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COGAT entry procedures for foreigners: Questions and Answers

Jerusalem24Noelle Mafarjeh and Nadeen Alshaer – Highly controversial procedures for the entry of foreigners into the West Bank that were due to come into effect on 5 September were amended at the last minute and their implementation delayed until 20 October.

COGAT (the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, the Israeli authority that deals with matters of civil administration in the occupied West Bank) published on 4 September an amended version of its new procedures for foreigners wishing to enter, work, volunteer, or reside in the West Bank. The original 97-page document – the amended version is 90 pages long – quietly published in February this year was meant to replace the current four-page document which has been official policy since 2007.

Following a legal challenge by Israeli NGO HaMoked–Center for the Defense of the Individual, led by the law offices of Bechor & Ben Hillel, some of the more problematic elements of the policy have now been removed.

But “this isn’t a win”, emphasizes Leora Bechor of Bechor & Ben Hillel.

Leora spoke to us in detail about the updated procedures during a live Q&A where you submitted your questions to us.

Below is a summary (not a verbatim transcription) of Leora’s answers to your questions. The full Q&A session is available to watch at the end of this article. You are of course encouraged to seek legal counsel for any questions you may have regarding your particular situation.

  1. What are the entry procedures and how did this new version come about?

  2. Where do the procedures fall in terms of international and domestic law?

  3. What is the status of the legal challenge against the procedures?

  4. Who do the procedures apply to?

  5. Who is barred from entering?

  6. Declaring a relationship

  7. Family unification, Lam Shammel, and spousal visas

  8. Children and first-degree relatives

  9. Coordinating re-entry

  10. What’s the status on foreign experts, skilled workers, academics, and students?

  11. Visa reciprocity between Israel and the United States

  12. What can I do if I’m affected by the entry restrictions?


1. What are the entry procedures and how did this new version come about?

Israel has declared the West Bank a closed military zone since it occupied the territory in 1967 – meaning there is no freedom of movement into or out of the West Bank, either for Palestinians or for foreigners.

There has been an official entry policy on the books since 2007 (which is currently still valid until 20 October): at four pages long, it is very short, and has seen various iterations but has remained more or less the same. The category of people who could stay for extended periods of time included spouses, children under the age of 16, lecturers, consultants, people with work visas, diplomats, as well as anyone for vaguely defined “humanitarian reasons”.

However, since 2015, an increasing number of restrictions have been added. One example would be that a foreign spouse used to receive what was called then a “spousal visa” for a period of one year; this went down to six months, then three months, then back to six months. So there is no logic, no sense of security in knowing whether you would be able to continue to live beside your spouse and children.

It used to be that you would be able to leave and re-enter as long as your visa was valid. Now, that visa expires the moment you leave the West Bank.

So the rules kept changing and changing and they weren’t written anywhere, and people would only find out they were denied when they showed up at the border. I’m not talking about tourists: I’m talking about people who’ve been living here for 20 years – with spouses and children who go to school – waiting to find out if they’d be allowed inside.

They were changing their own interpretation of the policy all the time. They were adding requirements, they were saying things like you can’t be a dual national.

We challenged that. And so as a result of many complaints they created a new policy in order to provide a more secure way for people to secure staying in the West Bank. What we have on the table now is the exact opposite. It’s a document that excludes couples, that excludes spouses from being able to remain in the West Bank, it excludes people from being able to work in the West Bank.

Elements of the policy we see in practice already, but many are entirely new, such as employment, volunteering, academia, etc. Also, everything related to spouses and how long they can stay, as well as the workings of family reunification. There was no such thing as a cooling-off period. Family unification and spousal visas are nothing compared to what they are today. It’s a completely new scheme that we didn’t know of, at all.

Whether they are going to be strict about enforcement, I don’t know, I can’t say.

It’s also important to specify that this is a pilot project running for two years.

