JERUSALEM: Israel quietly revoked the residency of 140,000 Palestinians living in the West Bank when they left to travel abroad in the years after the 1967 Six Day War, a rights group said on Wednesday.
According to official documents obtained by HaMoked, Centre for the Defence of the Individual, the policy affected Palestinians traveling abroad for work or study in the period between 1967 and 1994 when the Oslo Accords came into effect.
Although HaMoked was aware of the procedure, it was never clear how many Palestinians had been affected until the group got hold of numbers through the Freedom of Information Act, in a story first exposed by Haaretz newspaper.
The revelation sparked a furious response from the Palestinian Authority, with government spokesman Ghassan Khatib describing the policy as "illegal and inhumane."
"This policy is part of the Israeli strategy to remove as many Palestinians as possible while moving Israeli citizens into our lands," he said in a statement, adding that HaMoked’s work to reveal the figures was "to be applauded."
According to the documents, any Palestinian traveling abroad during that period would have to leave his or her ID card at the Allenby Bridge crossing into Jordan, and in exchange would receive an "exit permit" which was valid for three years.
If a traveler did not come back before the permit expired, their documents were sent to the military administration in the West Bank which would re-register them as "no longer resident" — or NLR, Haaretz said.
But the process was never explained to travelers meaning that many were unaware that not returning ‘on time’ could see their residency status revoked.
Those who arrived in the six months after the card expired were technically permitted to appeal to have their residency reinstated, but in practice, very few managed to reverse the procedure, HaMoked said.
"We knew this procedure existed but we never knew the scope of this policy," said Ido Blum, head of the legal team at HaMoked.
"It is a very large number, representing about 14 percent of the residents of the West Bank, which is a huge number."
He said the practice was stopped after 1994 when the Palestinian Authority took over the exit procedures, meaning travelers were able to leave for years without losing their residency rights.
The number of people affected by this procedure was likely to be far higher than 140,000 as entire families would often leave to join an individual whose residency had been revoked, he said.
"I believe that the number of Palestinians living in exile is much higher than 140,000 as if a father went to study or work abroad and his residency was revoked, his wife and children would leave and join him," he told AFP.
Blum said an identical policy had been applied in the Gaza Strip but so far, they had not been able to get access to the numbers.
The Palestinian Authority said the policy was still being used against residents of east Jerusalem, which was occupied and annexed by Israel in 1967.
"This policy of illegally stripping Palestinians of their citizenship and residency rights continues in east Jerusalem today," Khatib said, explaining that east Jerusalemites who carry an Israeli ID card and stay out of the country for several years, risk losing their residency rights.
"The victims of this theft have been denied one of the most basic human rights — the right to be a citizen in your own homeland," the government statement said.
Blum said HaMoked was also working to compile information on the residency status of Palestinian prisoners serving long sentences inside Israeli jails.
"During the early 1990s, Israel revoked the residency of prisoners serving long sentences of 20-30 years, and we are trying to get the information on numbers," he said.
There are currently 7,000 Palestinians held in Israeli jails, 129 of whom have already served at least 20 years. It was not immediately clear how many of the others were serving long-term sentences.
Guy Inbar, a spokesman for COGAT, the defence ministry unit which coordinates activity in the occupied territories, refused to comment directly on the issue, saying: "We are not responsible for making such policies."