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The Palestinian Authority has begun issuing papers to thousands of Gaza residents caught in a legal limbo with no residence permits, an Interior Ministry official said Thursday.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians returned to the West Bank and Gaza in the heady days after interim peace agreements were signed in the early 1990s, entering on temporary permits. But the atmosphere of peace has evaporated in violence, and the Palestinians who returned are stuck with expired permits and no formal papers.
According to the agreements, Israel must approve changes in the population registry, but since the latest round of violence erupted in 2000, Israel has refused to allow any changes.
Israel is wary of giving legal status to returning Palestinians, as it rejects the "right of return" of millions - refugees from the 1948-49 war that followed Israel's creation and their descendants. Palestinians insist they have the right to go back to their original homes in Israel.
Also, following an election victory by the militant Islamic Hamas a year ago, Israel has boycotted the Hamas-controlled Interior Ministry.
Riyad Zaitounia, director of civil affairs in the Interior Ministry in Gaza, said the registration campaign aims to grant local IDs for use inside the territories only, allowing residents with old expired visit permits or travel documents to deal with banks, register in schools, and deal with government authorities.
He said the new papers cannot be used for travel to Israel or abroad.
Zaitounia said there are at least 30,000 Gaza residents unrecorded in the population registry. The majority of them came back to Gaza rejoin families or marry. Many others returned during the chaos days following Israel's pullout from Gaza in September 2005.
"We can't specify the exact number. Nobody knows exactly. Those who entered legally we know," he said. "The aim first is to quantify and identify where those people live and how many entered." Human rights groups and other ministry officials put the number closer to 50,000.
Shlomo Dror, spokesman for coordinator of Israeli activities in the Palestinian territories, said Israel has no responsibility over Gaza since its pullout. "So we are not interfering with giving IDs," Dror said.
"One of the things we don't want to happen is that they would use the 'right of return' in this way," he said.
The registration campaign has not started in the West Bank, where it would be complicated by the fact that Israel still controls the territory. Registering illegal residents could be used as a pretext for arresting them, said Sari Bashi, a human rights activist.
Dror said Israel would not allow such registration there. "The West Bank is still under our responsibility," he said.