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Feature Story

Israel Imposes Draconian Visa Requirements for Foreigners Wishing to Live with or Visit Palestinians in the West Bank

Snapshot

Israel’s new entry procedures for foreigners wishing to enter the occupied West Bank and visit Palestinians, which violate both international and Israeli law, will cause untold harm to many people and institutions and will ultimately result in the isolation and de-development of the Palestinians who live in the West Bank.

Travelers to the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt) are accustomed to various forms of harassment, invasive security checks, and even being denied entry at the border, which is wholly controlled by Israel.

But on October 20, 2022, new “procedures for entry and residence of foreigners living in the Judea and Samaria Area”1 go into effect that dramatically stifle foreign passport holders’ ability to travel to the occupied West Bank—even if they have family or business there—if they are associating with Palestinians.

Once these regulations take effect, they will isolate Palestinians holding Palestinian Authority (PA) IDs living outside the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem in the West Bank and prevent them from enjoying the right to family, education, healthcare, a normal economy, access to expertise from the outside world, and more. They will also sharply limit the ability of Palestinian organizations in the West Bank to benefit from international engagement, including from Palestinians holding foreign passports.

The end result will be the isolation of Palestinian society in the West Bank and intense pressure to emigrate on families that include foreign passport holders.

These procedures, Israel says, are an answer to calls that it formalize the process for visiting and residing in (i.e., entering) the West Bank.

In reality, the new procedures—a revision to an earlier version that was widely criticized—are part of policies designed to push Palestinians out, limiting Palestinian demographic growth and achieving Israel’s aim of controlling the West Bank permanently through demographic hegemony. In the words of Human Rights Watch:

Israeli policy has sought to engineer and maximize the number of Jews, as well as the land available to them, in Israel and the portions of the OPT coveted by the Israeli government for Jewish settlement. At the same time, by restricting the residency rights of Palestinians, Israeli policy seeks to minimize the number of Palestinians and the land available to them in those areas . . . .

The Israeli army has used residency status to control the ability of Palestinians to reside in, move within, and travel abroad from the West Bank, as well as to travel from Gaza to Israel and the West Bank. These restrictions are implemented in so sweeping a fashion that it is difficult to see them as motivated primarily by security—rather than demographic—considerations.2

In reality, the new procedures—a revision to an earlier version that was widely criticized—are part of policies designed to push Palestinians out.

Who Is Affected?

These regulations only apply to a specific class of people: foreign passport holders visiting or associating with Palestinians holding PA IDs who reside in the parts of the occupied West Bank that lie outside the Israeli municipal boundaries of Jerusalem. This includes foreign passport holders who currently live in or wish to move to the West Bank, not just visitors.

Those who are not covered include:

  • Holders of foreign passports and PA IDs, as they are required to enter the area on their PA ID. Israel does not usually restrict PA ID holders from entering the West Bank, except in extraordinary circumstances.
  • Israeli citizens or residents or internationals intending to visit or associate with Israeli Jews in the West Bank—this group has full freedom of movement.

Palestinian Jerusalemites are affected because a good number of the neighborhoods that fall within the Palestinian governorate of Jerusalem lie outside the Israeli-imposed municipal boundaries of Jerusalem (i.e., those in J2; see map), so Palestinian Jerusalemites living there carry PA IDs. Also, many Palestinian Jerusalemites have been exiled from or left the city (see Precarious Status and the graphic Ever More Precarious) and now can only live outside it and return as tourists with foreign passports. Jordan, where a very large number of Palestinian West Bankers (including Jerusalemites) live, is on a list of six countries whose citizens have no access at all under the procedures (see below). Finally, important Palestinian institutions that serve Jerusalemites wherever they happen to live—universities, hospitals, and civil society organizations—will be dramatically affected.

Interactive Map Palestinian Jerusalem Governorate (Muhafazat al-Quds)

An interactive map of the Palestinian governorate of Jerusalem and its two subdistricts, J1 and J2

Who Is Denied Entry?

