New Israeli rules on foreigners visiting West Bank stir outrage

Critics say the policy aims to restrict and track the travel of foreign nationals and control the Palestinian population.

Israeli soldiers stand guard near the entrance to Allenby Bridge, a crossing point between Jordan and the occupied West Bank, near Jericho
New Israeli restrictions on foreigners entering the West Bank have caused controversy [File: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters]

Palestinian legal experts, academics and digital rights groups have expressed outrage over an incoming Israeli policy for the entry and residence of foreigners in the occupied West Bank, which they say further complicates the rules of movement, and adds restrictions to an already convoluted system.

The 97-page ordinance, called Procedure for Entry and Residence for Foreigners in Judea and Samaria Area (PDF), replaces the current four-page document. Judea and Samaria is the term the Israeli government uses to refer to the West Bank.

The policy has more expansive entry rules, which some legal experts say is an attempt to restrict and track the travel of foreign nationals to the occupied Palestinian territories, control Palestinian population growth and keep data on the land claims of Palestinians holding foreign nationalities.

The new rules, set to come into effect on May 22, were published in February but received little attention at the time.

The regulations treat the West Bank as an integral part of Israel, using terms such as travel to “Judea and Samaria” or the “Area”. They also stipulate entry to Israel for the purpose of “transit” to the West Bank.

The rules also further complicate and formalise written and unwritten entry restrictions for foreigners wishing to visit, do business, reunite and reside with their Palestinian families, work or volunteer in the West Bank, or study or teach at Palestinian academic institutions.

Foreign-passport holding Palestinians must provide information – for visa purposes – on an application for approval prior to travel, which includes the names and national ID numbers of “first-degree” relatives, or other non-relatives with whom they may stay or visit.

Digital rights experts say that personal information on travellers and their families and acquaintances is likely to be used in Israel’s mass surveillance and data collection efforts.

“It’s a surveillance exercise,” said Marwa Fatafta, a Palestinian digital rights expert and Al Shabaka policy analyst. “With the new policy, Israeli authorities want to map out the social circles and property of Palestinians who live abroad with foreign passports.”

“The entire identification system is built to control the most two crucial aspects of Palestine: people and land. Now, in a way, it will also apply to Palestinians with ties to the West Bank,” she told Al Jazeera.

Palestinians with foreign passports must also state whether they own property or stand to inherit some in the West Bank. No reasons are given as to why this information is necessary in order to process an entry application.

As per the new policy, differences are made between travellers seeking to visit Palestinians in the West Bank and those visiting Israeli settlers. Only those visiting Palestinians must obtain approval before their visits and provide the aforementioned information.

The document says that the aim of the new rules is to “define the levels of authority and the manner of processing from foreigners who wish to enter the Judea and Samaria area”. Israeli authorities say that restrictions on travel into the West Bank are necessary for security reasons.

Al Jazeera reached out to COGAT, the Israeli military’s civil body that administers the West Bank, for comment on the new rules, but did not receive a response at the time of publication.

Effect on Palestinian academia

Academics wanting to study or work at any university in the West Bank, including occupied East Jerusalem, are subject to quotas and other restrictions on academic work, according to the new regulations.

Only 150 foreign students may study at Palestinian colleges and universities – and even then, it can be done only in pre-approved disciplines.

The document stipulates: “Applications for a permit under this section will be approved if it is proven – to the satisfaction of the authorised COGAT official, that the lecturer contributes significantly to academic learning, to the Area’s economy, or to advancing regional cooperation and peace.”

The same restrictions do not apply to those seeking to study at Israeli academic institutions, whether within Israel or inside the West Bank.

Holders of postgraduate degrees are allowed to teach in Palestinian institutions for only one semester per academic year and are barred from reapplying to teach for nine months. If the teacher holds a doctorate and Israeli authorities deem them to be a “distinguished” lecturer, they may stay for longer periods; however, there is a quota of 100 foreign distinguished lecturers.

Basri Saleh, the under-secretary of the Palestinian Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, said the Israeli government was arbitrarily “tightening the screws” on people trying to enter the West Bank. The new Israeli restrictions will “force many professors and academics who worked for many years in Palestinian universities to leave”, Saleh said.

In a statement, Birzeit University, one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the West Bank, slammed the new procedures and urged “all academic institutions and human rights organisations” to join it in condemning “this clear violation of international law”.

Source: Al Jazeera