RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — A Gaza-born woman recently sneaked into her native land through a smugglers' tunnel because the legal route was blocked. A car mechanic who settled in the West Bank 15 years ago to raise a family lives in fear of deportation because his ID card says he's originally from Gaza.
They are among the thousands of Palestinians who the New York-based Human Rights Watch says have had their lives disrupted by Israeli restrictions on residency in the West Bank and Gaza, territories captured by Israel in the June 1967 Mideast war and sought for a Palestinian state.
In a report Sunday, Human Rights Watch called on Israel to lift restrictions on residency, saying they are often arbitrary and violate international and human rights law, including the right to family life.
"The result has been to split families apart, to arbitrarily ban people from moving around and to arbitrarily prevent a large number of people from returning to their own homes,' said the report's author, Bill Van Esveld.
Israel handed some 40 percent of the West Bank to Palestinian self-rule in the 1990s and withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but never relinquished the final say over who is a legal resident of these territories. Israel has cited security grounds for retaining the right to block entries.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said Israel has granted residency in the West Bank and Gaza to tens of thousands of Palestinians over the years and accused Human Rights Watch of anti-Israel bias.
He said Israel's policies are subject to review "by a fiercely independent judiciary."
Since 1967, Israel's policy on residency rights has fluctuated, along with the ebb and flow of the conflict with the Palestinians.
Human Rights Watch estimated that over four decades, residency restrictions may have reduced the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza, now close to 4 million, by hundreds of thousands.
At the same time, it noted, Israel settled parts of the occupied territories in violation of international law. Currently, about 500,000 Israelis live there.
Israel has allowed for "family reunification," meaning those with ID cards could apply for residency for spouses or children, and over the years, tens of thousands of such requests were granted.
However, huge backlogs built up, especially at times of tension, and Israel also stripped tens of thousands of their residency on grounds they had stayed abroad too long, the report said.