

Reported by: Ramesh Prakashvelu

7th Sep, 2006


 

The Jerusalem Post Internet Edition

Diplomat: Americans can't visit families


HILARY LEILA KRIEGER, THE JERUSALEM POST

Sep. 7, 2006


Each day up to a dozen American citizens trying to reach the Palestinian territories are being barred from entering Israel, according to a US diplomatic official.

 

Muhammad Husseini of the American Citizen Services department of the US Consulate in Jerusalem said the US government had been pressing Israel on the subject but it had yet to be resolved.

 

He was speaking at an event in Jerusalem Wednesday charging Israel with abusing human rights by keeping foreigners out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

 

The Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, which organized the event, charged that the policy has effectively separated foreign spouses from their families in the West Bank and Gaza, trapped others who fear they won't be able to return should they leave, and hurt businesses that rely on Palestinian expatriates coming from abroad.

The B'Tselem human rights organization presented a report at Wednesday's event which estimated that since the year 2000, Israel has refused 120,000 family reunification requests of Palestinians who want their foreign spouses to reside with them in the West Bank or Gaza.

 

In the past, most Western spouses could get in anyway by entering on tourist visas. But B'Tselem and IPCRI said that since March, those visas have routinely been refused.

 

The move also affects Palestinian dual citizens who don't have Palestinian ID cards - which would automatically grant them entry rights - as well as foreign students, human rights workers and businessmen, according to IPCRI.

 

"This is one of the more blatantly unjust and blatantly stupid things the government has ever done," said Gershon Baskin, who co-directs IPCRI and writes a column for The Jerusalem Post. "This is a policy that cannot be sustained or continue."

Sabine Haddad, spokeswomen for the Interior Ministry's Population Registry, denied that Israel had imposed a new policy. She said any foreigner wishing to enter the West Bank and Gaza has always had to receive a visitor's permit from the IDF, but the requirement wasn't enforced.

 

"For lots of years we didn't pay much attention - not us and not the army," Haddad said. But in the past two years, she said, the IDF requested that no foreigner entering Israel in order to visit the West Bank and Gaza be given permission without first obtaining the visitor's permit. Those turned away at the border had not received the necessary permit ahead of time.

Haddad said applicants should have no problem receiving such permits if applied for in advance, but IPCRI and B'Tselem said they've become virtually impossible to obtain.

 

The IDF could not clarify whether there was any change in the issuing of such permits by press time.

 

Hanna Quffa, an American-Palestinian, said Israel was only hurting itself by making problems for people like him. Born in Bethlehem, Quffa went to an American university and received US citizenship before returning to the West Bank to open Ernst & Young's first accounting firm in Ramallah. During his time abroad, he said, he forfeited his Palestinian ID card by being out of the country for three consecutive years. Now he fears that should he leave Israel, he won't be allowed to return on his US passport.

 

"If you don't want the Hamas government, who do you want more than Palestinians who were educated in other countries, who are moderate and want to talk peace?" he asked. The more Israel makes it harder for these Palestinians to enter, he said, "the more you lose this group of people."


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