Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images
Near the Erez crossing between the northern Gaza Strip and Israel, freed Palestinian prisoner Ahmad Sabah (right) and Palestinian Fadi al-Azazmeh protest on May 4 to demand the right to return to their homes in the West Bank. Both men were deported in April from the West Bank to Gaza. The two deportations appeared to have been carried out as part of a new Israeli military policy.
Near the Erez crossing between the northern Gaza Strip and Israel, freed Palestinian prisoner Ahmad Sabah (right) and Palestinian Fadi al-Azazmeh protest on May 4 to demand the right to return to their homes in the West Bank. Both men were deported in April from the West Bank to Gaza. The two deportations appeared to have been carried out as part of a new Israeli military policy. Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images
Thousands of Palestinians could be deported under a new and highly controversial order put in place in April by the Israeli army, human rights groups in Israel say.
The new rule defines anyone not holding an Israeli-issued permit to reside in the West Bank as an "infiltrator." Violators could face up to seven years in prison or deportation.
Human rights groups say they are worried about the broad wording of the new order. They say it could be used to target three groups: Palestinians who have residency papers from the Gaza Strip but who live in the West Bank; foreigners working in or visiting the Palestinian territories who overstay their visas; and the foreign-born spouses of Palestinians.
In the West Bank city of Ramallah, Umm Qusay has decided she can't risk leaving her house.
"I'm extremely afraid, I'm terrified. I'm worried about being separated from my children," she says.
Umm Qusay was born in the West Bank city of Jericho, but she grew up in Jordan. She married a Palestinian resident of Ramallah 10 years ago, but she stayed in Jordan because Israeli authorities would not grant her residency papers to live with her husband in the West Bank.
A few months ago she was given a visitor's visa for the West Bank. In an effort to remain with her family, she overstayed the visa because she says it's the only way they can be together.
The Israeli military denies that the new rule will be used to begin mass deportations.
Israeli military spokeswoman Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich says the order simply amends existing Israeli regulations. Israel claims the rule is actually beneficial because it puts the person under suspicion before a military court in advance of any action being taken.
"What is relevant here is that the Palestinians or the illegal residents actually have another monitoring step before the repatriation begins," Leibovich says.
There have been few deportations this year, and the newly amended order won't change that, according to Israeli officials.
But that hasn't stopped people like Umm Qusay from keeping a low profile. She's not alone.
Many Palestinians have gone into hiding to avoid being picked up by Israeli authorities, according to Sari Bashi, the head of the Israeli human rights group Gisha.
"This is tearing at the fabric of civil society in Palestine. They are afraid an Israeli soldier will arrest them for not having the right documentation, and Israel refuses to issue them the right documentation," she says.
The Palestinian Authority is also worried about the repercussions of the new rule. It says that the new military order contravenes international law and previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.
Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 war. Soon after, it began building Jewish settlements and maintains a military presence in the territory. Palestinians say the settlements threaten the creation of a viable Palestinian state.
"We are alarmed because of the possible practical consequences of this. It will affect the human rights of the people. It will affect the rights of the people to live in Palestine," says Palestinian Authority spokesman Ghassan Khatib.
About 500,000 Israeli Jews live in settlements in the West Bank and Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, alongside 2.5 million Palestinians. Another 1.6 million Palestinians live in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.