Israel’s Control of Palestinian Residency in the West Bank and Gaza

Page 3,Summary, Human Rights Watch

“Forget About Him, He’s Not Here”


Gaza: Is this a war on children? | Channel 4 News

Muhammad N. was born in Gaza, where his parents and extended family live. But for more than 30 years the 66-year-old was able to visit the coastal strip—which Israel occupied in the 1967 Middle East war—for only three months at a time, and was not able to gain residency until four years ago.

Muhammad’s effective exclusion from his birthplace was rooted in a population census of Palestinians that Israel conducted in September 1967, shortly after capturing the Gaza Strip from Egypt and the West Bank from Jordan. The census counted the 954,898 Palestinians physically present in the West Bank and Gaza at the time, but did not include at least 270,000 Palestinians who were absent, either because they had fled during the conflict or were abroad for study, work, or other reasons.

At the time Israel conducted the census in Gaza, Muhammad was attending university in Cairo. “My father told me that when the [Israeli] soldiers came, he said that I was studying in Egypt … the soldier said, ‘So forget about him, he’s not here.’”

Israel subsequently recorded the names and demographic data gleaned from the 1967 census in a newly created registry of the Palestinian population. It refused to recognize the right of most of the absent individuals whom it did not register—including all men then aged 16 to 60—to return to their homes in the occupied territory.

From that time, Muhammad could only gain an entry permit for a maximum of three months. He eventually found work as an accountant in Abu Dhabi, married, and had a family. He applied for residency in the occupied Palestinian territory in 2000, but Israel stopped processing applications later that year, amid an escalation in Israeli-Palestinian violence. Israeli authorities eventually entered him, his daughter, and one of his sons in the population registry in 2007, but not his wife and another son. “It made no sense,” he said.

Since 1967, the population registry has been central to Israel’s administrative efforts to control the demographic composition of the occupied Palestinian territory, where Palestinians want to establish a state.[1] Israel has used Palestinians’ residency status as a tool to control their ability to reside in, move within, and travel abroad from the West Bank, as well as to travel from Gaza to Israel and the West Bank. A 2005 survey conducted on behalf of B’Tselem, an Israeli rights group, estimated that 17.2 percent of the Palestinians registered in the West Bank and Gaza, around 640,000 people, had a parent, child, sibling, or spouse whom Israeli military authorities had not registered as a resident.[2]

This report documents Israel’s exclusion of Palestinians from the population registry, and the restrictions it imposes on Palestinians who are registered. It finds that the Israeli measures vastly exceed what could be justified under international law as needed to address legitimate security concerns, and have dire consequences for Palestinians’ ability to enjoy such basic rights as the right to family life and access to health care and education facilities.[3]

Today, Palestinians must be included in the population registry to get identification cards and passports. In the West Bank, Palestinians need identification cards to travel internally, including to schools, jobs, hospitals, and to visit family, because Israeli security forces manning checkpoints demand to see such cards before allowing passage.[4] Israeli border officials, who control all entry and exit to the West Bank, also require Palestinians seeking to travel abroad to present an identification card or passport.

Since the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, in September 2000, Israel has denied entry to the Palestinian territory to non-registered Palestinians and to non-registered spouses and other family members of Palestinian residents; for example, the number of entry permits to the West Bank and Gaza dropped from around 64,000 in 1999 to 192 in the 10 months after November 2000.[5]Israel has also effectively frozen the ability of most Palestinians who are registered as Gaza residents to move to, or even temporarily visit the West Bank, where many have relatives, own property, have business ties, or want to attend university.[6] Palestinians registered as Gaza residents who are already living in the West Bank face problems because Israel does not recognize their right to live there; unless they have special permits, it classifies them as criminal “infiltrators.”

Israeli authorities have sought to explain and justify these policies by referring to “the breakdown that occurred in the relationship between Israel and the Palestinian Authority” after “the outbreak of hostilities in September 2000.”[7] During the intifada, attacks by Palestinian armed groups killed hundreds of Israeli civilians. However, since 2000 Israel has continued to coordinate with the Palestinian Authority (PA), for example, by registering the births of children to registered Palestinian parents. Further, the Israeli rights group B’Tselem found that after September 2000, Israeli authorities frequently rejected Palestinians’ applications for residency without specifying any security threat.

