Middle East

Palestinians demand return of lost residency rights

Israeli soldier checks a Palestinian man’s ID at the Hawarra crossing, Nablus. June 2007
Image caption Israel controls all the exit and entry points to the West Bank

The Palestinian Authority is calling on Israel to reinstate the rights of up to 140,000 people who lived in the occupied West Bank and lost their residency after travelling abroad.

According to official documents obtained by an Israeli human rights group, the practice affected Palestinians travelling abroad after the 1967 Six Day War.

It remained in place until 1994 when the Oslo Accords came into effect.

A spokesman for the Palestinian government, Ghassan Khatib, said "an illegal and inhuman Israeli action" had been highlighted.

"This policy is part of the Israeli strategy to remove as many Palestinians as possible while moving Israeli citizens into our lands," he stated.

For 27 years, military procedures required any West Bank resident going on a foreign trip to deposit their identity card at the Allenby Bridge crossing into Jordan. They were then given an exit permit which was valid for three years.

Israel considered any traveller who did not return in that time as having transferred their "centre of life" abroad and altered their status to "ceased residency".

Few individuals managed to reverse the process.

'Great significance'

"We knew about this phenomenon for many years, but this is the first time that we got these incredible figures, referring to 140,000 Palestinians who had their citizenship revoked so we can see how widespread it was," says Ido Blum, head of the legal team at HaMoked, Centre for the Defence of the Individual.

"It is a very big figure amounting to about 14% of the residents of the West Bank so it is of great significance. We're still talking about thousands of Palestinians living in exile."

A joint Israeli-Palestinian committee set up after the Oslo Accords was supposed to solve the problems of lost identity cards but failed to do so in most cases.

Abu Hamdan, who lives in Ramallah in the West Bank, still vividly recalls the difficulties that his family faced after moving to the United States in 1985.

While he was able to return home each year to keep his residency, he could not afford the cost of bringing his wife and children with him. When they finally returned after nine years away, his wife had lost her residency and was granted only a tourist visa.

"I returned with her in 1994 and she was given a visa which expired after a few months. This was how she stayed until 2008," Abu Hamdan says. "Her identification document had been taken away when she was outside the country."

"My wife was always afraid. She couldn't even leave Ramallah because she couldn't go past the checkpoint. They would have taken her to prison and expelled her," Abu Hamdan says. "She used to worry about what would happen to our kids if she was sent away."

After almost six years, Abu Hamdan's wife was able to regain residency status under a procedure to aid family reconciliation.

Hidden policy?

The Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, quoted the former co-ordinator of government activities in the occupied territories saying he was unaware of the official policy when he was in the post between 1991 and 1995.

"If even I wasn't told of the procedure, one may infer that neither were residents of the occupied territories," Maj Gen Danny Rothschild, told the paper.

The co-ordinator has a unit within the ministry of defence in Israel. It includes a governing body, the civil administration, which administers the military occupation in the West Bank in co-ordination with the Palestinian Authority. Israel controls all the exit and entry points to the West Bank.

HaMoked said that an identical policy to the one applied in the West Bank was used in the Gaza Strip. It is asking for access to the records.

Palestinians who emigrated from the West Bank after the Palestinian Authority was set up are now able to retain residency rights, even if they do not return for several years.

Rights campaigners point out however, that residents of east Jerusalem who have Israeli ID cards can still lose their right to return if they have been abroad for several years.

East Jerusalem was occupied by Israel during the Six Day War in 1967 and annexed.

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