Israeli travel restrictions take hold – Mondoweiss

A draconian set of rules and restrictions on the entry of foreigners into the occupied West Bank are set to go into effect today, despite months of condemnations by rights groups and legal efforts to stop the restrictions from being enforced. 

Entitled the “Procedure for entry and residence of foreigners in the Judea and Samaria area,” the 90-pages of restrictions engineered by Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), seeks to severely restrict the ability of foreigners, including those of Palestinian origin living abroad, to enter the West Bank for the purpose of business, education, humanitarian work, and even visiting family. 

The new regulations were published earlier this year to widespread condemnation, and were initially set to go into effect back in May, but were postponed several times due to legal push back. 

“Israeli authorities have provided no explanation for the new procedure, which clearly steps far beyond their authority as the occupying power to take measures for their own security or for the welfare of the Palestinian population,” Jessica Montell, the Executive Director at Hamoked, the Israeli human rights group that has been challenging the policy in Israeli courts, said in a statement. 

Much of the pushback has surrounded some of the more preposterous aspects of the regulations, like a stipulation that foreigners who entered into a relationship with a Palestinian would have to declare it to the Israeli government within 30 days of said relationship’s start. 

Back in September, following heavy backlash from rights groups, as well as European and US officials, COGAT released a revised version of the document which walked back on some of the more widely-criticized rules, including the aforementioned timeline for reporting romantic relationships with Palestinians. 

But the essence of the regulations, and many of the original restrictions, remained in place. 

“It of course comes down to demographic considerations. These new restrictions will completely isolate Palestinian society.”

Yotam Ben Hillel

According to the rules, COGAT and the Israeli government still have the ultimate power to approve or deny anyone’s visa seeking to enter or stay in the West Bank; that includes the foreign spouses of Palestinians, foreign students, university professors, volunteers and humanitarian workers, and even Palestinians with foreign passports seeking to visit their family in the West Bank. 

Yotam Ben Hillel, an Israeli lawyer who’s been fighting the COGAT regulations in court alongside Hamoked, said that under the Oslo Accords these types of decisions should be under the purview of the Palestinian Authority. 

“But in this [COGAT] policy, it all lies with Israel. They decide if people get residency, visas, etc,” Ben Hillel told Mondoweiss. “It’s part of many other obstacles the Israelis have put in place to make it harder to live together as a family in Palestine, or to come here for other purposes.”

“It of course comes down to demographic considerations,” he continued. “These new restrictions will completely isolate Palestinian society.”

Immediate implications

Back in September, when COGAT released the amended restrictions, US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides released a statement expressing some “concerns” he had over the published protocols. Nides’ statement came after months of relative silence from the Biden administration on the policy. 

At the time, Nides mentioned a two-year “pilot period” for the new regulations, during which he said he fully expected the Israeli government to “make necessary adjustments” to “ensure transparency as well as the fair and equal treatment of all U.S. citizens and other foreign nationals traveling to the West Bank.”

But Ben Hillel says that two years is a long time, during which thousands of lives will be impacted, and for many Palestinian families, the damage might be done before any readjustments, if any, are made after two years. 

“From what I’ve already seen, there are people who in these two years, it will become very hard for them to continue their lives the way they are right now,” he said, noting that many foreign spouses of Palestinians will have their current visas subject to increased scrutiny, that could result in them having to leave the occupied Palestinian territory, and their families, if they don’t meet new criteria set out by COGAT. 

People who hold certain foreign passports from certain countries, including places like Jordan and Egypt who have diplomatic relations with Israel, will not be allowed into the West Bank at all under the new rules, even if they hold US, Canadian, or other foreign citizenship. 

“They cannot come as tourists, they cannot work here, cannot study. The mere fact they were born in Jordan or have a Jordanian passports means that  they cannot come,” Ben-Hillel said, adding that they would need to apply for temporary visitor permits that must be approved by Israel, and are very rarely approved.  

Ben-Hillel said he was most concerned about the implications the new regulations had on Palestinian families. Montell agreed. 

“The group that will be most harmed are Palestinian families where one spouse is a foreign national. There are tens of thousands of families like this in the West Bank, and under the new procedure they will quite simply no longer be able to live together in the West Bank.”

Jessica Montell

“The group that will be most harmed are Palestinian families where one spouse is a foreign national. There are tens of thousands of families like this in the West Bank, and under the new procedure they will quite simply no longer be able to live together in the West Bank,” Montell told Mondoweiss.

“Family unification applications can be refused just because the Israeli government might not approve it,” Ben-Hillel said, adding that Israel still has the power to decide if a couple’s relationship is “real”, and whether to give the foreign passport holder a visa based on their relationship with a Palestinian. 

