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Foreign passport holders married to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and those of Palestinian descent who want to visit their extended families in the territories are considering filing a class action suit against the Israeli government for refusing to grant them visitors' visas, a Palestinian spokesman has told The Jerusalem Post.
The spokesman, Basil Ayish, is the media committee coordinator of the Campaign for the Right of Entry/Re-Entry to the Occupied Palestinian Territory.
Meanwhile, Shlomo Dror, spokesman for the Coordinator of Activities in the Territories, told the Post that in accordance with instructions from the Interior Ministry, the Military Government was no longer extending the three-month tourist visas for more than one year.
According to Ayish, there are some 120,000 families in the West Bank and Gaza in which one of the spouses is a foreign passport holder who is not registered in the Palestinian population registrar.
After Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, it held a census and registered all Palestinians in the territories at the time as residents in the Palestinian population registrar. Since then, only the children of Palestinian parents who are both residents of the West Bank and Gaza are automatically eligible to be registered as residents of the territories.
The only way for those who do not meet the above conditions to become residents of the territories is through the process of family reunification. However, since the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, Israel has stopped processing such requests.
Since then, according to Ayish, the only way for a family consisting of one resident of the territories and one non-resident to live together in the West Bank and Gaza has been for the non-resident to obtain a visitor's visa, good for three months at a time.
Until three months ago, these visas were more or less automatically renewed. However, until the Palestinian Authority was established, applicants had to leave the territories and ask the Israeli authorities to extend the visa for another three months from outside the country.
Ayish said last week that since the establishment of the PA, many Palestinian non-residents sent their applications to renew their visas to the PA, which served as a go-between between the applicant, who no longer had to leave the West Bank, and the Israeli authorities.
These arrangements were never entirely satisfactory. Over the past few years, Israel often rejected applications by non-residents to extend their visas and the applicant, often a parent to children living in the West Bank, was preventing from returning to his family.
According to Ayish, however, Israel's new policy has intensified of late. During the past two weeks, he said, 250 foreign passports submitted by the PA to Israel for visa extensions had been returned with a stamp declaring that this was the last time non-residents would be able to apply via the PA. From now on, all applicants would again have to leave the territories and apply from outside the country. Ayish said these people were afraid that once they left their families, they would not be allowed to return.
Not all of the applicants are married to residents of the territories. Some are citizens of other countries, mainly the US, and of Palestinian descent who have routinely spent the summers in the West Bank or Gaza to be with their extended families and immerse themselves in Palestinian culture. Israel has begun systematically denying these requests as well, according to Ayish and the human rights organizations.
There are other categories of foreigners who are currently being prevented from entering the territories, including university students, humanitarian workers and tourists.
On Tuesday, Ayish's organization held a meeting in El-Bireh to consider legal action against Israel. Speakers, including attorney Muhammad Dahleh, charged that Israel's policy was in violation of international humanitarian and human rights law. They called on the foreign nationals to urge their home countries to put pressure on Israel to change its policy.
According to B'Tselem and Moked, Israel is denying the Palestinians the basic right to family life by restricting their choice of partners.
"Israel is targeting the most vulnerable segment of Palestinian society in order to force a demographic change [in the territories]," Ayish told the Post. "It is forcing families to separate and ultimately leave."
According to Dror, the Military Government will send an official to Ben-Gurion Airport to examine each visa application on its merits and determine whether or not to renew it. Only in humanitarian and other special cases, will the official allow applicants to return to the territories if they have already spent one uninterrupted year there.
Dror added that the PA was to blame for the fact that so many West Bank non-residents were still without resident status. Israel, he said, had told the PA in 1996 that it was prepared to register 20,000 foreign passport holders in the West Bank and Gaza Population Registry. "The PA did not forward any names to us," he said.
By late 2000, with the onset of the second intifada, the window of opportunity closed, Dror said. Today, with Hamas in charge of the PA, there was no cooperation between it and the military government, he added.