As part of Israel's occupation of the West Bank, the Israeli army controls who may live in, enter or exit the Palestinian territory. Over the years, Israel has used that control to prevent Palestinian refugees from returning, revoke the residency of nearly 150,000 West Bank Palestinians and place travel bans on tens of thousands of other Palestinians, all while allowing Jewish Israelis free rein to establish settlements and take up residency both with and without the permission of Israeli authorities. These are but some of the reasons why human rights groups and United Nations officials are calling Israel an apartheid regime.
But the Israeli military also decides whether foreigners—meaning those without Israeli or Palestinian citizenship or residency, respectively—can enter the West Bank and for how long. Throughout Israel's 55-year occupation, but particularly since 2014, the Israeli military government in the West Bank, now known as the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, or COGAT, has used that authority in more sweeping and abusive ways.
It has required some visitors to deposit a bond of as much as $25,000 to be allowed into the West Bank. Foreign spouses of Palestinians have been left in legal limbo with Israel either refusing or dragging its feet for years to renew their visas—and making them start the visa process all over again if they have to travel even to visit a sick or dying relative. Making things worse, the decisions seemed more and more arbitrary.
"We were seeing rigid restrictions on entry and on continued residence that had no basis in the regulations," says Jerusalem-based attorney Leora Bechor, who together with fellow attorney Yotam Ben Hillel challenged those regulations and policies in a 2019 lawsuit that is ongoing to this day.
In an attempt to have their suit dismissed, COGAT presented the Israeli court with a new set of regulations on the entry and residence of foreigners in the West Bank, expanding the previous version from four pages to a whopping 62 pages of restrictions—97 pages in the English version. Among the regulations outlined in the new document, called Procedure for Entry and Residence for Foreigners in Judea and Samaria Area, are restrictions on who is allowed to teach in Palestinian universities; on foreign students; and on what types of organizations are allowed to host volunteers. Even worse, they exclude broad swathes of others who may want or have reason to visit Palestine.
They also forbid foreigners who are visiting only the West Bank from using the only major international airport between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, Ben-Gurion International Airport. If they hold a passport of a country that has a visa waiver agreement with Israel and they say they are traveling to Israel in addition to the West Bank, however, they are allowed to fly into Ben-Gurion.
The new regulations, which were published in Hebrew in February, were originally set to take effect this May 22. In response to objections by Bechor and Ben Hillel, however, COGAT stated this week, on April 28, that it would delay their implementation by an additional 45 days. The Israeli High Court of Justice is set to hear arguments in the case on Monday, May 2. Bechor discussed the case and Israel's "more draconian" restrictions on the West Bank in an interview with Democracy in Exile.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
The new policy affects broad areas of Palestinian society and basically creates a situation in which Israel reaches into what should be independent decisions of the Palestinian authorities.
- Leora Bechor
There has been quite an outcry in response to these new regulations, which were originally set to take effect in a few weeks' time. How did this come about?
The previous policy had been on the books for many years, governing which classes of foreigners could enter the West Bank and the periods for which they could stay. From about 2014, COGAT became extremely rigid in terms of enforcing the policy and started to essentially invent all new criteria that don't exist anywhere in the policy. The old policy is an extremely short document that doesn't address many issues related to entry of foreigners, and no one had clarity as to who could or could not enter.
We've been representing dozens of foreigners and their families who've been affected by the policies, who've been denied entry into the West Bank, or alternatively, denied extensions of their visas.
In individual petitions that we had submitted from 2017, COGAT had already said that they were working on a new policy. We had cases of foreign spouses of Palestinians; someone who had dual nationality, Canadian citizenship and carried a Jordanian passport [COGAT treats Jordanian nationals according to different regulations]; a case of someone who had to pay an 80,000 shekel ($24,000) bond just to enter the West Bank.
Time and again, we were seeing rigid restrictions that had no basis in the language of the policy.
Can you give me an example of someone who was affected by these policies?
