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New rules make foreign visitors to West Bank declare romantic ties to Palestinians

Palestinian workers at an Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank. (Raneen Sawafta/Reuters)

TEL AVIV — Foreign passport holders in the West Bank will be required to report their romantic relationships with Palestinians to Israeli authorities, according to new, hotly contested rules set to take effect on Monday.

Palestinian legal experts and human rights advocates say the move, which would also restrict Palestinians from visiting family members and sharply limit Palestinian academic exchanges with foreign universities, is an escalation of an already entrenched system of discrimination against Palestinians in the West Bank, which Israel captured in 1967.

The 97-page Israeli ordinance detailing the new restrictions requires foreign passport holders, including, in some cases, American Palestinian dual citizens, in a romantic relationship with a Palestinian resident of the West Bank to “inform” Israeli security authorities “in writing (at a special e-mail address) within 30 days of the relationship’s start.”

“The ‘starting date of the relationship’ shall be considered the day of the engagement ceremony, of the wedding, or of the start of cohabitation — whichever occurs first,” it said.

The new restrictions — which also ask applicants to declare if they have land or are inheriting land in the West Bank — would not apply to the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The territory’s two-tiered legal structure treats Jewish Israelis as citizens living under civilian rule while Palestinians are treated as combatants under military rule, subject to nighttime military raids, detention and bans on visiting their ancestral lands or accessing certain roads.

Palestinian rights advocates condemned the updated, more stringent procedures on social media as another example of Israel stripping rights from Palestinians living under its 55-year occupation.

“One side of this is about control & isolation,” Salem Barahmeh, executive director of Rabet, the digital platform of the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy, wrote on Twitter Saturday. “The other is: if you can’t be together in Palestine then you will have [to] leave & to do so elsewhere. It’s about driving as many people as they can outside of Palestine to maintain supremacy.”

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Fadi Quran, campaign director for activist group Avaaz, tweeted that the new rules signal that in the occupied West Bank, “love is dangerous.”

Foreigners visiting the West Bank already face intensive screening. One Palestinian woman, who lives in Germany and is married to a German man, said she worries that the rules will make it even more difficult for her and her husband — and their future children — to visit her relatives in the West Bank. The woman spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid calling the attention of Israeli authorities to her case.

After learning of the new rules, the woman decided to bring her new husband to the West Bank to meet her family in May, before they took effect.

Even then, she said, Jordanian authorities at the border crossing advised the couple not to cross together and to scrub any evidence of their relationship from their phones, since Israeli officials had been turning back foreign spouses of Palestinians.

The couple took off their wedding rings, unlinked their Airbnb booking and deleted their WhatsApp conversations and photos together. Her husband told border guards he was visiting the West Bank for tourism. Still, he faced intense questioning from the Israeli police.

A spokeswoman from COGAT, Israel’s military agency responsible for coordinating with the Palestinians on civilian matters, declined to comment on the new restrictions, but said that a new version of the regulations would likely be published on Sunday.

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The ordinance describes the “purpose of the procedure” as a way to codify norms that have already been in place for years for foreign passport holders entering the occupied territory. The goal is to “define the levels of authority and the manner of processing for applications from foreigners who wish to enter the Judea and Samaria area through the international crossings, in accordance with policy and in coordination with the appropriate offices,” said the document, referring to the biblical name Israel uses for the West Bank.

Since first announced in February, implementation of the new restrictions has been delayed repeatedly by Israel’s High Court.

In June, HaMoked, an Israeli human rights organization, along with 19 individuals, petitioned the High Court to halt the new rules, arguing that they set “extreme limitations on the duration of visas and visa extensions” that would impede foreigners’ ability to work or volunteer for Palestinian institutions for more than a few months, bar them from leaving the West Bank and returning during the visa period, and in some cases require people to remain abroad for a year after their visa expires before they can apply for another.

The rules would also “deny thousands of Palestinian families the ability to live together without interruption and lead a normal family life,” HaMoked said in a statement in June, as well as make it more difficult for foreign academics to work at Palestinian universities.

The new rules allow 100 professors and 150 students with foreign passports to stay in the West Bank — a substantial blow to Palestinian higher education institutions. They rely on academic collaborations and recruit hundreds of foreign passport-holding students every year. More than 350 European university students and staff studied or worked at Palestinian universities under the Erasmus program, an E.U. student exchange program, in 2020, up from just 51 five years earlier.

Mariya Gabriel, E.U. commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, suggested in July that the development could also harm Israel-Europe academic ties.

“With Israel itself benefitting greatly from Erasmus+, the Commission considers that it should facilitate and not hinder access of students to Palestinian universities,” Gabriel said. She added that E.U. officials have expressed their concerns to Israeli authorities “including at the highest levels.”

Sam Bahour, an American-Palestinian economist, cited Israel’s High Court rulings to delay the new rules’ implementation as proof of their illegitimacy.

He said he has been fielding daily phone calls from Palestinian emigres throughout the world worried that the new procedures could make future visits difficult or impossible. He said the new protocols would be so “absurd” that they would be “impossible to implement.”

But, he said, they have delivered a decades-old message from Israel to the Palestinians: “Stay away.”

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