Several categories of foreign passport holders are either excluded or can be denied entry.

Banned countries: Nationals and those born in Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain, Morocco, and South Sudan (all countries having diplomatic relations with Israel) are explicitly excluded from the new regulations, and can only use a difficult-to-obtain “visitor’s permit” to enter. According to Leora Bechor, an Israeli lawyer who is petitioning the Israeli High Court on behalf of Palestinian and international plaintiffs, this means “those people are being rejected en masse . . . . They are not coming in and they are not staying. They are not leaving families here; they are barred from having families in Palestine.”3 There are already instances documented where Palestinians with dual Jordanian and US citizenship have been denied entry.4

Given that Jordan in particular has a very large Palestinian population with family and business ties to the West Bank, this is an alarming development whose full implications remain to be seen.

Also unable to enter are passport holders from any countries that do not maintain diplomatic relations with Israel.

Blacklisted: Anyone who is blacklisted by the security services, police, or the border control as “denied entry” will not be granted a visa. In the past, foreign travelers with a “denied entry” stamp in their passport were blocked from entering for a certain number of years and have required legal intervention to change their status. None of this is addressed, although a process of appeal is mentioned in the new procedures.

Anyone who seems suspicious: The regulations grant the unit for Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Israeli legal authority in charge of the West Bank, the power to assess any foreigner entering and deny them entry, including “the foreigner’s record of respecting or violating permit conditions, and any other relevant considerations.”5 Since one of the reasons that the COGAT officials may give for denying a visa extension is “the risk of becoming entrenched,” advocates fear that family or other ties to Palestinians will be reason to bar entry.

Graphic Banned from Entry: How Israel Blacklists Half a Million PA ID Holders, Blocking Them from Entering Jerusalem

The black hole of blacklisting: How Palestinians with PA IDs get wholly banned from Jerusalem with one click on the keyboard

One of the reasons that the COGAT officials may give for denying a visa extension is “the risk of becoming entrenched.”

Flagrant Illegality

It is important to underscore that Israel is the military occupier of the West Bank and does not have sovereignty there. International law stipulates that Israel has no basis for establishing immigration policy into the area and must protect the population under occupation. According to Bechor:

[Israel] is essentially applying immigration law to an entity that is not part of the state of Israel, determining who can live and stay in the borders of the West Bank. It’s in violation of many laws—international humanitarian law, human rights law, and Israeli law, [which] recognizes a basic right to family life . . . but not with respect to Palestinians in the West Bank . . . . This is in direct violation of Oslo in no uncertain terms.

Oslo basically divided the authority and said that Israel is not going to be responsible for the civil life of Palestinians. And that [division] is in accordance with international humanitarian law and the laws of occupation. The laws of occupation say if you have an occupying power, that power has to work in two capacities: for legitimate security reasons or to protect civil society, to protect the rights of the occupied local population. Nothing in this policy protects Palestinians and their families. Nothing in this policy protects Palestinian society. Instead of maintaining and allowing Palestinian society to thrive, Israel . . . micromanages who can enter and who can create Palestinian society.6

“[Israel] is essentially applying immigration law to an entity that is not part of the state of Israel, determining who can live and stay in the borders of the West Bank. It’s in violation of many laws . . .”

Leora Bechor, Israeli human rights lawyer who petitioned the High Court about the new procedures

The Context: A Tightening Gauntlet

In 2006, after an outcry and numerous cases where Israel’s military government, the COGAT, barred foreign passport holders headed to the West Bank from entry, new procedures were put in place.7 These procedures allowed certain broad categories of people—spouses of Palestinians, pilgrims, businesspeople, investors, employees of international organizations and governments, and volunteers—to obtain a three-month tourist visa at the Israeli border.

All of these groups except employees of international agencies could then extend their visa for one year by applying through the PA, which would submit the applications to the COGAT. After 27 months, however, the applicant would have to leave the country and then try to reenter in order to extend his or her stay further.