Israeli authorities have argued that both these blanket restrictions on adding Palestinians to the population registry, and the partial, limited easing of those restrictions are political issues related to Israel’s relations with the Palestinian Authority, indicating that Israel views control over the population registry as a bargaining chip in negotiations. Israel’s control over the population registry has also significantly lowered the registered Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza, probably by hundreds of thousands of people.[8] Given that Israel has continuously increased the number of settlers in the West Bank, its reduction in the Palestinian population there, as Israeli rights groups have noted, is consistent with a policy based on “improper demographic objectives.”[9]

While security concerns could legally justify some restrictions on Palestinians’ rights, under international law such restrictions must be necessary and narrowly tailored to address specific threats. In contrast, in residency-related cases where Israeli military and judicial authorities have cited security concerns, they have often done so to justify restrictions that are so broad and general as to be arbitrary. For instance, Israel’s high court upheld the military’s blanket ban on all registered Gaza residents studying in West Bank universities because “it is not unreasonable to assume” that replacing the ban with a system of individually-screening applicants “will likely lead to an increase in terrorist activity.”[10] Such an approach, of allowing a complete ban on a basic right (education) on only the vaguest grounds of security, without individual determinations, violates human rights law.

Israel also claims that its human rights obligations, such as respecting the right to family life, do not extend to Palestinian territory, where it says international humanitarian law (the laws of war) applies exclusively. Therefore, Israel argues, it bears no responsibility under human rights law for harms inflicted on Palestinians by its policies relating to the population registry—even as it insists on maintaining its control over the registry.

Israel’s arguments have been repeatedly rejected by numerous legal authorities, including the International Court of Justice, which have confirmed that human rights law applies at the same time as international humanitarian law, including during military occupations. Israel is obliged to respect Palestinians’ human rights to freedom of movement, including the rights to move freely within and to leave and return to the West Bank and Gaza; the right to family unity; and other rights, including access to education.

Denial of Residency and Right to a Family Life

Even before the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence in September 2000—in addition to the Palestinians it excluded from the population registry in 1967—Israel had for years denied or failed to process tens of thousands of applications for residency from the relatives, children, or spouses of registered Palestinians, on the basis of changing, arbitrary criteria.

After 1967, for instance, Israel granted residency to children under 16 who were born in the West Bank and Gaza, or who were born abroad if one parent was a registered resident. In 1987, with the outbreak of the first Palestinian intifada, the military ordered that children under 16 who were born in the occupied territory could only be registered if their mother was a resident, and that children born abroad could not be registered after the age of five, regardless of either parent’s residency status. As Israeli rights groups pointed out, in some Palestinian families, Israel thus considered that the older children were residents of the occupied territory but that their younger siblings born after 1987 were living there illegally. In 1995, Israel changed its policy and began to register Palestinian children who were born abroad to a registered parent, if the child was physically present in the West Bank or Gaza. However, in 2000 Israel stopped granting entry to all unregistered Palestinians more than five years old. In 2006 Israel began to grant entry permits to Palestinian children for the purpose allowing them to apply for registration, but it has refused to register children who turned 16 during the period from 2000 to 2006, when Israeli policies had made their entry and registration impossible.

Between 1967 and 1994, Israel also permanently cancelled the residency status of 130,000 registered Palestinian residents of the West Bank, in many cases on the basis that they had remained outside the West Bank for too long (in most cases, more than three years). Human Rights Watch interviewed Palestinians who said Israel cancelled their residency due to their failure to renew “exit permits” but who do not have foreign citizenship. The Israeli military does not allow Palestinians to appeal in such cases.

Until 2000, Israel allowed Palestinians who married non-registered foreigners or had a non-registered parent or child, to apply for “family reunification” with them; if approved, Israel would register the relative as a resident of the West Bank or Gaza. Israeli authorities granted far fewer requests than were submitted. By the late 1970s, Israel had granted around 50,000 family reunification applications, with 150,000 requests pending. Between 1973 and 1983, Israel granted approximately 1,000 requests annually, and only a few hundred per year subsequently.[11] In 1993 it instituted a quota of 2,000 requests per year, which it increased in 2000 to 4,000 per year.

As noted, after September 2000 Israel largely froze the “family reunification” procedure. It continued to register children who had at least one registered Palestinian parent and were born in the West Bank or Gaza, but stopped allowing most others to register, including the spouses and parents of registered Palestinians, even if they had lived in the occupied territory for years. The Palestinian Authority, which receives applications from Palestinians and transfers them to Israel for approval, estimated that from 2000 to 2005, it had relayed more than 120,000 applications for family reunification that Israel did not process.

From 2007 to 2009, Israel allowed a limited quota of Palestinians to register and to change their addresses, but set the quota in the context of political negotiations rather than on the basis of any obligation to respect Palestinians’ rights, such as the right to live with their families. These measures were inadequate even to clear the backlog of cases since 2000, and have created stark disparities within the same families among family members who have received very different treatment.