“We are talking about a lot of people living in Ramallah, Nablus, and Hebron, for example. How will the Israelis check that [a relationship is real]?,” he asked incredulously. “Will they come with the military in the middle of the night and invade people’s homes to see if the couple live together? It’s ridiculous,” he said.  

What the U.S. is doing, or not doing, about it

On Tuesday October 18th, two days before the rules went into effect, U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Vedant Patel said when questioned about the regulations, that “we, of course, remain concerned about potential adverse impacts that some of these procedures could have on civil society, on tourism, on health care facilities, on academic institutions.”

He added that the Biden administration remained “engaged” with the Israeli government on the topic. 

But the Biden administration’s supposed concern over the negative effects of the restrictions seems apathetic in the face of the months-long wave of criticism of the new rules and regulations by human rights and legal experts, who have pointed out that the adverse effects the administration is worried about are virtually inevitable. 

“This whole policy is part of the Israeli’s control of the Palestinian population registry,” Ben-Hillel said. “Together with controlling the border, it has a purpose behind it, and that purpose is to isolate the Palestinian society from the outside world, and of course in that way it will make it really hard for Palestinians to challenge the Apartheid they live under.”

He added that this policy would inevitably make it so difficult for some families to live together in their home in the West Bank, that it would result in some of them leaving the occupied territory: either together, or apart. 

Montell expressed similar criticisms, saying “this procedure can only be understood to be motivated by a desire to isolate Palestinian society and to further demographic engineering (the fact that “fear of becoming entrenched in the West Bank” is grounds for denying a visa is telling here).” 

Montell added that Hamoked has sent a detailed letter to the Israeli military outlining all its objections to the law. It’s the first step of many that Hamoked plans on taking to continue to challenge the policy, she said. 

“Over the next few months we will petition Israel’s Supreme Court on behalf of individuals or institutions that have been harmed by the procedure. I hope that these petitions, combined with international pressure will result in very significant changes to the procedure, so that families can live together and Palestinian institutions can benefit from international cooperation,” she said. 

Visa waiver lobbying

Israel’s revisions to the COGAT rules were a clear attempt to enter the United States’s Visa Waiver Program (VWP). Under the VWP citizens from a small number of countries are allowed to stay in the U.S. for three months without obtaining a visa.

Israel has been publicly lobbying the United States government to join the VWP since the mid-2000s. In recent years there have been multiple congressional attempts to push Israel into the program and in September 2021 Biden assured the Israeli government that he would work towards that goal. When Biden visited Israel in July he put out a joint declaration with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid which claimed both countries will “continue their shared and accelerated efforts to enable Israeli passport holders to be included in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program.”

However, none of these developments have seemed to move Israel closer to obtaining the waiver. This week Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) began circulating a congressional letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken which asserts that Israel does not meet the basic requirements needed to enter the program. The letter refers directly to the “onerous and discriminatory” COGAT restrictions. “It is incumbent upon Israel as a key U.S. ally and beneficiary of significant aid to treat U.S. citizens with dignity and respect regardless of race, religion and ethnicity, and it is especially pertinent at this time because Israel is currently being evaluated for entry into the United States Visa Waiver Program,” writes Beyer.

“The codification of discriminatory treatment of U.S. travelers still states that these regulations specifically apply to countries which have ‘accepted a visa waiver program with Israel,” he continues. “Therefore, their decision to escalate discrimination by codifying regulations is especially disconcerting given the desire of both the United States and Israel to admit Israel into the VWP.”

In September the Department of Homeland Security sent Beyer a letter affirming that Israel still failed to meet the necessary VWP requirements.

“The latest discriminatory Israeli travel restrictions against Palestinian-Americans, which went into effect this week, are draconian and are meant to make it difficult, if not impossible, for Palestinians in this country to remain physically connected to their homeland and family there,” Institute for Middle East Understanding (IMEU) Government Relations Director Josh Ruebner told Mondoweiss. “It’s part of Israel’s pervasive apartheid regime of control over Palestinians. Representative Don Beyer and all the Members of Congress who signed this letter are to be commended for raising this concern with Secretary of State Tony Blinken and adding to the already significant congressional pressure to keep Israel out of the Visa Waiver Program.”

When asked about the status of Israel and the VWP during a State Department briefing Vedant Patel told reporters that he wouldn’t get into specific negotiations, but said that the administration continues “to work with Israel towards fulfilling all Visa Waiver Program requirements such as extending reciprocal privileges to all U.S. citizens and nationals, including Palestinian Americans.”

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