Israel announces new rules for foreigners in the West Bank

JERUSALEM (AP) — An Israeli military body published Sunday a list of rules and restrictions for foreigners wishing to enter Palestinian areas of the West Bank, extending its control of daily life and movement in and out of the occupied territory.

COGAT, the Israeli body in charge of Palestinian civil affairs, backed away from a number of controversial restrictions that had appeared in a draft of the rules released earlier this year, such as the requirement that people who engage in romantic relationships with Palestinians premises are registered in Israel. authorities.

But many of the changes in the 90-page document appeared to be largely cosmetic. The US ambassador raised concerns about the rules, with critics saying they merely entrenched Israel’s 55-year-old hold on the Palestinian population in the territory.

“The Israeli army is proposing new restrictions to isolate Palestinian society from the outside world and prevent Palestinian families from living together,” said Jessica Montell, executive director of HaMoked, an Israeli human rights group that has challenged the rules in court. .

“In response to criticism, they have removed the most outrageous elements. However, they maintain the basic structure of this very invasive and damaging procedure,” he added. The rules will go into effect on October 20.

The broad policy imposes rules on foreigners who marry Palestinians or who come to the West Bank to work, volunteer, study or teach. The rules do not apply to people visiting Israel or the more than 130 Jewish settlements spread across the West Bank.

Israel captured the West Bank, along with East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, in the 1967 Middle East war, land the Palestinians seek for an independent state.

The initial draft included a requirement that a foreigner who forms a serious romantic relationship with a local Palestinian notify the Israeli military within 30 days of the “beginning of the relationship,” defined as an engagement, wedding, or move together.

The 30-day notice was removed from the Sunday rules. But nonetheless, it says that if a foreigner initiates a relationship with a Palestinian, “COGAT’s designated official must be informed as part of his application to renew or extend the existing visa.”

The new rules also removed previous limits on the number of foreign students and teachers allowed to study or work in the West Bank. The amount of time they can stay in the territory has also been lengthened.

However, COGAT continues to have great discretion over who is allowed to enter. It must approve the academic credentials of a university professor invited by a Palestinian institution and has the right to screen potential students if there is “suspected misuse” of a visa.

Strict restrictions also remain on foreign spouses of Palestinians. Spouses are only entitled to short-term visits and may be required to deposit up to 70,000 shekels (about $20,000) to guarantee they will leave the territory.

The new rules offer some potential relief for foreign spouses, including a longer-term 27-month visa that can be renewed and include multiple visits in and out of the territory. It also removes a previous “cooling off” period that required spouses to leave for long periods between visas.

But these new and improved visas require an application through the Palestinian Authority to Israel, a process that is uncertain and notoriously opaque, Montell said. The document says that a final decision is also subject to the approval of Israel’s “political echelon.”

US Ambassador Tom Nides expressed disappointment with the rules, saying he had “aggressively engaged” with Israel in the draft and would continue to do so ahead of the rules’ formal implementation.

“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,” he said. “I fully expect the Government of Israel to make the necessary adjustments” during a two-year pilot program to ensure “fair and equal treatment of all US citizens and other foreign nationals traveling to the West Bank.”

Israel hopes to reach a visa waiver program with the United States, which has long resisted the move, in part because Israel treats Palestinian-Americans differently from other American citizens.

The European Union, which sends hundreds of students and professors on academic exchanges to the West Bank each year, did not immediately comment on the Israeli announcement.

COGAT officials declined to comment further, while the Palestinian Authority had no immediate reaction. Montell said his group would continue their legal challenges.

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