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1.11.2013

Israel continues to pursue its policy of separation between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip: the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories presents a revised procedure for the passage of Palestinians from Gaza to the West Bank for the purpose of relocation, which proves to be no less draconian than the original procedure

The West Bank and the Gaza Strip are two parts of a single integral entity. Palestinians from both areas share the same national identity, language and history, and their lives continue to be interwoven, through ties of family, culture and economy. Israel itself has recognized this integral unity, entrenched in the Interim Agreement it signed with the Palestinian Authority (the Oslo Accord). Despite that, for over a decade, Israel has been implementing a policy of separation between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, aiming to sever the ties between their residents.

As part of its policy, Israel has stopped updating the addresses of those who have moved from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank in its copy of the Palestinian population registry. In 2007, Israel began treating Palestinians who live in the West Bank but are listed in a Gaza address in the registry, as "illegal aliens" in the West Bank (!), unless they have a military stay permit. Accordingly, the military began forcibly transferring Palestinians from their West Bank homes to Gaza, based on their incorrect address listing in the population registry. Moreover, in 2009, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) published a procedure which almost completely prevented the possibility of moving from the Gaza Strip to set up home in the West Bank. According to the procedure, Palestinians from Gaza would only be allowed to "settle" in the West Bank in extreme and extraordinary humanitarian cases, provided they meet a list of very rigid prerequisites.

In 2010, HaMoked filed two general petitions to the High Court of Justice (HCJ) against Israel's policy designed to split and separate between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Although the petitions focused on different issues, the court decided to consider them jointly. 

In the first petition, HaMoked demanded that the procedure on the relocation of Gaza residents to the West Bank, "the settlement procedure" in military parlance, be revoked on the grounds that it was unlawful, and had a devastating impact on Palestinians' right to family life. HaMoked asserted that the procedure rendered the term "humanitarian" meaningless by establishing that the ties between children and parents and between couples do not justify allowing relocation from Gaza to the West Bank. HaMoked also stressed that the procedure was just another component in the one-way policy Israel implements through placing a string of near-impassable obstacles in the path for permission to relocate from Gaza to the West Bank; while at the same time, applying heavy pressure on Palestinians from the West Bank to leave their homes and "settle" in Gaza as a condition for exercising their right to family life. 

In the other petition, HaMoked demanded that Israel be instructed to resume updating its copy of the Palestinian population registry to reflect reality, and to stop forcibly transferring Palestinians from the West Bank to Gaza based on the intentionally incorrect listing of their address. HaMoked argued that in violating the right to choose one's place of residence in one's own country, Israel was violating both Israeli and international law. 

In the judgment issued on May 24, 2012, the court dismissed the petition against the procedure regarding the "settlement" of Gaza residents in the West Bank, finding no cause to intervene in the Israeli policy. However, the court determined that the military should exercise discretion and broaden the criteria for relocation. The justices ruled that restricting relocation to "humanitarian exceptions" only – children who have lost a parent, the chronically-ill and elderly people requiring constant care, provided they have no relative in Gaza to look after them – was overly rigid. The court was also critical of the provision in the procedure whereby family ties, even of the first degree, did not constitute an independent humanitarian justification for relocation to the West Bank, and held that applications for relocation due to marriage should not be automatically dismissed, and that each application should be examined on its merits with consideration for the entire circumstances relating to the couple. In view of the court's criticism, the state undertook to revise the procedure.

In the other petition, regarding the updating of addresses in the Israeli copy of the Palestinian registry so it would reflect reality, the court issued an order nisi, instructing the state to explain why it should not apply its policy not to expel to Gaza Palestinians who had moved to the West Bank before October 2000 – also to Palestinians who had moved to the West Bank before the disengagement plan of September 2005. This, after the justices examined the figures presented by the military, indicating that tens of thousands of Palestinians were living in the West Bank with a registered Gaza address. 

In its submission of October 23, 2012, the state accepted the court's suggestion as expressed in the order nisi, and announced that henceforth, every Palestinian who relocated to the West Bank prior to September 2009 and was still registered in a Gaza address would not be forcibly transferred to Gaza. However, HaMoked insisted that the state should satisfy the second remedy sought in the petition and update the addresses of these individuals in its copy of the population registry – stressing that the incorrect registration had additional repercussions for their lives, aside from the threat of deportation. Thus, for example, people whose address in military records was listed in Gaza, were being detained and questioned whenever they had to cross one of the numerous checkpoints scattered throughout the West Bank; if they wished to travel abroad, they had to submit a special request proving a "humanitarian need" for departure, and another request for the military to permit their return to the West Bank. 

In the hearing of April, 2013, the court clarified it would not grant this remedy, and recommended instead, that in the revised "settlement procedure", the state would consider easing the process for Palestinians who had moved prior to the "effective date" of September 2005, and request to have their address corrected to reflect reality. Consequently, HaMoked withdrew the petition while reserving the right to present its case once more, after publication of the revised procedure. 

In August 2013, the COGAT published the revised procedure. A careful reading of the procedure reveals that, contrary to the court's instructions in the judgment, the amendments made to the procedure are superficial and minor at best.

So, for example, according to the new procedure, children who have lost a parent in the Gaza Strip and wish to live with the other parent in the West Bank, are no longer required to prove that there is no other relatives in the Gaza Strip who are able to take them under their wings as a condition for their application's approval. On the face of it, the amendment seems to be intended to improve the situation of children in this category, but there is a fly in the ointment: The procedure goes on to say: "On this matter the nature and scope of the relationship with other relatives in the Gaza Strip will be examined".  This clause allows military officials to interfere with the autonomy of families in the OPT, and decide the fate of children as if they were social workers, psychologists or welfare officials. The clause takes the concept of the "child's best interest" out of  the equation. Needless to say, this stands in stark contrast to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Israel has signed and is bound to uphold.

Moreover, in what purports to be a revision of the clause that allows the COGAT to deviate from the procedure's stern criteria, the state added various qualifications and definitions, leaving it practically unchanged. Thus, the clause reiterates that "marriage or parenthood of shared children will not, as the sole grounds, be considered exceptional humanitarian circumstances warranting settlement [in the West Bank]". The only notable difference is that in cases of exceptional humanitarian circumstances, relocation applications of second-degree relatives would also be considered, rather than just those of first degree relatives. 

It now appears that the state's commitment to address the issue of Palestinians who relocated prior to September 2005 and seek to correct their address in the registry to reflect reality – was nothing but empty words. In such cases, the revised procedure only allows for applicants to request the accelerated approval of their application for relocation and address change: under the previous procedure, Gaza residents whose relocation to the West Bank was approved, had to remain in the West Bank by virtue of renewable stay-permits for a period of seven years before they could request to change their registered address; under the revised procedure, Palestinians who are already living in the West Bank, are allowed to request a shorter waiting period – provided they have been in possession of West Bank stay permits for at least three years. This directive –supposedly meant to ease the process for those who are already living in the West Bank and seek to correct their registered address – in fact presents them as offenders who must obtain a permit in order to remain in their homes.

HaMoked once again recalls – Israel itself has recognized the integral unity of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Therefore, it is inconceivable that a Palestinian, who lives in an integral part of his or her own country, would have to undergo a process which largely corresponds to a process of immigration, before COGAT decides whether to acknowledge the "legality" of that person's presence in his or her home and land.


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