The visas were valid for one year, but they did not technically allow the holder to work. Indeed, in cases where the holder was suspected of working, officials would sometimes refuse to renew the visa and send the individual home. Employees of international organizations or representative offices could be issued six-month extensions.

These procedures were issued in a four-page directive from the Israeli Ministry of Defense. They were broad and implemented in arbitrary fashion. At the time, the human rights organization B’Tselem said that at least 72,000 families had tried unsuccessfully to apply for residency (a PA ID) in the preceding six years.8 Between 2005 and 2007, the number of people denied entry to Israel increased by 61 percent.9

In 2009, Israeli officials suddenly changed procedures, stamping the passports of those traveling to Palestinian areas of the West Bank with a
glaring notice, “Palestinian Authority only” or “Judea and Samaria only,” indicating they could not travel to Israel or Jerusalem. Then in 2010, Israel for a brief time stopped issuing work visas to internationals employed by international organizations working in the oPt. Right to Enter, an advocacy group for clear entry procedures in line with international law, found that between 2016 and 2018, at least half of foreign national staff at Palestinian universities faced difficulties renewing their visas or entering the country.10

Sample passport stamps limiting foreign passport-holders’ movement in West Bank

Sample passport stamps from 2010 and 2012 showing the specific language Israel used to restrict movement of foreign passport holders who enter the occupied West Bank. 

Credit: 

Electronic Intifada

Credit: 

Electronic Intifada

The broader context for these moves was a tightening of Israeli control over the oPt. The Gaza Strip was put under a blockade in 2007 that prevents the entry of dozens of items that Israel considers “dual use,” or that might be put to military use by armed groups—concrete, machinery, fertilizer, and other basic goods needed for a functioning, developing economy.11 That blockade also restricted the entry and exit of people; the main entry point to the Gaza Strip became Rafah, the sole crossing point between Gaza and Egypt. Authorities in Egypt began to close the Rafah crossing frequently; in response, Palestinian armed groups built a vast network of tunnels out of Gaza into the Sinai desert. By 2014, however, Egyptian authorities had destroyed most of the tunnels by bulldozing homes and creating a buffer zone. Although the Rafah crossing is now often open to people and goods, Israel’s blockade has had devastating effects on Gaza’s 2.1 million people, where the unemployment rate was 46.6 percent in early 2022 and the majority of residents require food assistance.12

One type of barrier erected by Israel on a West Bank road

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In the West Bank, Israel had largely completed the Separation Wall, closing off Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank (see The Separation Wall), and installing numerous checkpoints, barriers, and other obstacles to freedom of movement. In June 2020, the UN found that there were 593 barriers and obstacles to movement in place across the West Bank.13

One consequence of these barriers was that it became much harder to avoid being picked up at a checkpoint and deported if one overstayed a visa and remained in the country illegally.

Simultaneously, Israeli settlements grew. Nearly 700,000 settlers have made the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) their home, and in 2021, 1 in 10 of the Americans who immigrated to Israel moved to Israeli settlements in the West Bank (outside Jerusalem).14 Foreign passport holders going to visit or live in these Israeli settlements are able to obtain work visas, marry Israelis, and live in Israel through a family unification process under the Israeli Ministry of Interior, and of course, to obtain Israeli citizenship. If they are Jewish and make aliya, citizenship can be acquired on the date they immigrate to the country as an oleh, with immediate benefits.15

Under the Oslo Accords, Israel controls the Palestinian population registry. That means that every Palestinian birth, death, marriage, divorce, and address change must be registered with Israel, either directly or via the PA. As a result, Israel maintains a critical tool for controlling who lives in the West Bank.

Spouses and close relatives of Palestinians with PA ID cards have no regular process for achieving family unification and living with their relatives in the West Bank.16 Legal status for family members who have applied to join their spouses or other family in the West Bank by obtaining a PA ID card is doled out through arbitrary political favors to the Palestinian leadership. No one (except perhaps Israel) knows how many people are waiting for approval of their family unification applications, but some have been on the list for decades.17 Some live illegally, fearful of traveling from town to town and unable to go abroad. Many others have given up waiting and departed to establish lives overseas. A tranche of new ID cards was approved in July,18 but little has been heard on the subject since. Israel decides when and how—and families wait in the balance.