2. Where do the procedures fall in terms of international and domestic Israeli law?

Israel states that is has full power to do what it’s doing. It’s essentially applying immigration law to an entity that is not part of the state of Israel. It’s determining who can live and stay in the borders of the West Bank. It’s in violation of many laws, of international humanitarian law, international human rights law – and of Israeli law. Israeli law recognizes a basic right to family life.

It’s also in direct violation of Oslo (Oslo was made part of internal Israeli law when they signed on) in no uncertain terms: Oslo said Israel is not going to be responsible for the civil life of Palestinians. And that is in accordance with international humanitarian law and the laws of occupation.

The occupying power has to work in two capacities: for legitimate security reasons or to protect civil society, to protect the rights of the occupied local population. Nothing in this policy protects Palestinians and their families. Nothing in this policy protects Palestinian society. Instead of maintaining and allowing Palestinian society to thrive, Israel micromanages who can enter and who can create Palestinian society.

3. What is the status of the legal challenge against the procedures?

It is on the grounds mentioned above that Bechor & Ben Hillel and HaMoked are challenging the policy. On the most basic level, it is a pure violation of humanitarian law and the laws of occupation. It’s also a pure breach of Oslo: there is no basis for Israel making any of these decisions – education, employment, family life – all of these areas are for the Palestinian Authority to determine for itself. It’s not for Israel to decide.

So we challenged the policy on the broader level, and then we also look at each section of the policy. We also make recommendations to ease the damage.

On the one hand we’re challenging the entirety of the policy; on the other hand we have no choice but to look at each subsection separately and make recommendations to change that particular section.

Because of the amendments brought to policy by 5 September [the updated procedures], the court decided to dismiss our case.

But that’s not the end of the story and we will continue to challenge the policy.

4. Who do the procedures apply to?

Are the new laws applicable to Palestinians who have both a green ID [Palestinian ID for residents of the West Bank] and a foreign passport? For example, if a Palestinian living in Ramallah has a green ID and a Turkish passport?

A green ID is a Palestinian ID. So it doesn’t matter: a person with a green ID – whether they live in Palestine or not – if they have a green ID, they can enter.

So none of the procedures apply to them. There were covid restrictions – but assuming a non-covid world, if you have a green ID, you can come to the border and present it.

5. Who is barred from entering?

Nationals of Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain, South Sudan, and Morocco (even if they have dual citizenship – other than Palestinian) are being discriminated against. They’re being diverted to another scheme for entry, which is a visitor’s permit that’s only granted in extenuating humanitarian circumstances.

What does that mean? It essentially means they’re not coming in. They’re not coming in and they’re not staying. They are barred from family unification.

Another case: If a couple doesn’t report a relationship, the non-Palestinian is not entering Palestine. Part 2 of the policy says who gets to come in for a short visit: they’re not on the list. They can’t show up at the border. [see below]

6. Declaring a relationship

The stipulation of a foreigner having to register their relationship with a Palestinian with Israeli authorities within 30 days of that relationship beginning (marriage, engagement, or cohabitation) has been removed.

However, this is a cosmetic change and very insignificant in the grand scheme of the policy. It’s no major victory. While you no longer have to report to authorities after you have a great date, the ability of spouses to be together and live together in the West Bank has not gotten better, it’s gotten worse. The new policy is worse.

Furthermore, if you’re in a relationship with someone and you want that person to be in the West Bank by virtue of that relationship, yes, you have to report it. So that has not changed.

Another important point about all the media attention around partners who aren’t married or not yet married: those people can’t get in, let’s make that clear. So while they removed the language around reporting the relationship, if a couple doesn’t report a relationship, the non-Palestinian is not entering Palestine. Part 2 of the policy says who gets to come in for a short visit: they’re not on the list. They can’t show up at the border.

So in the policy there are groups that could apply in advance and request special permission: so if they want to visit their fiancé’s family, they can submit an application 45 days in advance, get permission, and provide documentation that they’re a couple. They can’t just show up at Allenby. That’s really a very important point. This isn’t a win. These people are still being denied entry.

