Aid workers fear fallout from Israel visa suspension


Israel has suspended granting work visas for new foreign charity workers arriving in the country, humanitarians say, in a move that could impede aid to Palestinians.

Dozens of aid workers from major international NGOs have been unable to get work visas or faced delays in recent months, the humanitarians say.

Israel says the matter is procedural, but has not found a permanent solution to the issue in more than a year.

“This situation could escalate into crippled humanitarian operations,” a senior aid worker told AFP.

Israeli officials strongly denied that the delay was intentional, with the social affairs ministry calling any such suggestion a “false accusation”.

Palestinians are heavily dependent on aid, with more than two-thirds in the beleaguered Gaza Strip reliant upon it, according to the United Nations.

Much of it is delivered by international charities, which usually operate through Israel.

Since June, however, no new aid workers have been able to get a B1 work visa, the most common type for foreign NGO workers in the country.

This followed similar suspensions from August to December 2016 and from March to April this year.

Dozens of aid workers have been affected so far, the humanitarians said, with a number stuck outside the country waiting for their visas to come through.

- ‘They can’t replace me’ -

Others are working illegally on tourist visas, but fear they could be expelled.

“A country director who is waiting outside the country for months means timely delivery of aid will be affected,” the senior aid worker said.

Another aid worker who arrived in Israel in June told AFP she waited two months to hear from the ministry of social affairs to no avail.

In August, the aid worker travelled outside Israel and on her return she said authorities told her she had a month to sort out her situation or leave.

She expects to leave Israel in the coming days.

“They can’t replace me, as any foreigner they bring in will have the same problem,” she told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The head of the charity’s operations in the occupied West Bank is due to arrive in the coming weeks but is expected to face the same predicament.

Around 300 international NGO staff, including country heads, need B1 visas approved on a yearly basis, but to do so they need a letter of recommendation from the ministry of social affairs.

Without such letters the interior ministry will not issue the visa, but the ministry of social affairs has said it is no longer its responsibility.

And the interior ministry has said it could not issue new visas without the letters.

- ‘Important work’ -

The ministry of social affairs said the delays were due to “ongoing inter-ministerial considerations regarding the applications approval procedure”.

“We believe the temporal delay will soon end, hopefully with minimal effect on the important work done by aid organisations and NGOs,” it said in a statement to AFP.

Aid workers said, however, the problem began over a year ago and some expressed concerns the Israeli government is seeking to make their work harder.

The ministry of social affairs said they “absolutely and completely deny this false accusation”.

Previous delays were resolved when the ministry temporarily returned to the practice of delivering the letters.

Early this year, Israel passed a law allowing the interior ministry to ban entry to supporters of a movement boycotting Israel over its occupation of Palestinian territories.

The senior aid worker suggested the ministry of social affairs could be wary of giving recommendation letters as it does not have the ability to properly vet individuals.

Israeli officials have accused a number of aid workers of being biased towards the Palestinians and of being manipulated by the Islamist movement Hamas.

The Gaza head of the international Christian charity World Vision is on trial in Israel for allegedly providing support to Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organisation by Israel, the United States and the European Union.

Rights groups also fear their work is being curtailed by the Israeli government, considered the most right-wing in the country’s history.

In February, Israel refused a visa for the American country head of Human Rights Watch, accusing the group of being “fundamentally biased” towards the Palestinians.

After international condemnation, however, the Israeli government reversed position and granted the visa. afp

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Israel to press UN chief on ‘blindness’ on Hezbollah


Israel will press UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on what it says is Hezbollah’s arms buildup in Lebanon during his first visit to the Jewish state since taking office, the deputy foreign minister said Sunday.

Guterres was due to arrive in the evening for meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and officials, with the visit scheduled to continue through Wednesday.

The trip comes as the UN Security Council debates renewing for a year the mandate of its peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, with a vote expected on August 30.

The US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, has blasted the commander of the UNIFIL peacekeepers, accusing him of turning a blind eye to Hezbollah weapons smuggling.

United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarric has however said: “We have full confidence in (the commander’s) work.”

Israeli deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely told public radio on Sunday: “Haley was right.”

“We shall not allow this blindness to continue.”

She said that Hezbollah’s deployment along Lebanon’s border with Israel would be a “very central issue” in the discussions with Guterres.

“He will meet the head of military intelligence and receive a briefing, and also meet the prime minister, and I am sure that he will not leave here with the feeling that the mandate given to the UN is being implemented on the ground,” Hotovely said.

Beyond meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he is also expected to hold talks with Palestinian premier Rami Hamdallah in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank on Tuesday.

Guterres has told the Security Council that he intends to look at ways in which UNIFIL could beef up its efforts “regarding the illegal presence of armed personnel, weapons or infrastructure inside its area of operations”.

As US President-elect, Donald Trump dismissed the United Nations as “just a club for people to get together and have a good time” and warned that things would be different after his inauguration.

Since taking office in January he has proposed a dramatic cut of 60 percent of US funding for peacekeeping missions.

The United States is the biggest contributor to the United Nations, paying 22 percent of the $5.4 billion core budget and 28.5 percent of the $7.9 billion peacekeeping budget.

Israel has long alleged bias at the United Nations against it and also plans to discuss that with Guterres.

Hotovely said that, as a former prime minister of Portugal, Guterres has sharp political antennae and realises that under the current US administration there may be a price to pay for what she calls a long tradition of “almost anti-Semitic” UN bias against the Jewish state.

“We find in him an understanding that his organisation risks losing not only its credibility but also its funding from the world’s biggest and most important power, the United States,” she said.

“I very much hope that we shall see a change of direction in relation to Israel.” afp

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