West Bank visitors ordered to register romances as Israel brings in strict rules

| Bethan McKernan pour The Guardian |

Curbs on people falling in love with a Palestinian among measures expected to stifle economy and academia and hit aid agencies


Israel has implemented strict rules limiting the ability of foreigners to enter and stay in the occupied West Bank despite international criticism of the measures, which include the compulsory declaration of romantic relationships.

A 90-page ordinance replacing the previous four-page document came into effect on Thursday for a two-year pilot period. It is expected to stifle the Palestinian economy and academia and the work of aid agencies, and create complications for hundreds of thousands of Palestinian families with dual nationality, who are already struggling to navigate a convoluted permit system.

Nearly all foreign nationals coming to volunteer, work or study in the West Bank will be granted only single-entry visas, some valid for just three months, and will have to leave between visas and wait – in some cases for more than a year – before reapplying for entry. In most cases, residency is limited to a 12- to 27-month period, making family life and long-term employment almost impossible.

“Fear of becoming entrenched” – settling down and staying in the West Bank long term – is grounds for denying a visa extension application, and individuals will have to leave and wait outside the area until additional visa or permit decisions are made.

People born in Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Bahrain and South Sudan – even if they have citizenship of a second country – are now barred from the West Bank except under exceptional circumstances. About 60% of the Jordanian population is of Palestinian origin.

Cogat, the Israeli military civil body responsible for government policy in the occupied Palestinian territories, first outlined the new rules in February. Implementation has been delayed and the text revised several times after legal challenges from rights groups citing the formalisation of discriminatory practices.

The proposals made headlines in July when international media picked up on a clause stating that foreigners must inform Israeli authorities within 30 days if they fall in love with a Palestinian.

The one-month period for declaring a romantic relationship and visa cooling-off period for newly married couples has been dropped from the final wording of the document, but Palestinians and human rights organisations say it still requires foreign nationals to declare love interests, as well as non-security-related information such as property or inheritance, at the discretion of Israeli officials.

Quotas on the number of foreign lecturers and students have been scrapped, and allowances have been made for long-term visas for doctors and teachers. However, the new procedures still allow for quotas on visa categories to be introduced “in accordance with the interplay of relevant considerations, including the political/security situation”.

Cogat did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether the final text of the rules differed substantially from previous versions.

HaMoked, an Israeli non-profit focusing on Palestinian legal rights, filed an injunction alleging discriminatory and restrictive criteria in June, but the petition was rejected on the grounds that it was premature.

“Those affected have to try and work within the new procedures and exhaust all the possible administrative options first. So when dual nationals or foreign volunteers or whoever begin getting denied entry to the West Bank, that’s when we can file a new petition on their behalf,” said Jessica Montell, HaMoked’s executive director.

“The main issue here is not picking apart the arbitrary and convoluted nature of the new rules ; it’s that none of it has any legal ground,” she said. “Under international law, the Israeli military is only allowed to work for the interests of the occupied population, or its own security needs. These restrictions obviously advance neither.”