Restrictions on Gaza Residents

Although Israel withdrew civilian settlers and ground forces from Gaza in 2005, after 38 years, it continues to control the population registry there, and policies based on this control can severely affect Gazans’ lives.[12]

It is almost impossible for non-registered Palestinians in Gaza to enter Israel for medical treatments that are unavailable in Gaza’s lower-quality hospitals.[13] Since May 2011, when Egypt eased restrictions on the movement of people through the southern Rafah border it shares with Gaza, most registered Gaza residents have been eligible to travel abroad via Egypt.[14]However, non-registered Palestinians continue to face restrictions because Egyptian border officials still require Palestinians to present the identification cards that are linked to the Israeli-controlled population registry.

Since 2000, Israel has also prevented Palestinians who are registered as Gaza residents, but who live in the West Bank, from updating their addresses accordingly. Approximately 35,000 Palestinians from Gaza who entered the West Bank remain there without valid permits, according to Israeli military records; Israel has allowed around 2,800 people to change their addresses from Gaza to the West Bank. Under Israeli military orders in force since 2010, Gaza-registered Palestinians are not lawful residents of the West Bank but criminal “infiltrators,” although Israeli military authorities are not known to have prosecuted any Palestinians under these military orders.

In one case, Israeli military authorities registered Abdullah Alsaafin, 50, as a resident of Gaza, where he was born. His wife was registered as a West Bank resident. Alsaafin, his wife, and their four children are also naturalized British citizens. In 2009, while the family was living in the West Bank, Alsaafin’s oldest son left the West Bank to seek work abroad. Israeli border officials told him he would not be allowed to return because he was registered as a Gaza resident. Israel also unexpectedly changed the registered address of Alsaafin’s wife from the West Bank to Gaza. Israel considered her to be unlawfully present in the West Bank, and she was afraid to travel through checkpoints or to leave the West Bank for fear that Israel would bar her return. In August 2009, Alsaafin, who was working as a journalist, traveled to Gaza with his UK passport. Israeli officials at the Gaza crossing confiscated his press credentials, stamped his UK passport to indicate he was a Gaza resident, and refused to let him to return to his family in the West Bank. He could not leave Gaza for four months, when he was finally able to travel to Egypt.

In June 2011, following interventions by an Israeli rights organization, the Israel authorities re-registered Alsaafin’s wife and oldest son as West Bank residents, but then in November 2011 reversed this decision regarding his oldest son’s status and listed him again as a Gaza resident. Israel has refused Alsaafin’s requests to change his address or to let him visit or return to his family in the West Bank. He has found work training journalists in Beirut, Amman, and Abu Dhabi. “I communicate with my family through Skype and the internet,” Alsaafin said. “On paper, I am married, but in reality it’s as if I have no wife and children.”

Some Palestinians registered as Gaza residents can obtain temporary “permits to remain” from Israeli authorities in the West Bank, which enable them to pass checkpoints and in some cases to travel abroad. However, permit-holders said that Israeli authorities did not renew their expired permits quickly or predictably, and that they were afraid to travel while waiting for their permits to be renewed, because soldiers at checkpoints would consider them to be present unlawfully in the West Bank.[15]

Gaza residents without permits who are stopped at any of the scores of Israeli military checkpoints in the West Bank risk being forcibly transferred back to Gaza, even if they have lived in the West Bank for years and have family and professional ties there. Israel forcibly transferred at least 94 Gazans from the West Bank to Gaza between 2004 and 2010.

In many cases, the military has not provided specific security justifications for forcibly transferring Palestinians to Gaza. In 2010, Israel revised military orders to define all persons present in the West Bank without a valid permit—excluding Israeli settlers—as “infiltrators” subject to criminal penalties, including deportation. The military says the order applies to thousands of Palestinians from Gaza whom Israel previously allowed to travel to and reside in the West Bank. Israel has generally refused to issue permits to Gaza residents for entry to the West Bank since 2000, while Israeli restrictions make it virtually impossible for Palestinians from the West Bank to visit Gaza and return.

After September 2000 and subsequently, amid attacks on Israeli civilians by Palestinian armed groups, Israel also stopped allowing non-registered Palestinians to enter the occupied West Bank and Gaza.[16] (Israel retained direct control over all Gaza’s borders until 2005, and indirect control over the southern border with Egypt until Hamas took over in 2007).[17] Israel’s policy of denying entry made it virtually impossible for non-registered Palestinians outside the West Bank and Gaza to visit, much less live with their families. In most cases Israel continues to prevent non-registered Palestinians and Palestinians registered as Gaza residents from entering the West Bank.

