In 2006, Emad Ahmed’s yearning to reunite his Palestinian family in Gaza pushed him to take the bold decision of returning to the strip, where he’d be stuck ever since. His family was split between bordering Egypt and the land that would be besieged by Israel the next year. He immediately applied for a residency but the renewed blockade would turn out to be the longest ever and residencies would be on hold for more than a decade.
On October 19, 2021, however, news spread among Palestinians that Israel would be granting residency to 4,000 Palestinians after over a decade.
The long hold had seen only one exception in 2008, when Israel made a one-time gesture to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, approving the residencies of 32,000 people. This time, too, it would come as a gesture, after Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz promised approvals for a small batch of people residing in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, during a meeting with the PA leader.
But now 42 years old, Ahmed wasn’t among those approved, much like 26,000 other Palestinians stuck in limbo. It’s unclear if there will be further approvals.
“That means I’m stuck in Gaza. I can’t have a passport and I can’t travel abroad,” Ahmed told TRT World.
“I’m not getting one of the newly approved official IDs but having this development gives me hope that I might get an ID in the future, then have a passport and freedom of travel,” Ahmad said.
“Now, I feel imprisoned.”
The ID cards only lift restrictions for some
For the ones who were notified, however, it means passing through Israeli military checkpoints in the West Bank without being stopped by Israeli security forces.
The new group of Palestinians can apply to the Palestinian Interior Ministry to issue Israeli approved Palestinian identity cards, and update the existing ID cards with their current address. Neither the PA, nor Hamas, which rules Gaza, has the authority to make these changes.
An Israeli defence official said Tel Aviv approves changes in residencies of 4,000 people, but only 1,200 of these are actually being granted residency, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.
The rest are Gazans who moved to the West Bank before the siege, and they’re only just allowed to update their residency information on their IDs - which has been an obstacle to travel within the West Bank.
About 475,000 Israelis live in West Bank settlements deemed illegal under international law.
Thousands of Palestinians have been denied identity documents since 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank, actively denying the legality of their presence in the West Bank and Gaza on the grounds that their presence must predate the Israeli occupation.
The permit system remains
The lack of documentation recognised by Israel also generates a family reunification issue with divided families unable to visit each other in various units separated by Israel: the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.
Israel first imposed freedom of movement restrictions in the 1990s then tightened and unilaterally halted the family reunification process in 2000 following the Second Intifada.
The Israeli defense ministry took the decision on humanitarian grounds, one army official told Haaretz. But the source also said the establishment was supportive of the move because it would allow Israeli security forces to monitor Palestinians more easily, if necessary.
Approval of some Palestinians’ residency status, however, doesn’t mean a change in the Israeli policy of requiring permits for travel between the units. The practice has been widely criticised by human rights groups.
“Passage between the units requires a permit, which Israel views as an act of charity bestowed upon Palestinians rather than an inalienable right,” B’Tselem said, adding that the practice leaves families with an impossible choice: “live together in Gaza while cut off from the rest of the family in the West Bank, or live apart.”
For Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine Director of Human Rights Watch, the newly granted residencies point to a wider problem that remains unaddressed.
“Israeli authorities use their control over the population registry in the West Bank and Gaza to deny residency to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, barring many from returning home and making others illegal in their own homes,” Shakir told TRT World.
“Granting legal status to 4,000 Palestinians changes their lives and those of their families, but is hardly a drop in bucket and reminds us that the discriminatory restrictions serve no purpose other than maintaining apartheid.”