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Bahbah: Are Israel’s New COGAT Rules Institutionalizing Apartheid in the Israeli-Occupied Palestinian Territories?

posted on: Sep 14, 2022

Bahbah: Are Israel’s New COGAT Rules Institutionalizing Apartheid in the Israeli-Occupied Palestinian Territories?
A cartoon against apartheid outside the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 2017 (AF

Is Israel officially becoming an apartheid state?

Willy-nilly, Israel is creeping into the abyss of apartheid in the name of security and to maintain its control over the Palestinian populations in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.

Bishara Bahbah

By: Bishara A. Bahbah / Arab America Featured Columnist

Apartheid in international law is defined as “the implementation and maintenance of a system of legalized racial segregation in which one racial group is deprived of political and civil rights.”  The word apartheid is derived from the Afrikaans word “apartness” which was the name the South Africans had given to its racial segregation policies, which built upon the country’s history of racial segregation between the ruling white minority and the nonwhite majority.

Why is Israel willing to risk being labeled an apartheid entity?  The short answer is that the cost to Israel of implementing an apartheid regime in the West Bank and Gaza is too low and Western democracies, especially the United States and the European Union, are unwilling or unable to either end Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands or force Israel to undo it’s existing and proposed discriminatory policies and actions.

On September 4, the Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), an arm of Israel’s Ministry of Defense that controls the daily civilian lives of Palestinians living in the West Bank and imposes a siege on the Gaza Strip, published a revised 90-page document entitled, “Procedure for Entry and Residence of Foreigners in the Judea and Samaria Area.” 

When asked by AFP about the new rules, a COGAT official commented that the new regulations were part of a two-year pilot aimed at making the entry process into the Palestinian areas under military control “more efficient and more suited to the dynamic conditions of the times.”

Many experts would beg to differ with this crafty and deviously-phrased response by Israeli officials.

Jessica Montell, executive director of HaMoked, an Israeli human rights group that has challenged the rules in court, commented after the release of the revised rules that, “in response to criticism they [Israeli authorities] have removed the most outrageous elements.  Yet they are keeping the basic structure of this very invasive and harmful procedure in place.”  The rules are supposed to go into effect on October 20 and will be subject to some revisions during a two-year period.

The U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides expressed disappointment with the rules.  He said that he had “aggressively engaged” with Israel on the draft and would continue to do so ahead of the rules’ formal implementation.  Ambassador Nides and Israel are keen for Israel to be allowed into the U.S. visa waiver program (VWP).  However, so long as Israel discriminates at the airport or any point of entry into Israel or the West Bank, among U.S. citizens – those who are of Palestinian or Arab descent and those who are not – this could be the critical issue that would prevent the United States from allowing Israel into the much-coveted visa waiver program. The visa waiver program would allow Israeli passport holders to enter the United States and receive their U.S. entry visas upon their arrival in the United States.

Ambassador Nides emphasized that he “fully expects the Government of Israel to make the necessary adjustments during a two-year pilot program to ensure fair and equal treatment of all U.S. citizens [emphasis added] and other foreign nationals traveling to the West Bank.”

Irrespective of the cosmetically amended details that have been incorporated in the newly released document, why is Israel implementing these new restrictive rules on Palestinians, their spouses, and foreigners, including Palestinians with foreign passports, wanting to work, study, or join their loved ones in the West Bank?  