7. Family unification, Lam Shammel, and spousal visas

Family reunification, under the current policy, looks like it’s not happening. Spousal visas as we know them don’t exist under the new policy.

Today, spouses who have been in the West Bank, with families in the West Bank, for, say, 20 years, they get renewable visas that we call spousal visas. Those visas don’t exist under the new policy. Under the new scheme there is something that’s called a spousal visa (which is not a legal term), but they’ve created a different concept of a spousal visa: a person only gets that permit once they’ve jumped through incredible hurdles that are literally impossible to overcome.

One only gets a spousal visa under this new scheme if they had a family application (Lam Shammel) that was denied because Israel had a policy at that time not to approve family unification. This applies to only a very small subset of people. And the policy also says there could still be a quota, in addition to these restrictions.

One thing that has been removed is the 90-day requirement to apply for an ID, and 90 days for your application to go from the PA to the Israeli side. Because only the PA decides when to transfer the application, so bottom line: not one person was going to succeed in getting that application across to the Israeli side in 90 days.

I have a visa valid until November, a Lam Shammel application since 2009, not submitted. Do I have to leave after three months or six, and how long do I have to wait to file to return to Palestine? Do I have to wait six months before coming back to Palestine?

What I can say is that if someone is here with a spousal visa, and has been living here for a while, and has an application for family reunification that has already been filed – I don’t know the answer to your question.

There is no provision in the policy that talks about grandfathering in people who are already here. There is no provision. There is no language in the policy that talks about a person who already has a visa and already lives in the West Bank.”

What is “grandfathering in”?

A grandfather clause, also known as grandfather policy, grandfathering, or grandfathered in, is a provision in which an old rule continues to apply to some existing situations while a new rule will apply to all future cases.

However, the six-month “cooling-off period” is gone. Cooling-off means you are barred from coming back to the border.

Will you be allowed back in after a weekend out? That’s a different question. Because border control has full authority and full discretion to decide whether to allow entry or not. The fact that the cooling-off period is gone doesn’t mean they couldn’t find a different reason to deny one entry.

What is the difference between applying for family reunification and applying for a Palestinian ID?

It’s the same thing. A family reunification application (Lam Shammel) is a Palestinian ID application.

How can I be assured my application for Lam Shammel has reached COGAT?

COGAT does answer our requests, they’ll tell us if it’s at the Israeli side. But there are hundreds of people saying, ‘The PA told us it’s at the Israeli side, and the Israeli side is saying it’s with the PA.’ The accuracy of that information, no one can discern it.

Foreigners who are listening to this conversation can talk to their respective mission, or country, or representative and say, “We want accountability. We want you asking for a mechanism to make sure that there’s a proper tracking mechanism for our application.”

What’s the point of us applying for Lam Shammel if it’s just going to be denied then by Israel?

So my position is, it’s a way of creating mass deportation, of keeping people out. Those people whose application was denied, on the basis of the application itself – this part of the policy hasn’t changed – they are banned from reapplying for five years. We asked for that to be changed; there’s no basis for it.

Our position is, if they deny family reunifications not based on political reasons, they make people jump through hoops for no reason whatsoever. Why are they doing it? I think it’s to make sure that “the fewer people the better”. If the foreign spouse is denied, then the Palestinian spouse is denied. If you are not allowing me, a Palestinian, to live in Palestine, my country, with my foreign spouse – then I have to leave. You’re forcing me to leave.

That’s a basic right of family reunification, a right of the Palestinian, of the local person to live with their spouse in their country. 

I just got married and have a visa until November as a tourist visa, can I still apply in Ramallah for a spousal visa or are you saying that doesn’t exist anymore? If I don’t have an application for family reunification, can I not ask to stay longer now? 

So one of the questions we asked about the new policy is what happens if the policy is (A) when the person submits their application and (B) by the time the application is processed. So, what if I submitted the application pre: new policy rules, but by the time they got to the desk, the rules had changed? 

