Israel has worked behind the scenes for years to erase Palestinians from their own Population Registry, creating an artificial Jewish majority in “Judea and Samaria” (the West Bank), and robbing Palestinians of basic human rights.
by Kathryn Shihadah
NEWS BRIEF: Israeli security personnel caught several Palestinians trying to cross the border from the West Bank into Jordan. The criminal infiltrators were apprehended and dealt with. No one was injured.
A short story, but with an incredible backstory – one that that has been little known. Until now.
For starters, the alleged “criminal infiltrators” were newborn babies who had been robbed of their identities.
Hundreds of thousands of others have similarly lost their identities over the years.
Last but not least, the security personnel were the actual infiltrators.
This is not the plot of a made-for-TV mystery. This is real, and American taxpayers are subsidizing it.
Our story begins here, at the King Hussein Bridge, the border between the Kingdom of Jordan and the Palestinian territories.
It was at this crossing that Israeli security guards told two young Palestinian mothers that, according to Israel, their babies did not exist. Their presence at the border made them criminal infiltrators. The women – and the infants – were sent back home.
To understand how these two tiny Palestinians could both exist and not exist simultaneously, we must travel back in time to 1967.
To understand how an Israeli came to control those little Palestinians’ lives – on the border between two lands, neither of which is Israel – we must learn what it means to be an occupier.
1967, the start of occupation
Time and space do not permit a full exposition of the Six-Day War that Israel initiated, or the US Navy ship that Israel tried to sink during that war. Suffice it to say that Israel captured all of the lands of the Palestinian people (along with parts of Syria and Egypt). It is against international law for a state to expand its territory through war, and the United Nations scolded Israel – but Israel stayed where it was, and has occupied the Palestinian territories ever since (the Egyptian territory was returned by 1982).
As an Occupying Power, Israel had many responsibilities toward the population it occupied, including making sure they were safe, fed, and in good health; permitting those who had fled during the war to return home; and respecting their human rights.
Palestinians who live in the occupied territories (the West Bank and Gaza, as well as East Jerusalem) are not Israelis. Palestine is not a full state with sovereignty over its people. The Palestinian Authority (PA) governs some aspects of civic life, but its occupier, Israel is in control overall.
For years, the Palestinian Authority has enabled Israel to manage the occupation by sharing its database, the Palestinian Population Registry: the PA ledger of births, deaths, and other life events. Israel demands regular updates, which it uses to monitor the comings and goings of the Palestinian people as they travel.
Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers stationed at hundreds of checkpoints within the West Bank, and Israeli guards at border crossings, inspect each Palestinian’s identification, then cross-check with their database (from the PA) before allowing passage. A Palestinian who doesn’t check out (like the babies above) may be arrested as a “criminal infiltrator.”
Thus, Palestinians (including children) have been prohibited from going to school; unable to get medical care; forbidden from seeing family members. This deprives them of their basic rights to family life and access to health care and education.
Again, this is Israel’s policy even for Palestinians traveling within the Palestinian territories, or going from a Palestinian territory to another country.
Israel covets the Palestinian territories, especially the West Bank – which it calls “Judea and Samaria.” Hundreds of thousands of Jewish Israelis live on this Palestinian land, an illegal act according to the laws of occupation.
So when Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu declared his intention to annex parts of the West Bank into Israel, PA President Abbas was furious. In May, Abbas announced that his government was cutting ties with Israel, ending the years of cooperation that had made it possible for Israel to control the Palestinian people while denying them their rights in a thousand different ways.
This breakup ended the sharing of the Palestinian Population Registry.
Since that day, 25,000 babies have been born in the Palestinian territories, but do not appear in Israel’s now-obsolete database. Hence, the babies at the border were not recognized.
This is the tip of the iceberg: human rights organizations have issued reports – apparently unnoticed for years by US media – about huge swaths of other Palestinians who have similarly lost their identities over the years.
Decades of erasure
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), Israel has intentionally excluded hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from the Israeli version of the Palestinian Population Registry, which affects individuals’ and families’ lives in a profound and unjust way – all the while claiming that it is not responsible for these consequences.
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.
Muhammad’s story provides one example of the arbitrary controls Israel has been imposing on the people of Palestine:
Muhammad was born in Gaza, but was studying abroad when Israel occupied his homeland in 1967. To kick off the occupation, Israel conducted a census of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank – but excluded at least 270,000 who were absent at the time, either because they had fled for safety during the war, or were away for other reasons, as was the case with Muhammad.
Muhammad’s name was not on the Population Registry when he tried to return. He found it easier to live in another country than to fight the system.
Finally in 2007, he was able to get registered, along with two of his children, but his wife and another child are still not listed. Their freedom of movement and access to certain services is limited by their “nonexistence.”
Based on the political ups and downs between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel has made random changes to Population Registry Office procedures over the years – or stopped processing paperwork completely.
For example, following the 1967 omission of over a quarter of a million Palestinians in its census, HRW reports that for years Israel
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.
Between 1987 and 1995, Israel halted the registration of children whose mother was not on the Registry, or who had been born abroad.
From 1967 to 1994, Israel also cancelled the residency of 130,000 Palestinians registered in the West Bank because they had been away from home too long (usually over three years). There is no appeal process.
