TEL AVIV // Israel stripped more than 140,000 Palestinian residents of the West Bank of their residencies in the nearly three-decade period following the 1967 Middle East war, according to a new and potentially controversial report.
The data were released by the government to a human-rights group yesterday under freedom of information laws. This is the first time that Israel has provided a specific figure for the number of Palestinians whose residencies were cancelled between 1967 and the creation of the Palestinian Authority under the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords in 1994.
Ido Bloom, legal department head at the Jerusalem-based Hamoked Centre for the Defence of the Individual, which obtained the data, said: "This is a much higher number than we had expected, and the policy was clearly driven by demographic motivations."
The report is likely to draw more international condemnation to Israel, which is already facing criticism over its attempts to maintain control over the West Bank by allowing the expansion of Jewish settlements in the territory that Palestinians want for their future state.
Palestinian leaders yesterday blasted the policy as a war crime. Saeb Erekat, a chief Palestinian negotiator, whose brother was one of the tens of thousands of Palestinians whose residency was revoked after he left to study in the United States, said: "This policy should not only be viewed as a war crime under international law. It also has a humanitarian dimension. We are talking about people who left Palestine to study or work temporarily but who could not return to resume their lives with their families."
Mr Erekat told the Haaretz newspaper yesterday that he had drawn lessons from the experience of his brother, who today resides in California, and had returned to visit the West Bank several times when he was studying abroad to avoid losing his residency.
The number of Palestinians whose residencies were revoked in the 27-year period amount to more than a tenth of the 1.05 million Palestinian residents estimated to live in the West Bank in 1994, according to Hamoked.
The data show that Palestinians who wanted to leave the West Bank during those years, mostly to study or work abroad, were obligated to leave their identification papers with Israeli authorities at the Allenby bridge crossing to Jordan. In return, they received a card allowing them to cross and return within three years. They were then permitted to renew the card three times for an additional year that they could remain abroad.
If the Palestinians did not return within six months of the expiration of their border-crossing card, they were stripped of their residencies. The documents that were handed to the Hamoked did not mention that the Palestinians received any warnings that their residency status would be terminated.
Most Palestinians hurt by the policy - many of them students who went to study in foreign universities, businesspeople and labourers who went to work in the Gulf - were dissuaded from appealing because it was a complicated bureaucratic procedure that lasted several months, Mr Bloom from Hamoked said. The number of those affected is probably much higher than 140,000 because it also includes their families, many of which had chosen to join them abroad, he added.
Israel implemented a similar policy in the Gaza Strip but has so far refused to detail how many of the tiny enclave's Palestinian residents had been affected.
According to Mr Bloom, the policy officially ended with the signing of the Oslo Accords, which gave Palestinians a measure of self-rule and established the western-backed Palestinian Authority.
Nevertheless, Israel currently still restricts many Palestinians from leaving the West Bank by using a secret blacklist containing the names of those who are not permitted to exit the territory for what critics say are arbitrary reasons. Because the list has never been made public, Palestinians find out that they are on it only when they arrive at the border crossing to Jordan.
But even as Israel ended the policy in the West Bank, it accelerated the revocation of residencies of Palestinians in Jerusalem in recent years, drawing condemnation that it is attempting to gain more control over the disputed city ahead of any peace agreement with the Palestinians. According to the policy, Palestinian residents of Jerusalem lose their right to return if they were abroad for more than seven years. Israeli citizens who are residents of Jerusalem, however, face no such limits.
"The mass withdrawal of residency rights from tens of thousands of residents, tantamount to permanent exile from their homeland, remains an illegitimate demographic policy and a grave violation of international law," Hamoked said in a statement yesterday.