JERUSALEM, JUNE 6 -- Israeli authorities have announced an easing of residency regulations for Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, reversing a policy under which about 250 persons were summarily expelled from the country last year.
In a statement to the Supreme Court, a lawyer for the military administration said spouses and children of residents of the territories would be allowed to remain permanently in the country even if they did not qualify for residence status themselves.
The statement removed the threat to thousands of Arabs, most of them women, who moved to the territories after marrying resident Palestinians. Most of the spouses and their children have been denied permanent residence and until now could not legally remain in the country for more than three months at a time.
The policy change represented a concession to the Palestinian community by the caretaker government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir at a time when Israel is generally perceived as moving toward more aggressive policies in the territories. Shamir is working toward the formation of a new, right-wing government by next week that is expected to step up Jewish settlements in the territories and reject a U.S. plan for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Human rights groups and the United States earlier this year criticized the expulsions of Palestinians. The new policy was announced during a hearing Tuesday on a petition before the supreme court on behalf of five Palestinian families separated by expulsions.
"The army's policy will lead to an improvement in the lives of hundreds of families in the occupied territories and will allow husbands, wives and children to be reunited," said lawyer Dan Simon of the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, which filed the court petition. However, Simon said the new policy was still unsatisfactory because it granted the non-resident Palestinians the status of "visitors," which, he said, "leaves the families in a tentative position that is likely to cause legal problems in the future."
A military spokesman said that the 250 Palestinians who were expelled from the West Bank between March and December last year for illegal residence would be readmitted. The military administration also will grant the non-resident Palestinians the right to use local educational and health services, officials said.
Family reunification has been a troublesome issue in the territories for years because of Israeli regulations stipulating that only those persons who were registered during a census in September 1967 have an unqualified right to live in the occupied areas. Following Arab custom, many women from Palestinian families who left the territories have returned to marry men in their ancestral villages, only to have their subsequent requests for residence denied.
According to Israeli figures, 88,000 requests have been made in the territories for "family reunification" since 1967, but only 13,000 have been granted. Palestinians say that almost no new residence permits have been issued since the onset of the Arab uprising against Israel two and one-half years ago.
Last year, military units began staging late-night raids on West Bank villages, rounding up women and children without residence papers. Witnesses said the Palestinians were given only a few minutes to pack before they were sent by taxi to the border with Jordan and expelled. Former Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin ordered the expulsions stopped in early February after the practice was criticized by the U.S. State Department.