Israel clamps down on West Bank "infiltrators"

April 14, 2010

When Abdullah Alsaafin said goodbye to his wife last August, he didn't know it might be for the last time. The couple and three of their four children live in Ramallah in the West Bank, home of Mrs. Alsaafin's family, and Mr. Alsaafin was leaving to visit his ailing father in Gaza.

Mr. Alsaafin, a British citizen and working journalist, had travelled frequently back and forth between the territories. On this occasion, however, he was stopped by Israeli authorities who learned he had been born in Gaza. They revoked his press credentials, said his passport was worthless, that he had (Israeli-issued) Gaza identification and was not entitled to live in the West Bank. He was ushered into Gaza and not allowed to leave.

Israel is strict about Palestinians leaving Gaza these days and, as of this week, has become stricter in who can enter and who can stay in the West Bank.

Army order No. 1,650 went into effect on Tuesday and, with it, Israel has widened the definition of who is not allowed to remain in the occupied territory. Basically, anyone who doesn't have a "permit" is to be considered an "infiltrator" and subject to expulsion.

Under orders established in 1969, shortly after the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and Golan Heights during the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel already had the power to expel infiltrators, but their definition was narrow: anyone who illegally entered the territory from an enemy state (Jordan, Egypt, Syria or Lebanon). Order No. 1,650 has no such qualification.

"It's so vague that it could apply to tens of thousands of people," said Michael Kearney, lawyer for Al Haq, a Palestinian human-rights organization, "even to people who entered the West Bank legally, with Israel's approval" - people such as Mr. Alsaafin.

The 1993 Oslo Agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority made no distinction between a West Bank Palestinian and one from Gaza. They were free to move back and forth and to take up residence in either territory. As well, until 2000, Israel approved the move into the West Bank of thousands of Palestinians for purposes of family reunification.

Palestinian experts say that many, if not most, of those people still do not have an official document acknowledging their new residency and thus lack the "permit" upon which Israel now insists.

Israeli officials have been quick to play down the possible consequences of the new military orders, insisting it is not Israeli's intention to use this order against those Palestinians who came in good faith to the West Bank.

Only between 30 and 60 expulsions have been carried out in each of the past three years, says Peter Lerner, a military spokesman. "There will not be an increase in the volume as a result of the new orders," he assured The Jerusalem Post newspaper.

Many Palestinian experts accept that this truly is the Israeli position, for now.

"We don't think they're going to round up all the Gazans in the West Bank and deport them," one Palestinian lawyer and government adviser said. "Their immediate targets are likely the internationals," he said, referring to people who work or volunteer for such organizations as the International Solidarity Movement. Many such people have overstayed their visitor's visas, and overstayed their welcome as far as Israel is concerned.

"But, down the road, these orders still could apply to many other people," Mr. Kearney said.

If they do, they would be in violation of the Geneva Conventions, Mr. Kearney said. Article 49 prohibits an occupying power from expelling persons unless "the security of the population" requires it. "There are no extenuating circumstances that would justify expulsion," he said.

Diana Buttu, a Canadian-born Israeli Palestinian and former adviser to the Palestinian Authority, acknowledges that this week's changes to expulsion orders are not, in themselves, a big change. "But, taken with several other measures, we can see the direction Israel is going," she said.

She referred to recent regulations preventing international aid workers from coming and going between the West Bank and Jerusalem, a policy (recently suspended) to disallow residents of the West Bank to leave or enter the territory by way of Israel's airport in Tel Aviv, and the end of family reunification.

"By drips and drabs, they seem determined to want to make life so unbearable, people will just leave," she said.

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