The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Israelis retreat on new rules for romantic relationships in West Bank

An Israeli army checkpoint controls a street leading into the West Bank city of Jenin in April. (Nasser Nasser/AP)
5 min

TEL AVIV — Israel on Sunday issued revised protocols for the entry of foreign passport holders into the West Bank, omitting some controversial clauses after outcries from human rights organizations that said the previous version codified Israel’s discriminatory restriction of Palestinian movement.

The latest version of the guidelines, published Sunday night as a 90-page document after public and private condemnation from diplomats and international organizations, dropped the requirement that foreign passport holders declare romantic relationships with Palestinians to Israeli military authorities. It also does away with an academic quota allowing only 100 foreign professors and 150 students into the disputed territory.

It dropped a question in the earlier iteration that asked applicants to declare if they held or were expecting to inherit land in the West Bank, which had caused panic among many American Palestinians who thought it signaled changes to land ownership regulations. It also added a clause allowing doctors and teachers to obtain long-term visas and foreign spouses to work or volunteer.

The regulations will be implemented Oct. 20 and will continue over a two-year pilot period.

The U.S. ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, said that since February, he, the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem and the U.S. Office of Palestinian Affairs have been “aggressively engaged with the government of Israel on these draft rules — and we will continue to do so in the 45-day lead-up to implementation and during the two-year pilot period.”

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

He expressed “concerns” over the Israeli military’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.” He said he expected Israel to apply “equal treatment of all U.S. citizens and other foreign nationals traveling to the West Bank.”

“We have concerns with what the overall sentiment of what this is,” said a senior U.S. Embassy official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive topic. The official said that since February, American officials have clearly expressed consternation over the “concept of restricting or making cumbersome travel for U.S. citizens and also all foreign nationals.”

The official added that throughout negotiations with Israeli counterparts, American officials have made clear that the protocols would affect Israel’s attempts to join the Department of Homeland Security’s visa waiver program, by which citizens of member countries do not require a visa to enter the United States.

“For Israel to enter into visa waiver, there needs to be reciprocal privileges in terms of Americans being able to travel visa-free,” said the U.S. Embassy official.

Since their original publication in February, the entry protocols have been subject to multiple legal interventions by human rights organizations, which argued that they formalize discriminatory practices against Palestinians under Israeli occupation.

Jessica Montell, the director of Hamoked, an Israeli human rights organization that petitioned the country’s high court to halt the rules, said that while some of the language has been “toned down,” it still grants the Israeli military “illegitimate” jurisdiction to interfere with public and private Palestinian life in the disputed territory.

The rules give COGAT, the Israeli military agency responsible for handling Palestinian civilian matters, the power to ban individuals coming from five countries with whom Israel has diplomatic relations: Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Bahrain and South Sudan. They effectively state that dual nationals — for example, holders of passports from Jordan, where at least 60 percent of the population is of Palestinian origin — are ineligible to enter the West Bank.

“This is blatant discrimination,” said Montell, whose organization plans to petition to prevent the rules from taking effect.

The restrictions will 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.

“If I had just fallen in love with an Israeli Jew, none of this would be a problem,” joked an American woman who is married to a Palestinian man and is a leader in the tech sector in Ramallah, the de facto Palestinian capital. She spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern for her visa status, which has been threatened since moving with her husband and children to the West Bank 12 years ago.

She said that Israeli policies restricting Palestinian movement, which have for years existed in practice if not in the law, have effectively isolated Palestinian society from the economists, academics, investors and civil society leaders that experts say could help dig Palestinian society out of decades-old economic and political stagnation. On a personal level, she said, the rules have left thousands of American and foreign spouses in perpetual states of anxiety and uncertainty. The stress has triggered her own chronic illness, she said.

“I think what we’re seeing is a codifying of something that shouldn’t have been there in the first place,” she said. “And after years without permanency, we’re seeing a new level of panic.”