  • HaMoked’s director Montell elucidates that Israel wants “to isolate Palestinian society from the outside world,” and, in the process, “prevent thousands of families from living together for blatantly political reasons.” 
  • Marwa Fatafta, an Al-Shabakah political analyst, stated that “with the new policy, Israeli authorities want to map out the social circles and property of Palestinians who live abroad with foreign passports.  The entire [Israeli] identification system is built to control the two most critical aspects of Palestine:  People and land.  Now, in a way, it will also apply to Palestinians [foreign passport holders] with ties to the West Bank.” If Palestinians, especially those living abroad, reveal to the Israeli authorities whether they own or would be inheriting property in the West Bank, Israel could intervene in the future to confiscate those lands under some elusive existing or new regulation(s).
  • There are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of cases of pending family unification applications among Palestinians living in the areas occupied by Israel.  Israel intends to restrict the growth of the Palestinian population by manipulating the family unification process to ensure that as few Palestinians as possible receive family unification approvals. 
  • Israel has succeeded in the past 55 years to strip the residency – or the Israeli-issued identity cards – of as many as tens of thousands of East Jerusalem Palestinians.  Israel applied a “law” that stated if Jerusalem was no longer the “center of life” of any Palestinian in East Jerusalem, then those individuals stand to lose their residency status in East Jerusalem.  Tragically, 50 years after implementing this “law,” the Israeli Supreme Court and, only a few years ago, deemed that the law applies to “immigrants” to Jerusalem and not to Jerusalem “natives.”  Despite the illegality of what Israel did to East Jerusalemites, their Israeli-issued identity cards could only be restored through an arduous process that few Palestinians find tenable.  I am one of the East Jerusalem natives whose Jerusalem identity card was “suspended” based on the “unconstitutional law.”  When I fly to Tel Aviv, I am given a three-month visa as a “foreigner” with a U.S. passport by someone who often has an East European accent.
  • The proposed Israeli measures will place significant curbs on the ability of foreigners to study, volunteer, or work in the West Bank, and is a major blow to student exchange programs especially those operated by the European Union.  
  • The U.S. ambassador Nides remarked on Sunday that he continues “to have concerns with the published protocols, particularly COGAT’s role in determining whether individuals invited by Palestinian academic institutions are qualified to enter the West Bank, and the potential negative impact on family unity.”
  • Canadian doctor Benjamin Thomson, one of the 19 plaintiffs involved in the legal challenge to the COGAT rules said that the Israeli move “would disrupt the work of health professionals. The draconian measures will severely impact their work and impair the lives of the Palestinian people.”  Dr. Thomson is the director of the Keys of Health project aimed at rebuilding healthcare in the Palestinian territories.
  • Sam Bahur, a Palestinian-American businessman who lives in the West Bank described the new COGAT rules as an Israel tool for “micromanaging with the purpose to damage the Palestinian social fabric.” 

It is clear from these new Israeli restrictions that Israel sees itself in control of the West Bank for decades to come.  The Oslo and the Paris Accords come into play selectively and only when it serves Israeli interests.  At the present time and for the foreseeable future, there is no peace process nor is there even an interest in getting the Palestinian and Israeli sides at a negotiating table.  The United States and Europe are busy with other worldly matters and patience with the Israel-Palestine peace process has considerably waned.

For Israel, the Gaza situation seems to be under control despite the military confrontations that erupt perhaps once or twice a year between Israel and Gaza militants. Gaza is seen by Israel as an enclave that it can easily control from land, sea, and air. Otherwise, the management of the daily lives of Gazans are left to Hamas, the authority that governs the Strip.   Israel sees Gaza as a distinct and separate entity from the West Bank, and East Jerusalem.

Bahbah: Are Israel’s New COGAT Rules Institutionalizing Apartheid in the Israeli-Occupied Palestinian Territories?
Israeli soldier jostles a Palestinian in Jerusalem (AP)

Regarding Palestinians who are natives of East Jerusalem, Israel succeeded over the past five decades to strip the residency rights of as many as tens of thousands of East Jerusalem Palestinians.  Israel utilized a so-called “law” that stated if Jerusalem was no longer the “center of life” of any Palestinian and the person was away for seven years, then those Palestinians end up losing their residency status in East Jerusalem.  

Tragically, it took Israel’s supreme court almost 50 years to deem that the “law” was unconstitutional in the way that it was applied to Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem.  According to the Israeli supreme court ruling, the law applies only to “immigrants” to Jerusalem and not to Jerusalem “natives.”  Most Palestinians who lost their Jerusalem residency cards were native-born Jerusalemites.  Hence, despite the misapplication or illegality of what Israel did to East Jerusalemites, their Israeli-issued identity cards could only be restored through an arduous process that few Palestinians find tenable.  My children and I were victims of this misapplied Israeli residency law and, as a result, we lost our residency status in Jerusalem.  

For those who question whether Israel is drifting into an institutionalized apartheid regime, we can point to two distinct Israeli policies:  

First, not a single Jew or Israeli lost his/her residency status in East Jerusalem because they were away for seven years.  The “center of life” law applied to Palestinians only.  

Second, the COGAT rules that are the subject of this article apply only to Palestinians who live in the West Bank.  These rules and regulations do not apply to Israeli/Jewish settlers who live all over the West Bank.

For the sake of emphasis, apartheid is defined as “the implementation and maintenance of a system of legalized racial segregation in which one racial group is deprived of political and civil rights.”  From my perspective, Israel is finally showing its true face of apartheid.

About the Author:  Bishara A Bahbah is the vice president of the U.S.-Palestine Council (USPC), the major Palestinian-American lobby in the United States.  Bahbah was the editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem-based Al-Fajr daily newspaper.  He taught at Harvard University and was the associate director of its Middle East Institute.  He also served as a member of the Palestinian delegation on arms control and regional security.

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