New Procedures: Total Control for One Population Only

The new document outlining Israel’s latest procedures for foreign passport holders entering the West Bank is 90 pages long. It is simultaneously detailed and unclear, leaving unmentioned large groups of people whose status is now murky and uncertain. The procedures will go into effect for a two-year trial period, the government says.

Like the changes made in 2006, different procedures are established for specific categories of foreign passport holders seeking to enter the West Bank.

Border crossing into Israel through King Hussein (Allenby) Bridge

The border crossing between Jordan and Israel via the King Hussein/Allenby Bridge, the only entry point now allowed for foreigners entering the West Bank to visit Palestinians

Credit: 

g4gary blog

Conditions that apply to all categories of visas

Point of entry: Anyone visiting only Palestinians in the West Bank (instead of destinations in Israel) will not be allowed to enter through Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. Rather, they must arrive from the Allenby Bridge crossing from Jordan, which is overcrowded and expensive, since it requires a land journey and sometimes an overnight stay in Jordan.

No guarantee of entry: Arriving at the border with approval is not a guarantee of entry; only the border entry official can make the final decision in each case based on “any relevant considerations.”

Strict limits on duration: Remaining in the country beyond the stated expiry date will have severe consequences, including confiscation of a bond guarantee if it has been requested (see below).

Steep bond guarantees: The new procedures also formalize an existing practice of demanding a bond from foreign passport holders. In the past, these were returned when visitors leave the country—a kind of guarantee. The amount of the bond can be up to NIS 70,000 or about $21,000—a large sum of money for most individuals. Rather ominously, the procedure notes that if the applicant overstays their visit and the guarantee is confiscated, this may be reflected in the population registry data for the guarantor and the person inviting the individual, thereby penalizing all parties involved. The other conditions around imposing this bond are vague or unstated.

Other (undefined) conditions: COGAT officials are granted broad latitude to impose any additional conditions in order to approve an individual’s entry, such as “a promise to be present in only certain places.”

Expiry upon departure: Should a foreigner holding a visa need to leave for any reason before it has expired, it will automatically be canceled as soon as they leave the country, and then they must reapply for a new one. Persons needing longer stay permits may apply for a multi-visit visa, but the procedures for this are unclear and history has shown that such requests are usually denied.19

Audio A Legal Perspective on Israel’s New Visa Requirements for Foreigners Entering the West Bank

An Israeli human rights lawyer offers an expert perspective on the new Israeli visa requirements for foreigners wishing to visit or work or study in the West Bank with Palestinians.

Short visits for certain groups

Three-month visas (B-2 visas) will be granted to the following categories of individuals, and then only if they fulfill additional Israeli conditions:

  • Spouses and “first-degree relatives” of PA ID holders, only for the purpose of visiting a first-degree relative or to apply for family unification; “first-degree relatives” include spouses, parents, children, and siblings
  • Children aged 16 or under of PA ID holders, also to visit or apply for family unification
  • Businesspeople and investors
  • Journalists credentialed by the Israeli Government Press Office or employed by international media

There is no entry procedure provided for tourists, those visiting non-first-degree relatives, conference participants, artists, sports players, political delegations, medical personnel, or other short-term visitors.

Moreover, individuals allowed entry on the three-month visa may not work, study, or rent property. They may only extend their stay for longer than three months under exceptional circumstances, and can be denied an extension if officials believe they pose a “risk of becoming entrenched in the area.”

Anyone who has previously been denied entry or overstayed a visa will be required to apply for a visa in advance from the COGAT, using an intrusive form that asks for the names and ID numbers of first-degree relatives or any other people that they will visit in the West Bank (another hefty deterrent from a surveillance regime).