A Bargaining Chip

Israel appears to view its control of the population registry as a political bargaining chip.

Israeli authorities have argued that Israel’s High Court lacks jurisdiction to address its control of the population registry because it is a political matter. The court subsequently dismissed petitions regarding the registry without considering the individual rights at stake, accepting the state’s argument that the court should not “interfere with policy that has been adopted by government with regard to the security situation and the development of relations between the Palestinian Authority and the State of Israel.”[18]

In 2007 Israel said it would consider up to 50,000 family reunification requests meeting specific criteria as part of a political “gesture” to the PA, in the context of peace negotiations. It processed a backlog of around 33,000 requests from November 2007 until March 2009, after which point it has not granted any further family reunification applications.

Moreover, the “gesture” applied only to Palestinians who met criteria based on other unlawfully restrictive Israeli policies; it excludes, for example, Palestinians who entered and remained in the West Bank and Gaza without Israeli permits, which Israel generally stopped granting after September 2000. More recently, Israel has taken positive but limited steps to address Palestinians registered as Gaza residents who live “illegally” in the West Bank. In February 2011, Israel agreed with the Quartet (the United States, European Union, Russia, and the United Nations) to process 5,000 address-change applications submitted by registered residents of Gaza who had moved to the West Bank. By October 2011 it had processed around 2,800 of 3,700 applications submitted.

Although the quotas cleared part of the backlog of recent applications, Israel is not processing Palestinian applications for family reunification or address changes on an ongoing basis. Nor do the quotas solve the core problem that Israel refuses to acknowledge its obligation to respect Palestinians’ rights to live with their families and to move within and travel abroad from occupied Palestinian territory. They also do not resolve the rights violations created by Israeli policies related to the population registry, such as criminalizing Palestinians who live in the West Bank but whose registered address is Gaza.

Legal Obligations

Rather than issuing post-hoc quotas that only partly repair the damage caused by its arbitrary policies, Israel should revise those policies to comply with its obligation to respect Palestinians’ human rights. As noted, all states are obligated to respect international human rights law as codified in the various human rights treaties to which that state is a signatory regardless of the parallel application of international humanitarian law.

In addition, as the occupying military power, Israel must respect international humanitarian law regarding the Palestinian population under its effective control. Israel has sought to justify its violations of protections of family rights under the law of occupation, including the Hague Regulations of 1907 and the Geneva Conventions, based on claims regarding its security.

While international human rights law and humanitarian law permits Israeli military authorities to restrict certain rights for security reasons, these restrictions must be narrowly tailored to a specific threat. Israel’s blanket restrictions on all Palestinians’ rights to freedom of movement, a home, and family life, which have separated families and destroyed livelihoods in cases where the authorities have not claimed that the people affected posed any security risk, greatly exceed this limitation.

The same restrictions on Israeli conduct exist in the portion of international humanitarian law governing Israel’s role as an occupying power. That law allows Israel to introduce laws and regulations in Palestinian territory that it occupies only as necessary to ensure security and to promote the welfare of the local Palestinian population, by enabling Palestinians to go about their normal daily lives. This necessarily entails living with one’s family and the ability to move freely for personal and professional reasons, for example to visit family, pursue higher education, or travel for a job.

Furthermore, Israel’s justification of aspects of its ongoing “freeze” on changes to the population registry by reference to the second intifada, and to Hamas’s control of the Gaza Strip, appears to collectively punish affected Palestinians for the acts of others, which applicable international humanitarian law and human rights law prohibits.

Given these obligations, Israel should abrogate all arbitrary restrictions on the recognition of Palestinians’ residency rights, including its continuing denial of residency to persons excluded from the 1967 census. It should also actively encourage Palestinians who claim to have been unfairly excluded from residency and whose family rights have been violated to apply or re-apply for residency and compensation for past violations.

[1]Around 2.5 million Palestinians and 500,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East War; Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state. Around 1.5 million Palestinians live in Gaza.

[2]B’Tselem and Hamoked, “Perpetual Limbo: Israel’s Freeze on Unification of Palestinian Families in the Occupied Territories,” July 2006, p. 20 (of the 1,300 adult Palestinian residents of the occupied territory surveyed, 17.2 percent reported that a first-degree relative was unregistered; the total estimated population of the West Bank and Gaza in 2005 was 3,762,500, according to the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics).

