Amended Israeli restrictions on West Bank travel still require visitors to report relationships with Palestinians

Yumna Patel

Mondoweiss  /  September 5, 2022

Under pressure, Israel revised a list of draconian restrictions on foreigners in the West Bank but they maintain the same goal: the isolation of Palestinian society. 

The Israeli government has revised a list of draconian restrictions on the entry of foreigners into the occupied West Bank amid pressure from US and EU authorities, though rights groups say the regulations still maintain the same goal: demographic engineering and isolation of Palestinian society. 

The revised restrictions were published on Sunday night by COGAT – the Israeli military body responsible for implementing Israeli law in the occupied Palestinian territory- in a 90-page document titled “Procedure for entry and residence of foreigners in the Judea and Samaria area,” referring to the biblical name used by Israel for the West Bank.

COGAT’s new “procedures” were published earlier this year to widespread condemnation, and were initially set to go into effect back in May, but were postponed several times due to legal push back by Israeli human rights group Hamoked.

The revised restrictions published on Sunday walked back on some of the more widely-criticized rules, like an earlier stipulation that foreigners who enter into relationships with Palestinians must notify Israeli authorities within 30 days of the start of said relationship. 

The new document also removed an initial clause stipulating that the foreign spouses of Palestinians who had been married for 27 months must exit the West Bank, leaving their spouse and children behind, and remain out of the territory for six months for a “cooling off period.”

A previously listed cap on the amount of foreign students and teachers who can enroll in Palestinian academic institutions were also dropped, though heavy restrictions on entry into the West Bank for foreign students and teachers, as well as foreign business people and Palestinians with dual citizenship visiting the territory from abroad, were maintained.

The new rules are set to take effect on October 20th, and, following reported pressure from US officials, will undergo a two year “pilot period” during which changes can still be made to the regulations.

Hamoked, the Israeli group that’s been petitioning the rules in court, said the new revisions mostly amounted to “cosmetic changes.”

“It removed some of the most outrageous elements of the Procedure, but the basic problem remains,” Hamoked said on Twitter. 

“Israel will prevent thousands of families from living together for blatantly political reasons; The Israeli military takes the prerogative of micromanaging Palestinian society – including interfering with academic freedom of Palestinian universities,” the group said, adding that it will continue its legal challenge the procedures. 

What the revisions mean

While the new document removed some clauses, like the 30-day deadline to notify the government of an intimate relationship with a Palestinian, many of the restrictions remained in place. 

In their revised form, the regulations still say that if a foreigner starts a relationship with a Palestinian, “the appointed COGAT official must be informed as part of their request to renew or extend the existing visa.”

Additionally, the spouses of Palestinians are still only entitled to short-term visas that are renewed – or denied- at the discretion of the appointed COGAT official. COGAT also reserves the right to require a deposit of up to 70,000 shekels (~$20,000) to guarantee the foreign spouse will leave the territory if or when their visa expires or is denied. 

In line with pre-existing practices, the new rules state that foreign spouses of Palestinians who hold West Bank IDs will also be relegated to the West Bank, will be required to travel through the King Hussein (Allenby) Bridge through Jordan, and will not be allowed to travel through Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport unless they receive special permission to do so. 

The same rules apply to foreign-passport holders wishing to visit family in the West Bank.

As per the initial stipulations, Palestinian-Americans and other Palestinians with foreign nationalities who want to travel to the occupied West Bank to visit family will still have to apply to COGAT for advanced permission, and will be required to reveal the personal information of the relatives they plan on visiting, along with data of any land they own or stand to inherit in the territory.

The new regulations did seem to offer one positive measure for foreign spouses, which would allow them to apply for renewable longer term visas (27 months), that include multiple visits in and out of the territory – something spouses are currently prevented from doing. 

But even those new visa options will require lengthy application processes through the Palestinian Authority (PA), and at the end of the day, are subject to final approval by Israel. 

Overall, the regulations still grant COGAT the discretionary power to determine who will be allowed to enter and stay in the West Bank – that includes foreign workers, volunteers, business people, the friends and family of Palestinians, students, and teachers. 

None of the COGAT regulations apply to foreigners visiting illegal Jewish-Israeli settlements in the West Bank for the purpose of travel, study, work, or entering into a relationship with an Israeli Jew. 

Ahmed Abofoul, a lawyer with Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq spoke to Mondoweiss back in June about the regulations, describing them as “apartheid in action.”

“It is a very dangerous, and flagrant form of domination,” Abofoul said, adding that “Israel realizes that foreigner visits to the occupied territories exposes Israel’s apartheid policies [to the world], and this solidarity with Palestinians is affecting Israel on the international stage, and they don’t want this to happen.”

US Ambassador expresses ‘concern’

Following months of relative silence from the Biden administration on the new regulations, US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides released a statement on Sunday, expressing some “concerns” he had over the published protocols. 

“Since February, U.S. Embassy Jerusalem, the U.S. Office of Palestinian Affairs, and I have aggressively engaged with the Government of Israel on these draft rules – and we will continue to do so in the 45-day lead up to implementation and during the two-year pilot period,” Nides said. 

“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. 

It is important to ensure all of these regulations are developed in coordination with key stakeholders, including the Palestinian Authority. I fully expect the Government of Israel to make necessary adjustments during the pilot period to ensure transparency as well as the fair and equal treatment of all U.S. citizens and other foreign nationals traveling to the West Bank,” Nides said. 

Nides failed to note that Israel does not have sovereign power over the West Bank and its inhabitants, as the territory is under Israeli military occupation – an occupation that is largely considered to be illegal by the international community.

The Israeli government has long sought a visa-waiver program with the United States, which would allow Israeli nationals to travel to the US on short-term visits without having to apply for a visa before-hand. 

As part of a visa-waiver program Israel would have to ensure that American citizens, including Palestinian-Americans receive fair and equal treatment at Israeli borders – something Israeli authorities have long been accused of explicitly violating. 

The Times of Israel quoted an unnamed senior US embassy official as saying that ongoing talks with Israel over a visa waiver program are “parallel but separate tracks” from the COGAT restrictions.

“These policies that COGAT will be issuing have an effect on American citizens, as they do on nationals of other countries. We will be looking at those closely and continuing the conversation with COGAT and other parts of the Israeli government as we move down the path toward visa reciprocity,” the official said. 

The Times of Israel went on to quote the official as saying that “The visa waiver reciprocity requirements, when we get to that point, will supersede some of these COGAT policies that we’ve listed here,” and that US officials were “complicated and sensitive discussion” with the Israeli government, including on the issue of  “extending reciprocal privileges to all US citizens, including Palestinian-Americans.”

Yumna Patel is the Palestine News Director for Mondoweiss