We set out a list of questions for clarification and that was one of them. We asked these questions as early as March 2022, and they [COGAT] had multiple opportunities to answer these questions. We said, “You have not explained what happened to the person who filed their Lam Shammel but hasn’t been receiving answers. What kinds of visas do they have? Can they stay here? What about the spouses who are already here?”

They have not answered these questions – and it’s intentional. So I don’t have the answers.

They have to clarify. They can’t leave it like this.

8. Children and first-degree relatives

What are the rules regarding children aged 11 and up? Of one Palestinian and one foreign parent?

Those children are eligible to be registered until the age of 16. And in the policy itself, Part 2, it says that there’s a clause that those children traveling with their parents can enter. So under 16, they can enter either for purposes of a visit or for registering; they have to register from within.

So if a Palestinian spouse has a child, they are supposed to register their children. 

How does this affect American-born citizens of Palestinian background who have first-degree relatives in Palestine?

This is a Palestinian American not born in Palestine, and carrying an American passport? So that person’s question raises a different question: what is the definition of a first-degree relative? So that’s a very good question because the definition changed under the new draft. The old version included a spouse, parent, and children, and the new version includes siblings.

So if I am an American Palestinian but I don’t carry a Palestinian ID and I only carry an American passport, I can show up at the border – assuming I have no history of being denied – presumably, I can show up at the border to visit my spouse, my child, my parents or my siblings.

Now, how is it that I’m American and I don’t carry an ID but I have a sibling who does? Well, that’s very easy because they did the census in 1967: some people were here, some weren’t here. In addition, Israel has had a policy for many years of revoking IDs. So, you have a lot of people who are nationals of different countries, a lot of Americans like this who are Palestinians, were born in Palestine, and had ID numbers, and now no longer do.

So when they added siblings, it’s really relevant to those folks. To people who are mostly older people who have siblings. For example, if I am a 70-year-old American woman, maybe my parents have already died and so I can’t go in to see my siblings: my whole family lives in Palestine, but my parents are dead so I don’t meet any of the other categories. I don’t have a first-degree family member because my parents are deceased.

So, in the amended version they added siblings.

But we didn’t ask for siblings: we asked for siblings, we asked for parents, we asked for grandchildren, and we asked for in-laws. For example, if you have a British woman married to a Palestinian man, and she has a baby, her mother cannot come in. The Palestinian’s in-law cannot come to meet the grandchild. The foreigner is not considered, she or he is not in a relevant category. That in-law is not the mother of a Palestinian. She’s a mother of a foreigner.

9. Coordinating re-entry

If I’m living in the West Bank and want to go for a family vacation outside for just one week, how can I apply for permission to re-enter (once I’ve left) a full 45 days ahead?

If this person is a spouse, I have no idea what’s going to happen to that person’s status. Bottom line: I don’t know if that person is going to be able to remain indefinitely in the West Bank, whether they will have to leave in three months, in six months… So I can’t even answer the question.

I can say that the 45-day requirement for coordinating re-entry is gone with respect to married partners.

There is a caveat: if they have been denied in the past or they’ve breached the terms of their visa – and they know if they have, a person knows if they’ve received a stamp that says denied – those spouses will have to continue to coordinate their entry.

We’ve challenged and are continuing to challenge that, saying you can’t penalize people indefinitely for an error they made in the past.

I’m a foreign spouse of a Palestinian, do I have to wait six months after leaving before coming back?

The six-month “cooling-off period” is gone. Cooling-off means you are barred from coming back to the border.

10. What’s the status on foreign experts, skilled workers, academics, and students?

What happens if I am a registered Palestinian entity who wants to recruit a European expert to come and live here for six months in Ramallah? I’m talking about athletes or coaches.

This is one of the points we mentioned in our petition. One of the things that we mentioned was specifically about athletics, because there are certain sectors that are completely absent from this policy.