[3]The 1995 Palestinian-Israeli Interim Agreement, known as the second Oslo Accord, purportedly transferred authority over “the sphere of population registry and documentation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip” from Israel to “the Palestinian side.” The Palestinian Authority, according to the agreement, would “inform Israel of every change in its population registry, including, inter alia, any change in the place of residence of any resident.” In practice, however, Israel retained exclusive power to grant permanent residency in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Although the Palestinian Authority physically produces Palestinians’ identification cards, Israeli soldiers and border officials only recognize these cards if the information on them corresponds to data in the Israeli population registry. The PA does not issue ID cards without prior Israeli approval because they would be effectively useless.

[4]Palestinians also need Israeli identification cards to apply for the special military permits required to enter restricted areas, such as East Jerusalem, where major Palestinian hospitals and important religious sites are located; areas of the West Bank between the “Green Line” and the Israeli separation barrier; settlements, where some Palestinians work; and Israel proper.

[5]High Court of Justice (HCJ) 3216/07, Hamdan v. State of Israel, Petition for Order Nisi, April 11, 2007, para. 76, available at Israel controlled all entry and exit to Gaza prior to 2005.

[6] There are five universities in Gaza and nine in the West Bank. According to the Israeli rights group Gisha, West Bank universities offer many degree programs that are unavailable in Gaza, including occupational therapy, medical engineering, veterinary medicine, and democracy and human rights. “We don’t have a problem with you, we have a problem with students,” Gisha press release, December 14, 2011.

[7]HCJ 5875/07, “Application on behalf of the Respondents for Summary Dismissal of the Petition in Response to the Application for a Temporary Injunction,”, September 2, 2007, available at

[8]B’Tselem and Hamoked, as noted, estimated that 640,000 people had been excluded from residency (“Perpetual Limbo,” p. 20). Similarly, a rough, conservative estimate based on available figures would indicate that since 1994, Israeli restrictions have artificially lowered the registered Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza by around 600,000 people. This estimate is probably too low, because it assumes that only people excluded during the 1967 census have subsequently applied for residency (Israel excluded a minimum of 270,000 Palestinians from residency in 1967, and subsequently approved approximately 70,000 “family reunification” requests for residency between 1967 and 2000, and another 32,900 since 2007), and that Israel did not unfairly exclude any Palestinians after 1994, by which point, as noted below, it had permanently stripped 130,000 West Bank residents of their status. The World Bank estimates population growth rates of 3.8 percent per year in the West Bank and Gaza from 1994 until 2009 and 2.8 percent annually from 2009 to 2011. World Bank, “World Development Indicators,” 2011, p. 38 (“West Bank and Gaza”), (accessed January 2, 2012).

[9]“Perpetual Limbo,” p. 56.

[10]HCJ 11120/05, Hamdan v Major General, GOC Southern Command.

[11]Meron Benvenisti, Judea and Samaria Lexicon (Jerusalem: Cana, 1987), p. 21, and The Rule of Law in Areas Administered by Israel (Tel Aviv: International Commission of Jurists, Israel National Section, 1981), p. 86, cited in B’Tselem and Hamoked, “Families Torn Apart: Separation of Palestinian Families in the Occupied Territories,” July 1999, pp. 29-30.

[12]Israel continues to control Gaza’s airspace and all points on its land and sea borders, except for the southern border with Egypt, and imposes a “no-go” zone up to one kilometer from Gaza’s land borders.

[13]Several hundred Palestinians per month enter Israel from Gaza for medical treatment, paid for by the PA, in Israel and the West Bank.

[14] Israel maintained indirect control over the Egyptian border crossing (in the city of Rafah) with Gaza until Hamas took over the territory in 2007.

[15] Israel has total control of all the West Bank’s borders as well as of 62 percent of the territory, known as Area C under the 1995 interim peace accords. Area C is also the only contiguous area in the West Bank, effectively isolating cities and towns that fall outside it into disconnected enclaves. As a result, Israel effectively controls movement and access between Palestinian population centers, and between Area A (where there is ostensibly full Palestinian control), and Area B (where the Palestinian Authority controls civil matters, and Israel controls security).

[16] Hamas and other armed groups launched suicide bombing attacks against Israeli civilians, emanating from both the West Bank and Gaza. Human Rights Watch, Erased in a Moment: Suicide Bombing Attacks against Israeli Civilians, October 2002, Since 2001, armed groups in Gaza launched thousands of rockets, some fatal, against Israeli population centers. Human Rights Watch, Rockets from Gaza: Harm to Civilians from Palestinian Armed Groups’ Rocket Attacks, August 2009,

[17]For abuses committed during Hamas’s takeover of Gaza in 2007, see Human Rights Watch, Internal Fight: Palestinian Abuses in Gaza and the West Bank, July 2008,

[18]HCJ 8881/06, Gazuna v. The Civil Administration in the Judea and Samaria Region.