Permits for spouses or partners

One new requirement that made a great deal of news was Israel’s demand that when a foreign passport holder began dating a Palestinian PA ID card holder in the West Bank, they must notify the COGAT of their relationship within 30 days. This latest version published in September removes that requirement, but continues to require couples to inform the COGAT that they are a pair when seeking a visa or visa renewal. There is no explanation of next steps, however, as only spouses are able to ask for long-term visas.

Spouses of Palestinians are able to seek a longer-term visa to stay in the West Bank. However, in order to do so they must show that they have applied for family unification and been “denied” because the Israeli political leadership is not approving applications at such time.20 Here the procedures enter the realm of the imaginary, since at the current time there are likely tens of thousands of applicants for family unification (also called lem shamel) languishing and awaiting an Israeli response. None of these applicants have been “denied” per se, just simply ignored until there is a political decision by Israel to grant them status.

This latest version . . . continues to require couples to inform the COGAT that they are a pair when seeking a visa or visa renewal. 

A Palestinian wedding in the West Bank

A Palestinian wedding in the West Bank in 2017

Credit: 

Rozana Association for Rural Tourism, Birzeit, West Bank

Spouses seeking to stay in the West Bank long-term must first enter on a short-term B-2 visa (see above) and then apply for family unification (during which time they are still prohibited from working, renting property, or studying). The COGAT claims that it will reply to these family unification applications within 60 days, but given the track record of delayed responses, lost applications, and general bureaucratic malfeasance, it seems unlikely that spouses will be able to attain a response to their family unification application during the three months of their initial short-stay visa.

Spouses seeking to stay in the West Bank long-term must first enter on a short-term B-2 visa and then apply for family unification.

The procedures offer no guidance at all to spouses of Palestinians who already live in the West Bank and have been availing themselves of a visa through existing mechanisms. This large group is essentially waiting on pins and needles to see how Israel will begin to treat them once the procedures go into effect. One mother of three who has lived in the West Bank for over 20 years on a tourist visa shared:

In any other country, I and spouses like me would have clear criteria and a transparent process to follow to gain a citizenship that we would qualify for through residency and contribution to the nation. Instead, we must live in fear of being deported, never knowing what to do to be able to remain with our families with certainty, or to return if we travel.21

Visas to study, teach, or work

Other people who qualify for an Israeli visa under the new procedures include educators, students, employees, investors, and volunteers. Applicants for these special visas must be invited by the PA and apply for the visa well in advance. It is important to note that spouses of Palestinians can never qualify for these types of visas but rather must apply as a spouse.

Lecturers are required to hold a PhD or convince the COGAT that they have unique expertise in their fields and must also fill out an application that requires personal details about first-degree relatives living in the West Bank. They may stay in the West Bank for only 27 months before leaving and reapplying from abroad. Once the researcher has been in the West Bank for five years, he or she must leave for nine months before reapplying for entry.

Students may only apply for a visa if they are seeking a degree. Moreover, all applicants must request their visa before April 1 of the school year during which they will study in the West Bank. As Right to Enter notes, Palestinian universities don’t usually announce acceptances to their programs until the summer, begging the question how applicants will fulfill the needed requirements at all.22 If the COGAT desires, it can ask to interview the applicant, raising fears of political vetting and data collection.

Spouses of Palestinians can never qualify for these types of visas but rather must
apply as a spouse.

Palestinian students at Birzeit University

Palestinian students at Birzeit University, 2016

Credit: 

Wikipedia

Abu Dis campus of al-Quds University

Al-Quds University, Abu Dis campus, in the occupied West Bank

Credit: 

Wikipedia

Universities view these procedures as deeply harmful infringements upon educational freedom, and fear they will be unable to recruit and keep students and staff.