What if you have this amazing soccer player that you want to bring in for a two-year contract? It doesn’t say that you can, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t.

So they did make a change, and it was a positive change – not perfect in my mind, not exhaustive, and it doesn’t include everyone. But arguably it could include an athlete, because in a section that beforehand was devoted to corporations (now changed and called foreign employees) it now says “workers who are experts in their field”.

And there are no criteria set for that. There’s also a difference between the Hebrew and English wording: it says COGAT has to agree that this person really has significant contributions.

We don’t have any idea what that is, but I would say you definitely should be applying. But I will still be saying, as a lawyer, that it’s not specific enough. I would need to know who’s covered here. 

The quota relating to universities has been removed, so what’s the status on that? Have the restrictions been completely removed for anyone wishing to either lecture or to study here in the West Bank?

So, the quotas have been removed. There are significant positive changes, both with respect to professors and with respect to students. The students for example had to go through a mandatory interview at their respective Israeli mission in their country of origin. Now they don’t. Professors are allowed to bring spouses and children, and there is a possibility of requesting a multiple-entry visa. These are positive developments.

Beforehand, there were two categories of professors. One for short-term visas, which was a maximum of five months long. So, they couldn’t teach for more than one semester, then they had to leave and have a cooling-off period. And then there were the “distinguished” professors, as determined by Israel.

So now, there’s no distinction between the two categories. The term they’ve been replaced with is “permanent lecturers”. So on one hand that’s good, it means they did away with the restrictions – but they’re talking about people with secured positions, whereas the old policy talked about conferences and workshops and continuing education. It talks about people coming in for very, very short visits.

And one of our arguments is, you can’t ask someone to come in for a three-day conference and apply 60 days in advance, and expect them to show up. They’re not going to come. You’re depressing academic freedom. Universities should be up in arms because it means that their students and teachers are not going to be exposed locally to outside ideas.

11. Visa reciprocity between Israel and the United States

What is the latest with the visa reciprocity between Israel and the United States allowing Palestinian Americans to travel into and out of Ben Gurion airport?

I’m not a politician, I’m an Israeli lawyer who works on issues of the region, Israel and Palestine – not in the United States, I don’t work on these waivers.

Different advocacy groups are saying you should be putting pressure on your respective congress representatives, telling them this policy is in violation of the requirements for a visa waiver, and that it discriminates against Palestinians and their families.

12. What can I do if I’m affected by the entry restrictions?

This is going out to all foreigners, this is a public service announcement: if people are being denied – either for renewal or at the borders – you should tell your respective government. You should tell them that you were denied. In order for them to advocate, to change and challenge this policy, and to be heard, they need your stories. So you have to go and be proactive.

People who are listening should learn and ask if their countries are doing anything in terms of advocating for their nationals. They should learn what they’re doing. They should contact their countries and tell them how it’s affecting them.

They should also have their countries demand statistics: what’s going to happen during this two-year pilot period? How are we going to track whether they’re applying it randomly, consistently, discriminatorily? They should ask their countries to demand from the Israelis to produce results during this two-year pilot period.

Finally – something a lot of people don’t understand – is this is a policy, it’s not a law. It didn’t go through the Israeli parliamentary system. It’s a policy, and they have discretion not to follow their own policy if it’s in the best interest, if natural justice requires it. So even if a person doesn’t fall under any of the categories they can still grant permission. Or a person could be denied and they could engage in a legal battle and it could lead to a settlement, or the court will push them to settle.

Everyone should keep themselves informed of the changes. Do your own part, your own advocacy. Be in touch with different organizations (there’s the Right to Enter campaign). Whatever your country is, talk to your representative. You can find information on the HaMoked website. Keep abreast of changes, because hopefully there will be some.

NB: Leora explained to us that there are inaccuracies in the translation of the Hebrew document into English. Anyone with concerns or questions should seek legal advice.

Watch the full Q&A below.

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