By: Dr. Aref Assaf
I cannot enter my homeland, Palestine, without a tourist visa from Israel
“A land without people for a people without a land,” and “The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man,” were two slogans early Zionist leaders advocated when they began their migration into Palestine in the early part of the last century. Of course, the land was inhabited by Palestinian Arabs, Muslims, and Christians, who would eventually face one of the world’s greatest acts of dispossession and expulsion from their homes, their villages and towns in what became known in 1948 as the State of Israel. The ethnic cleansing of Palestine never abated. With the 1967 occupation of the rest of Palestine, Israel instituted over 2500 Military orders to control the lives of Palestinians.
Even the most modest Israeli politician would still argue that the Palestinians have constituted a ‘demographic bomb’ that must be extinguished before Israel- as a Jewish state- ceases to exist. Millions of Jews were brought in to replace the Palestinians creating the Palestinian Diaspora of more than 12 million.
I was not surprised when I saw a recent report by the Human Rights Watch that admonished Israel for restricting movement and residency status of its captive Palestinian population. Israeli policies on residency have arbitrarily denied thousands of Palestinians the ability to live, and travel to and from, the West Bank and Gaza. The report called on Israel to immediately stop denying or canceling the residency of Palestinians and close family members with deep ties to the West Bank and Gaza, and end blanket ban on processing applications for residency.
The 90-page report, “Forget about Him, He’s Not Here,” describes exclusion by the Israeli military of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians since 1967 and documents the impact that exclusion continues to have on individuals and families. “The way Israel’s military has exercised its control over the Palestinian population registry – the list of Palestinians whom it considers to be lawful residents of the West Bank and Gaza territories – has separated families, caused people to lose jobs and educational opportunities, barred people from entering Palestinian territories, and trapped others inside.”
Getting rid of Palestinians has been a cornerstone imperative of Israel’s strategic objectives vis-a-vis the Palestinians. A little history will situate our argument in the proper context.
In 1967, Israel declared the West Bank and the Gaza Strip closed areas. Movement in and out of the required approval of the military commander. A census was then held, and every person over the age of sixteen living in the Occupied Territories, OT, and present at the time of the census was given permanent residency status in the OT. Israel denied residents who were not present during the census their right to live in the OT. These constituted more than 300,000 Palestinians who had been expelled from the Occupied Territories or had left them during or immediately after the 1967 war or who had been living in other countries during the war.
Even those who were given permanent residency status were liable to lose it. For instance, Israel revoked the permanent status of residents who stayed outside the OT for more than three years without extending their exit permit as happened to me. Over the years, Israel revoked the residency rights of more than 100,000 persons on this basis. I was one of those.
I left for the States in 1977 to start my university studies. Israel issued me an Exit Permit valid for three years and it was renewable only once. To maintain my residency status I needed to be in the West Bank before the end of the sixth year. However, in the summer of 1985, I was scheduled to defend my Doctoral thesis on a date, which fell four days after my permit had expired. When I returned to the West Bank via Jordan, the Israeli military controlling the Allenby Bridge (that separates Jordan from the West Bank) refused to allow me to cross into the West Bank. They based their decision on the fact that I was late for about a week and as such, I have lost my residency privilege.
Despite intense intervention by international organizations, US Department of State and my prospective employer, Israel was steadfast in their decision to deny me entry into my homeland. Consequently, I am no longer a citizen or permanent resident of Palestine, the place of my birth, and the place where I lived for 18 years- ten of which under Israeli occupation. That arbitrary decision was life-changing for me to say the least, the implications of which will have to be told later. Thankfully, I was welcomed back into the United States as a citizen- a privilege I so value and could never repay. Now I return to Palestine as a foreigner with a temporary tourist visa!
Over the years, I have hired Israeli lawyers to restore my Israeli issued ID to
no avail. I have also filed multiple petitions through the Palestinian Authority to get back my ID but like hundreds of thousands who are in my situation, Israel continues to deny us our right to live in our homeland.
Denying the right of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to live in the Occupied Territories led to the splitting of many Palestinian families. Marriage within the extended family continued to be common in Palestinian society, irrespective of state borders that may separate the family members. A large number of marriages occur between residents of the OT and Palestinians from their extended family living abroad, notably Jordan, among them refugees from the 1967 war and descendants of refugees from the 1948 war.
Such marriages are very common among almost every family in the OT. Israel, however, has chosen to ignore this reality and to maintain a rigid policy toward family unification. Its consistent position has been that family unification in the OT is not a vested right of Palestinians, but rather a special act of compassion by the Israeli authorities. Accordingly, Israel has inconsistently approved requests for family unification submitted by residents of the OT and has almost entirely prevented these residents from being unified with their spouses.
Since the occupation began in 1967, and especially since the formation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1994, many changes have been made in the control and administration of the OT. One thing that has not changed, however, is that both the registration of persons in the population registry and the granting of visitor’s permits remain in Israel’s almost absolute control. It should be noted that in the framework of the Oslo Accords, most of the powers transferred to the PA in these areas of activity are brokered between the PA and the Israeli military authorities, with Israel retaining the substantive if not the absolute powers. It should be noted, further, that even the PA issued ‘Passports” bears the number of the person’s Israeli issued ID. The PA cannot issue IDs or passports, Israel does.
Israel’s control over the population registry has adversely impacted the registered Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza, probably by hundreds of thousands of people. And this is the direct result of its longstanding policy: to depopulate the Palestinian territories and to maintain a Jewish majority. This reduction has occurred while Israel simultaneously increased the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank by close to 750,000, in violation of the international humanitarian law on transferring one’s population to occupied territory.