International non-governmental organizations (INGOs) that work in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) have come to an impasse with the Israeli government.
Over one year ago, the Israeli government began making changes to the process of granting work visas to INGO employees working in the OPT. The Interior Ministry is now issuing only tourist visas and not work visas.
This change creates substantial barriers to the INGOs’ ability to conduct vital humanitarian assistance work. The Israeli government contends that it should not prevent INGO employees from working in the OPT, as the Palestinian government is responsible for issuing work visas to foreigners working in their territory. However, many INGOs need to easily move between the OPT and Israel because they have offices in Israel or work in both the OPT and Israel. Using tourist visas, INGO employees have difficulty traveling and efficiently passing through security checkpoints and are sometimes denied access to the OPT. INGO employees currently working with visas issued under the old rules can continue to work until their visas expire, but employees cannot renew their work visas and no new employees can obtain work visas.
INGOs also have long-term concerns about the lack of clarity in the new process. INGO employees’ visa applications must now go through a new review committee, but the employees do not know what ministry oversees this committee or what the requirements are for approval. “These measures will put our international staff at great risk of arbitrary decisions and pressures when moving [in the OPT,]” said Corinne Gillet, the Middle East Desk Officer for Handicap International, one of the approximate 150 INGOs affected. There have also been reports that the Israeli Interior Ministry is seeking to transfer responsibility for monitoring INGOs working in the Palestinian territory to the Ministry of Defense. However, INGOs oppose being monitored by the same ministry that is in charge of the military that enforces the occupation. These changes may be part of a larger trend of Israel denying visas and deporting “anti-Israel” foreign nationals who work in the OPT, while restricting funding from foreign pro-Palestinian groups.
Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, Israel is required to facilitate humanitarian assistance in the OPT. Article 55 of the Convention provides that any occupying power must guarantee its territories have access to humanitarian aid such as medical supplies and food. As the occupying power in the OPT and a signatory to the Convention, Israel is obligated to allow INGOs to provide aid. By limiting INGO’s employees access to the OPT, according to Gillet, Israel is at risk of “a huge infringement . . . of its obligation to facilitate humanitarian response in the area it occupies.”
Given the current lack of clarity and uncertainty about future rules, INGOs in Israel are in a precarious position. The unresolved situation means INGOs will have difficulty in maintaining and ensuring the security of their personnel, as it is difficult to recruit critical personnel when prospective employees know that they may not be able to work or may even be deported at any time. The INGOs have recently responded by publishing a position paper through the Association of International Development Agencies that calls on the international community to pressure Israel to meet their international obligations to provide visas that guarantee free movement and allow expatriates to work within the Occupied Palestinian Territories.