Commentators in the media and elsewhere proclaimed after the
disengagement from Gaza that "the frontier posts in the Strip are now
international crossings," and that "removing Israeli control of access
to Gaza is in line with the national interest of ending the occupation."
These conclusions were based on a systemic ignorance of the nuances in the Israeli control over the Palestinians. Mainly they reflect the lack of desire to know that Israel controls the Palestinian population registration. This state of affairs began in 1967, continued after signing the Oslo Accords and still exists today, after the Israel Defense Forces' pullout from the Gaza Strip.
Israel's control of the border crossings and the Palestinians' freedom of movement is not reflected merely in Israel's presence in roadblocks and border passes. It derives first and foremost from controlling the Palestinian population registration. Identity numbers, births, deaths, marriages, changing addresses – if these details have not been updated in Israel's Interior Ministry computers, they don't exist.
If Israel does not approve a registration act of any kind, Palestinian Interior Ministry officials cannot do a thing about it. The Israeli representative of the Interior Ministry in the Israeli "coordination and liaison office," subordinate to the Israeli Ministry of Defense, has more authority than he does. For example, the Palestinian Interior Ministry wishes to issue identity cards to Bedouin children in the Gaza Strip, who were born in a tent or in the field and were not registered at birth. The Palestinian ministry has sufficient proof of the birth and existence of these children, who have now turned 16.
The Israeli Interior Ministry refuses. If a senior director in the Palestinian Interior Ministry does fails to convince the Israeli official after tedious prolonged negotiations, the boy will not have an identity card.
Israel's control over the Palestinian population registration denies the Palestinian Authority any possibility of "naturalizing" Palestinians who were born or lived in the diaspora. This involves not merely the refugees of 1948, but also those born in the West Bank and Gaza Strip but who were not living there in 1967 – and Israel has deprived them of their residency rights.
The PA also cannot naturalize Palestinians who went to work and study overseas after 1967 and who did not return before the expiration of the military administration's three-year limit, after which Israel cancels the Palestinian's residence.
Israel approves or denies Palestinian "family reunions" not only within its borders but in the occupied territories as well. Since September 2000, Israel has stopped handling requests for family reunions in the territories, which it had processed with sluggish slowness beforehand. The lives of tens of thousands of families are thus disrupted: couples live apart because Israel denied those who were deprived of their residency permission to live in the territories with their families. Some do live in the territories, but those who are not residents may not leave the West Bank or Gaza Strip, and in the West Bank they are always in danger of being arrested at a roadblock and deported.
Israel's control over the population registration also enables it to refuse to change peoples' addresses in their identity card. According to the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Interior Ministry must only "report" to the Israeli one on address changes. But in 1997 the Palestinians discovered that the Israeli authorities refuse in many cases to change the address registration of Palestinians who moved from Gaza to the West Bank. This includes Gaza Strip natives who have worked and lived in the West Bank for many years with their children. Consequently, many of them are considered illegal residents there. They live in fear of running into military roadblocks, they are unable to travel overseas or in the West Bank, and have not seen their families in Gaza for many years.
The issue of population registration did not come up at all in the disengagement talks. Israeli officials hinted that the situation will remain as is. For example, the IDF's Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories advised the Palestinians that as part of the disengagement "good will gestures," Israel would approve 5,000 requests (out of tens of thousands that are gathering dust) for family reunions and for receiving identity numbers in the Gaza Strip.
Had Israel intended to give up its control of the Gaza Strip population registration, it would have told the Palestinians that from now on it is their right and authority to deal with all those tens of thousands of requests in that region.
The Palestinians have no interest in severing the population registration in the Gaza Strip from the Israeli computer and control, as long as the population registration in the West Bank is an inseparable part of the Israeli registration.
International decisions, the Oslo Accords and of course the Palestinian position make it clear that the West Bank and Gaza Strip are "one territorial unit" that will be the basis of the Palestinian state. Ariel Sharon is doing and will do everything to cut the Gaza Strip off from the West Bank and give Gaza a different status from that of the West Bank.
Was population registration dropped from the talks out of ignorance and negligence? Or was it because Israel knows the severing of it would set off political shock waves?