Israel also encouraged Palestinians to emigrate.
In 1967, Horea, a refugee in occupied Gaza whom Israel refused to allow to return home, agreed to leave, taking her young children to Jordan. Before leaving, she was forced to sign a document relinquishing all rights to property in Palestine and promising not to return.
Her name was removed from the Registry. Family members who stayed in Gaza never saw her again.
As Palestinians struggled to escape Israel’s occupation and build a state of their own, their leaders signed the Oslo Accords in 1993 and 1995. This agreement loosely outlined a gradual process supposedly meant to bring a just peace by 1999. (As Palestinians would later discover, it was full of gaps that Israel would exploit. The conflict has not ended, but only become more entrenched.)
Under the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority began in 1995 to keep track of changes of address for Palestinians. Any move from Gaza to the West Bank, or vice versa, was recorded, and all information was shared with Israel. However, since 2000, according to HRW,
Israel has refused to reflect most changes of address in the population registry…Israeli authorities have subsequently claimed that Palestinians who are registered as Gaza residents, but who are living in the West Bank, are there illegally.
The Israeli organization B’Tselem asserts that there are hundreds of thousands of unregistered Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
Al Jazeera also reports that Israel has “practically stopped processing requests” since the year 2000 – but the few applications that gain approval are much more likely to be for relocation into Gaza, not out.
The “Settlement Procedure”
On the issue of Israel/Palestine, the word “settlement” usually refers to the colonies of Jewish Israelis illegally living on Palestinian land. But in the context of the Population Registry, “settlement” has a completely different meaning.
Israel – which has the final say on all population matters – makes it relatively easy for Palestinians to relocate to Gaza, but almost impossible to leave Gaza. A West Banker is simply required to sign the “settlement procedure,” a declaration that they are permanently transferring their “center of life” to Gaza, and they are good to go.
Moving to the West Bank, on the other hand, is nearly impossible – even for those who have immediate family or a spouse living there. The criteria for acceptance are extremely narrow, to the point that between 2009 and 2017, Israel issued only five approvals – all of them after legal action.
The Settlement Procedure was challenged in 2007 by a group of students wanting to attend college in the West Bank. Israel’s High Court ruled that a total ban on Gazans attending West Bank universities was acceptable because “it is not unreasonable to assume [that a relaxing of the ban] will likely lead to an increase in terrorist activity.”
B’Tselem considers such a blanket policy to be a violation of Gazans’ basic right to an education. This is a universal right under international law.
For Gaza residents, even visiting family in the West Bank, conducting business, or getting medical services outside the Strip are essentially impossible. In the words of Dani Shenhar of the Israeli legal aid organization HaMoked, “Gaza is a one-way ticket. If you move there, you won’t come back.”
Ever since hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced and forced out c.1948, and more in 1967, families have been struggling to reunite. In many cases, they must apply to Israel for permission to relocate.
HRW reports that a large number of Palestinians have been waiting for over ten years for a response to their family reunification requests. While they wait, Israel offers no update on the process, and if denied, no explanation for denial of a request, and no appeal process – in other words, no transparency or accountability.
Israel pledged in 2000 that it would approve 4,000 family unification requests per year, but has not followed through.
B’Tselem estimated that if Israel began processing the applications at this rate, it would take at least thirty years to process the accumulated 120,000+ requests. Meanwhile, Palestinian families languish.
Population control and transfer
Under Israeli administration, the Registry is not a tool for recording the growth and movement of the Palestinian population – it is a means of manipulation.
180,000-300,000 Palestinians and at least 325,000 Jewish Israelis live in “Area C” – the part of the West Bank that is under full Israeli control. Under the Oslo Accords, parts of Area C were to be handed over to Palestinian rule in 1999. This has yet to happen.
For years, Israel’s aspiration to annex parts of the West Bank was unspoken. More recently, however, Israeli leaders have been quite clear: Israel will declare sovereignty over parts of the West Bank that contain Israelis – it’s not a matter of if, but when.
As the number of Israeli settlers on Palestinian land rises through unbridled settlement expansion, the number of Palestinians is falling – according to Israel’s version of the Population Registry. Human Rights Watch reports that
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.
In the words of Israeli human rights organization Gisha,
Alongside the [Israeli] settlement project in the West Bank…bureaucratic practices implemented by Israel through its control over the Palestinian population registry…[have] been used to manufacture a demographic reality in ways that serve Israel’s political aspirations…at the expense of fundamental human rights.
Israel’s calculated strategy for “disappearing” Palestinians and forcibly transferring them to suit Israel’s self-centered desires tramples on Palestinians’ human rights and defies international law.
Israel insists that only the laws of war apply to Palestinians, not human rights laws. This argument has been rejected by the International Court of Justice and legal experts: Israel has an obligation to provide Palestinians freedom of movement, the right to family unity, and the right to access to education – or alternatively, to end the occupation.
The exploitation of Gaza as the “end of the road” for Palestinians – coupled with the brutality of Israel’s blockade of the enclave and repeated incursions – is entrenching a manufactured status quo that amounts to apartheid, a crime against humanity.