Bureaucracy isn’t photogenic. A clerk’s signature doesn’t film well. For that matter, writing about it isn’t easy either. A description of it can lead even the most determined reader to despair, but bureaucracy controls the lives of thousands of people and a single form might be the only distance separating an individual from her family. In a world such as this, one form can provide a lot of insight into the lives of hundreds of thousands if you look at it closely enough.
The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) recently sent us a document that details what a Palestinian who lives in the West Bank has to do in order to move to live in the Gaza Strip. Unlike many other COGAT procedures, this one is relatively simple. Still, it reveals a lot about the Israeli Defense Ministry’s policy toward Gaza and provides a glimpse into the lives of Palestinians who have to live according to it. Here we describe some of the important sections of the procedure:
First of all, Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007 rather than 2006 (details…), but more importantly: What is the “separation policy“? The document reads, “… a decision was made to introduce a policy of separation between the Judea and Samaria Area and the Gaza Strip”. It doesn’t say what the policy is or what the justifications for it are, nor does it indicate who enacted it: Was it the government, the defense minister, the army?
On numerous occasions, the army has used the “policy of separation” to justify restrictions on movement of people and goods to and from the Gaza Strip. We’re not sure who to turn to in order to challenge it. It’s also unclear how this policy jives with statements made by the army and the government about lifting the civilian closure from the Gaza Strip and the importance of economic development in Gaza.
According to this section, a resident of the West Bank may file an application for settlement in the Gaza Strip “for any purpose that is considered humanitarian (usually family unification)”. We were surprised to see that the defense ministry views family unification as a “humanitarian need” considering that the parallel procedure which regulates the processing of applications made by Palestinians wishing to relocate from Gaza to the West Bank explicitly states that “family ties, in and of themselves, do not constitute humanitarian grounds justifying settlement in the Judea and Samaria Area”. In other words, family unification is justified on humanitarian grounds only if you are a Palestinian who wishes to relocate from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip. The family ties of Palestinians in Gaza no longer constitute sufficient humanitarian grounds for relocating to the West Bank.
Essentially, the entire settlement procedure could be described using this section only: Israel forbids people who live in the Gaza Strip from settling in the West Bank, except in extremely rare cases, and makes it easy for Palestinians from the West Bank to go and live in the Gaza Strip.
People who decide to move to the Gaza Strip decide to move to a place that has a 30.3% unemployment rate, a place where about 70% of the population receives humanitarian aid, and changing one’s mind is impossible. Read on.
|Silent control: The population registry|
|Israel continues to control the Palestinian population registry, which is common to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. In both parts of the Occupied Territory, any change in the population registry – birth, marriage, divorce, death or change of address – requires Israeli approval. Only after Israeli approval is granted, can the Palestinian Authority issue the appropriate ID card.Since a Palestinian resident who wishes to travel through Rafah or Erez Crossing is required to show an Israeli-approved ID card or passport, through its control over the population registry, Israel continues to control the movement of Palestinians. Israel also controls where Palestinians live, as the address registered in the Israeli-approved ID card determines where its holder may live.
In order to go live in the Gaza Strip, a person has to sign a declaration that she is aware that “residents whose center-of-life is in the Gaza Strip are permitted to enter the Judea and Samaria Area only in humanitarian and exceptional cases”. That is, if you’ve decided to move to the Gaza Strip, know that that’s your final choice. Not only will you be prohibited from moving back to the West Bank, visits to the West Bank are granted only according to very stringent criteria.
Hamas rule in Gaza and the lack of physical territorial contiguity between Gaza and the West Bank are used by some as excuses to treat Gaza as its own entity. It’s unlikely Palestinians will adopt this approach any time soon and with good reason; the Gaza Strip and the West Bank remain intertwined in numerous ways. Residents of Gaza have relatives in the West Bank and vice versa. The educational system in the two parts of the Occupied Territory was developed as a whole and there were once more robust commercial ties between them. All this, without getting into the fact that Israel itself recognizes the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as a single territorial unit. A person who wishes to move to Gaza knows she will never be able to return to the West Bank. If she has relatives in the West Bank, she will probably be able to see them only if one of her first-degree relatives gets sick and this too, only after a long bureaucratic journey involving many forms. If she wishes to go to university in the West Bank, she won’t be able to do so. Trading with the West Bank is almost completely out of the question and her chances of leaving the Strip to visit holy sites on Muslim holidays are also slim.
Hamas’ presence in the Gaza Strip has security implications for Israel and therefore for the movement of people and goods. Still, it’s difficult to find security justifications for many of the restrictions on movement in place today. In fact, Israel itself says as much in the procedure for processing applications by Gaza residents for settlement in the West Bank.
The absence of a security preclusion is just the first condition for a Gaza resident to get a permit to settle in the West Bank. The remaining conditions are more complex. So, for example, a person who suffers from a chronic disease and needs to be cared for by a family member will not receive a permit for settlement if there is another relative in Gaza who can look after her. What could be the security reason for this? What is the security rationale behind forbidding a minor who has lost one parent in Gaza to live with her surviving parent in the West Bank if she has any other relative to care for her in the Gaza Strip? Does this minor become a security risk once she has other relatives in Gaza?
We don’t know why a person who moves to the Gaza Strip is almost entirely prohibited from returning to the West Bank and it’s hard to believe that moving to the Gaza Strip automatically turns an individual into a security risk. We only know that it is easier to move from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip than the other way around and that many families who are split between the two parts of the Occupied Territory suffer as a result of these restrictions. Every week we receive calls from individuals who want to visit family in the Gaza Strip but are afraid that in doing so they may not be allowed to go back to the West Bank. These are people who have not seen their mother, father, or sister for years; people who live in the West Bank but whose registered address is the Gaza Strip because Israel has not updated the Palestinian population registry since 2000, and because of this, they are afraid to go to Jordan, travel through checkpoints or visit the Gaza Strip. None of these people meet the narrow definition of “humanitarian criteria”, unless, of course, they want to leave the West Bank permanently and go live in Gaza. In that case, suddenly family means something.