Thousands of Palestinians in limbo as Israel doubles wait time for exit visas from Gaza

Palestinians striving to leave Gaza Strip must brave Israeli bureaucracy and face weeks on weeks of delays

Eman Alswaity of Gaza plans to develop wind turbines to promote renewable energy in the Gaza Strip. Two pilot projects for wind turbines in Gaza have failed, but Alswaity hopes to find solutions for the problems these efforts revealed as part of her doctorate in alternative-energy studies at the University of Cambridge.

Alswaity, 35, learned she been accepted to the prestigious university, with a scholarship, only in September. Classes start on October 1, but she was told it’s okay to come late as long as she’s there by November 9.

She immediately began braving the bureaucracy needed to obtain entry visas both for Britain and Jordan, which Gazans use as a transit point, when Israel permits it. She received her passport, stamped with a British visa, three weeks after filling out the forms online. (It went to Amman and back via express mail.)

Her transit visa for Jordan, which was dependent on getting her British visa, arrived in two weeks. Armed with these two documents, she went to the Palestinian civil affairs committee on October 18 to ask it to give the Israeli Liaison and Coordination Office her application to travel from Gaza to Jordan via Israel.

But when Alswaity submitted her application three weeks ago, she discovered that Israel had changed the rules, so she couldn’t expect an answer in less than two months.

Greater restrictions

Back in May, Israeli Liaison Office officials told the Palestinian civil affairs committee in Gaza that aside from urgent cases, the processing time for exit-permit applications would grow from 24 working days to between 50 and 70 (regardless of whether the answer was positive or negative). Working days don’t include Fridays, Saturdays or Jewish holidays. This was another step in a trend toward greater restrictions on Gazans’ freedom of movement that first became evident in late 2015.

Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories published the new rules only five months later, in October. And the maximum time for processing an application proved even longer than Palestinian officials had originally been told: 23 working days for requests to leave for nonurgent medical care; 50 days for visiting sick relatives in the West Bank or Israel or attending weddings, work meetings, conferences and embassy or consulate appointments; and 70 days for studying, doing a medical residency, trading in Israel or going abroad. But to attend funerals in Israel, answers were promised immediately.

Alswaity, tense and upset, had already told her supervisor in Britain she would be late. But the fear is that even after 70 days, she still wouldn’t have a response to her request for an exit permit. That has happened to many other students.

Sometimes, by the time they get a positive response from Israel, their visa for the country they planned to study in, or their entry visa for Jordan, has expired, forcing them to start the whole process over again. Sometimes they lose an entire semester, or even a full year – and their scholarship.

Over the past year, some 16,000 applications to leave Gaza have piled up at the Israeli Liaison Office and still await a reply. That’s what COGAT told the Gisha Legal Center for Freedom of Movement in response to a freedom-of-information request.

COGAT didn’t tell either Gisha or Haaretz how long ago these applications were filed. But the Palestinian civil affairs committee said 14,000 of the applications it has passed on to Israel since the start of the year have yet to receive a response. These include 3,052 applications by people over 60, 5,533 by merchants (including 400 over age 60) and 3,372 by people seeking to pass through Israel en route to Jordan (including 383 people over 60 and 315 students).

Louay Habil, 25, is one of those nerve-racking statistics. Neither of his applications for an exit permit, filed in November 2016 and August 2017, has received a response.

Habil is an American citizen (as well as a resident of the Palestinian Authority), because he was born in the United States 25 years ago, while his father was there doing a doctorate in math. After finishing high school, he returned to America, knowing that only there could he find work and get ahead.

In May 2016, he had just finished his bachelor’s degree in computer information systems when his family called to say his father had died of a heart attack. With great effort, he managed to obtain a permit to travel from Jordan to Gaza via Israel to spend a few months with his mother, sister and three brothers, the youngest of whom is 15.

Habil was torn between his desire to be with his family and his need to return to America and find work to support them. After the death of his father, the family breadwinner, the family’s financial situation worsened rapidly. And during Habil’s enforced stay in Gaza, with its steep unemployment, he couldn’t find a job.

Interrogation some other time

In early October, Gisha began writing to the Liaison Office on his behalf. In late October, after receiving no response, it told the office’s commander for Gaza, Col. Fares Attila, that it would have to petition the High Court of Justice because Habil’s entry visa for Jordan expired on November 16.