You could have a foreign spouse who's been living in the West Bank for 20 years. They generally had freedom of movement and could show up at the Allenby Bridge with their passport. In the system, they knew they were married to a Palestinian and received a visa without pre-coordination [with COGAT]. And when that person went to renew their visa, they got a new visa for a year.
[In 2014] we started seeing spouses getting visas for three months instead of a year. These people, who maybe have been living in the West Bank for 20 years, had no sense of security living with their spouses and children. They'd fear that at any point their visa could be denied and that they would be deported.
In the past, they also had multiple entries on their visas; they could exit and enter as they pleased. At a certain point, COGAT said: No, that's not the rule. If you leave, you must reapply, making life insufferable for foreigners who suddenly had difficulty visiting their families, even when they had loved ones who were in the hospital dying.
And our position was no, that doesn't appear in the policy.
The policy restricts the number of foreign academics who can teach in Palestinian universities. It restricts the qualifications of those academics. It restricts the period of time in which those academics can stay in the West Bank. The same is true for foreign students.
- Leora Bechor
In response to your petition, although as you mentioned they said they were working on new regulations for many years, they presented this new set of regulations which went from four pages to 60-something pages in Hebrew and 90-something pages in English. What are the new restrictions that they added, and why are they problematic?
So, firstly, the new restrictions represent many of the problems that we had raised in our initial petition. But instead of a new policy that corrected those problems, they aggravated them and made the new policy more draconian.
The new policy affects broad areas of Palestinian society and basically creates a situation in which Israel reaches into what should be independent decisions of the Palestinian authorities. For example, the policy creates restrictions on the number of foreign academics who can teach in Palestinian universities. It restricts the qualifications of those academics. It restricts the period of time in which those academics can stay in the West Bank. The same is true for foreign students.
It profoundly restricts the ability of foreign volunteers to volunteer in critical Palestinian institutions, including in areas of public health and welfare and education. It doesn't allow for any employment or volunteering in secondary schools. It doesn't allow for professional lecturers to teach or lecture in non-academic institutions. So, for example, a world-renowned heart surgeon can no longer come and train Palestinian doctors so that they then have the skills to treat their own patients.
How is this going to affect American citizens of Palestinian descent?
First of all, the requirements of applying in advance and the form that foreigners must fill out has actually been in place for several years. It's been used for categories of persons who wouldn't otherwise be eligible for entry. It's been used for volunteers and employees. It's been used for people who in the past had been denied entry to the West Bank. It had not been used, for example, for a foreign spouse who never had any issues with visas.
During corona, they started requiring all foreign nationals declaring their intention to go exclusively to the West Bank to use that form. All of those people in the past several years, as far back as 2014, were required to enter exclusively via Allenby Bridge with rare exception.
But the new policy specifically states that—and this was the case prior—that if there's a mixed visit, meaning the person is intending to visit both Israel and the West Bank, then the policy does not apply to them and they can enter through Israel and visit both Israel and the West Bank.
At the end of the new regulations, there is an application form which, among other things, asks if the person owns land or is claiming an inheritance in the West Bank. What are they getting at? What is Israel's interest in determining those types of connections?
It's my belief that those sections that deal with property are a way of determining whether the person is intending to come for a short trip or whether the intention is actually to remain in the West Bank and what they call "illegally immigrate."
There is a specific section in the new policy that states that if someone is coming for a short-term visit—and there are very few classes of people who can come for a short-term visit—those people are not allowed to work and they are not allowed to own property. It's possible that the question about whether you have family members in the West Bank is also tied to that, whether you have family members there and the risk that you're going to breach the terms of your visa—let's say you have three months and you end up living there for 10 years—because they want as few people as possible living in the West Bank.
What's going to happen now?
We have a court hearing scheduled for May 2. On April 28, yesterday, COGAT updated the court that they've made a decision to postpone the implementation of the new policy by an additional 45 days so they can address the reservations that we made, but that they still want the case to be dismissed.