In an effort to put pressure on foreign residents living in the Palestinian territories, the Israeli government has enforced a series of visa restrictions. To maintain their legal residency status in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, foreign residents must regularly renew their visas with the Palestinian Interior Ministry, which then relays their applications to the Israeli Civil Administration, headquartered in Beit El in the West Bank. Previously, the Israeli Civil Administration would process the passports of foreign residents and stamp them, providing visas that were valid for several months or even up to a year. Recently, the visa renewal process has become a legal barrier to foreign residents, particularly those with a Palestinian spouse. In many cases, visa renewal requests are even outright rejected.
Sam Babour, a co-founder of the Right to Enter campaign—a grassroots organization that fights to defend the rights of access, movement and residency in the Palestinian territories—told Al Jazeera that, “By addressing the foreign nationals who are coming to add value to the community, by not letting them come in, the quality of life is reduced and that is more suffocating for Palestinians forcing them to leave the country.” Indeed, the lengthy, often cumbersome, and ever-changing visa renewal process has resulted in a renewal rate dropping from 70 percent in 2017 to just 10 percent this past year, according to officials of the Palestinian Civil Affairs Commission.
The seemingly arbitrary policies that the Israeli government legislates on the visa renewal process are only the tip of the iceberg. Each application and new visa cost 480 shekels, approximately $137. This imposes an undue burden on foreign residents and their families, where the GDP per capita in Palestine is just $1997.30 (2016). But beyond the economic costs, it is the social impact on families that must be expressed. It is a similar story for these couples and families. A Palestinian marries a Western national and establishes a family in the Palestinian territories. They go to the local office of the Palestinian Interior Ministry to renew the visa of the foreign spouse. Once they receive their paperwork back, they see that their visa renewal request was denied. If their applications are successful, then their visas are valid for only a few months, or even just a few weeks. This level of uncertainty clearly creates an inhospitable environment for foreign residents and their families. If foreign residents leave the Palestinian territories and try to reenter, they are often prevented from doing so. This leaves such families in a state of legal limbo, with foreign nationals living precariously in a system that effectively discriminates against them. They are not even allowed to return to their countries of origin and return to the West Bank or Gaza Strip. It is not only Palestinians who are deprived of rights, but also any foreign national seeking to make a home in the Palestinian territories.
The situation for foreign residents and their families will likely remain as it is or even deteriorate further. Tensions between Israelis and Palestinians have only been heightened by the recent Gaza border protests, beginning in late March earlier this year. Resulting in over a hundred dead and thousands wounded, the aftermath of these protests is likely to only further increase the level of distrust between the two sides. It must also be noted that the protests coincided, or perhaps were a response to, the Trump administration’s decision to relocate its Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. With this American pivot towards Israel, it is unlikely that the United States will seek to confront the Israeli government on its policies towards Palestinians, including the issue of foreign residents’ visas. Furthermore, under the premiership of Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party, the policies are only going to be more stringent. These pressures on Palestinians and their foreign spouses have the potential of inspiring further radicalism among Palestinians and reducing the likelihood of a sustainable peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. To resolve this situation and decrease a further escalation of violence, it is imperative that Palestinians and Israelis begin discussions on this matter. It could very well be a catalyst in breaking down the current diplomatic impasse, leading to a warming of relations.