At 9 P.M. on October 29, a letter from the Liaison Office arrived at Gisha’s closed offices announcing that Habil had been summoned for a security interview on October 30. The next day, he hastened to the Erez checkpoint between Israel and Gaza.

He was held up at the PA checkpoint outside it, since the Liaison Office hadn’t told it he was coming. And when he finally made it to the Israeli part of Erez, he waited three hours only to be told by a liaison officer, or a Shin Bet security service officer (he isn’t sure which), that the interrogation would take place some other time.

Hassles like these await most people who try to leave Gaza. Thus on October 31, attorney Moran Gur of Gisha petitioned the High Court on behalf of Habil and two women whose departures had also been delayed.

One has been trying since 2013 to get permission to go to the West Bank city of Tul Karm to visit her sick mother, who had a stroke. She has repeatedly been turned down for unspecified reasons or received no response at all. Her latest application was filed in August, and her mother’s condition continues to deteriorate.

The second is Hadeel Firwana, a 25-year-old pediatrician who is planning to get married in Qatar on November 25. Her entry visa to that country expired on November 8, meaning she would have to obtain a new one after that date.

Under pressure from the High Court petition, the Liaison Office announced that all three would be allowed to leave Gaza this week. Israel severely limits the number of Gazans allowed to pass through it to Jordan and doesn’t let them spend even a day in the West Bank en route. They travel by shuttle directly from Erez to the Allenby Bridge crossing between the West Bank and Jordan, and the shuttle runs only once a week, on Tuesdays. Moreover, there’s a cap of 100 people per shuttle, or 400 per month.

On Monday, the Liaison Office announced that the shuttle had been postponed to Wednesday. But since Firwana’s visa expired on November 8, she was allowed to go in a special “emergency vehicle.”

At the Allenby Bridge, Israeli clerks asked her to sign a pledge not to return for a year. She told Haaretz that two people who were going abroad for medical treatment at the same time were required to sign a similar pledge. Having no choice, they signed, even though they didn’t plan to be away that long.

Over the past two weeks, Gisha’s legal aid has also obtained exit permits at the last minute for some 30 students, including 19 who left last week for Qatar and China. Under threat of a High Court petition, applications suddenly get processed very quickly.

But what about the thousands of other people? COGAT’s reply to Gisha’s freedom of information request said its lack of response to 16,466 applications (as of September 6) stemmed “from various reasons related to both security and internal constraints.”

Since 1991, when Israel began requiring Gazans to obtain permits to go to Israel or the West Bank, the number of applicants, the number of permits issued and the categories of people who receive permits have changed constantly, usually for the worse. The outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, the Gaza pullout in 2005, and Hamas’ military takeover of Gaza in 2007 are the three points in time when Israel’s restrictions on Gazans’ freedom of movement, imports and exports became more stringent.

Moreover, ever since Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government was toppled in July 2013, Gaza’s border crossing with Egypt has been closed most of the time and the trip to Cairo has become dangerous and intimidating.

Over the past decade, Israel has allowed a handful of students who received scholarships from America to pass through its territory to Jordan. It gradually expanded this to other students studying abroad as well, though the number never exceeded a few hundred. Israel has not allowed Gazans to study in the West Bank since 2000, and that ban remains in force.

Following its deadly raid on a flotilla trying to break the blockade of Gaza in May 2010, Israel relaxed a few prohibitions. In 2009, Gazans exited the territory on average 1,199 times per month (this doesn’t mean 1,199 Gazans exited; many permit holders leave and enter several times a month). Of these, 838 were for medical treatment. But by 2015, Gisha said, the monthly average had climbed to 14,276.

Since then, however, the number of average monthly departures has been dropping again, especially for merchants and businessmen – from about 3,600 merchants a month in late 2015 to 765 as of September 1, 703 as of October 1 and 598 as of November 1.

In 2016, the number of departures per month averaged 12,150. But in the first half of 2017, the monthly average plunged to 6,302, of which one-third were for medical treatment. In October, according to Gisha, the number was 4,812 – a drop of 24 percent compared to the start of the year.

A spokesman for COGAT responded, “The situation assessment among the relevant security agencies requires adjusting the security check process in accordance with developing threats. In recent months, we have engaged in staff work together with the relevant security agencies, and as part of this work, we set a timetable for completing the processing of applications to enter Israel in a way that permits a professional examination process.

“This staff work was done in stages, and the Palestinian civil affairs committee was briefed on the various stages. Later, as needed, we will consider updating the timetables based on the situation assessment.”