Israeli authorities have reportedly conceded that they have no system in place to ensure that Palestinians who cross into Israel with entry permits return to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
The revelation has intensified concerns that the Hamas terror group could exploit the entry permits for facilitating terror activity within Israel’s borders.
The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Defense Ministry body responsible for liaising with the Palestinians, made the admission to the right-wing Im Tirtzu group.
Alon Schwarzer, head of Im Tirtzu’s policy division, told Army Radio on Sunday that “this is the most concerning answer we’ve received to any question we’ve ever asked. We saw data, like 50,000 permits for visits to inmates, most of whom are terrorists.”
Im Tirtzu filed a request asking authorities for the number of people crossing the border in the past five years, if any of those people had broken any laws while in Israel, and if there was a system in place for checking whether they had returned to their places of residence.
“There is no procedure for enforcing the return of Palestinians to areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority or the Gaza Strip,” COGAT said in response to the request.
According to a statement on Im Tirtzu’s website (Hebrew link), the data provided by COGAT said that from 2014 to mid-2019 Israeli authorities granted 2,645,696 entry permits to West Bank Palestinians, and 335,807 to Gazans.
For West Bank Palestinians, the lion’s share of the permits were for work, medical purposes, traveling, and visiting family on holidays, but 53,596 of the permits were issued for visits to prisoners and 21,410 for trips abroad.
For Gazans, most permits were for medical reasons, but 21,394 were issued for trips abroad, and others for business purposes, weddings, holidays, conferences and for work with international aid organizations.
COGAT said it did not have any information on criminal activity by Palestinians in Israel with entry permits.
“The reality is that no one is following up on the return of residents of the Palestinian areas who enter Israel after they receive official permits from the State of Israel, which is terrifying,” Im Tirtzu said in a statement. “This is a complete gamble with the lives of Israeli citizens.”
Im Tirtzu filed the request due to concerns that Hamas was using the permits to advance its terror agenda in Israel following the arrest of Hamas operatives in July, and reports that the terror group was exploiting humanitarian permits for nefarious purposes, Schwarzer said.
“This is a very big security threat for the State of Israel,” he said. “Millions of people are getting entry permits to the State of Israel, and unfortunately many of them can get involved in terror activities, or criminal activity.”
The Shin Bet security agency is reportedly also concerned Hamas could exploit the permit system to set up terror infrastructure in Israel.
Alon Avitar, a former adviser to COGAT, told Army Radio that the vast majority of Palestinians who crossed into Israel were compelled to go home for personal interests and to preserve their freedom of movement, but that there were “hundreds of instances” in recent years of Palestinians exploiting entry permits to advance terror interests, such as transferring and laundering money.