“The attack on the right to education and academic freedom that these proposed procedures embody are part of the ongoing assault on Palestinian institutions of higher learning since their establishment,” Birzeit University said in a press release, recalling the four years in which Israel closed the university by military order during the First Intifada. “Such actions are inseparable from the racist and multilayered system of apartheid and persecution which denies the Palestinian people their most fundamental rights, including to freedom of expression, and the pursuit of scientific advancement and development.”23

Work visas will be available for foreign employees who meet the COGAT criteria of “a required or necessary field”—teachers, doctors, businesspeople, and investors. Applicants must apply from abroad 60 days before entry.

Applicants can apply to extend their visas, but will never be allowed to stay in the West Bank for longer than 27 months without leaving, spending at least two months abroad to fulfill the application requirement, and reapplying for entry.

After accruing five years total working in the West Bank, the foreign employee must leave for nine months before reapplying to enter; longer stays may be possible in certain circumstances. An invitation is required from both the PA and the party inviting the applicant.

Volunteers may apply for a one-year visa, after which they must leave for a year before reentering. Their labor can only be reimbursed with pocket money, housing, and expenses. They also may be subject to an interview at an Israeli embassy.

Advocacy and Response

Lawyers have filed petitions against the new procedures with Israel’s High Court, but a decision on those filings is not expected before the procedures go into effect. Instead, Palestinians and their allies have been doing advocacy with third states, urging them to pressure Israel to drop the procedures.

In a rare public criticism of Israel, US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides wrote on his Twitter feed the day the revisions were released:

Today COGAT published its revised guidelines. Since February, @usembassyjlm, @USPalAffairs, & I have aggressively engaged with the Israeli Government on these draft rules—and we’ll continue to do so in the 45-day lead up to implementation & during the 2-year pilot period. I continue to have concerns with the published protocols, particularly regarding COGAT’s role in determining whether individuals invited by Palestinian academic institutions are qualified to enter the West Bank, and the potential negative impact on family unity.24

Because parts of the procedures are so vague, it is difficult to predict how they will be implemented. Based on past experience, however, it seems clear that once the procedures go into effect, access to the West Bank will be much more limited and cumbersome, and Palestinians left living there will be more isolated and cut off from the outside world.

Notes

1
2

A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution,” Human Rights Watch, April 27, 2021. In 2018, Israel revoked the visa of Human Rights Watch’s researcher in Israel Omar Shakir.

3

LIVE Q&A – COGAT Entry Procedures to the West Bank for Foreigners,” Jerusalem24 Radio, September 8, 2022.

4

Author’s conversation with Right to Enter volunteer.

5

“Procedure for Entry.”

6

“LIVE Q&A.”

8

Charmaine Seitz, “Israel Frustrates Those Returning to Occupied lands,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 15, 2006.

9

Shahar Ilan, “Number of People Denied Entry into Israel up 61 Percent since 2005,” Haaretz, June 15, 2008.

11

Controlled Dual-Use Items – in English,” Gisha, accessed October 13, 2022.

12

Gaza Strip: The Humanitarian Impact of 15 Years of the Blockade – June 2022,” UN Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs, June 30, 2022.

13

West Bank Access Restrictions – June 2020,” UN Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs, July 9, 2020.

15

Israel’s family reunification procedure for citizens of Israel has its own complexities related to religious law (marriages in Israel are religious and not civil); however, a naturalization procedure exists and is not shrouded in secrecy. “Citizenship and Travel Document,” The Jewish Agency for Israel, accessed October 19, 2022.

18

Author conversation with spouses of PA ID holders.

19

“COGAT’s Amended ‘Procedure for Entry.’”

20

“COGAT’s Amended ‘Procedure for Entry.’”

21

As per the procedures: “Applications received from the Palestinian Authority will be approved in keeping with a policy to be defined by the political echelon and involving quotas which, if set, may change from time to time in accordance with the interplay of relevant considerations, including the political/security situation.”

23

“COGAT’s Amended ‘Procedure for Entry.’”

25

Ambassador Tom Nides (@USAmbIsrael), “Today COGAT Published Its Revised Guidelines,” Twitter, September 4, 2022, 7:34 p.m.

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