Israel visa freeze on aid workers compounds Gaza woes

A picture taken from a position in southern Israel on 10 March, 2024, shows smoke billowing amid Israeli bombardment in the Gaza Strip as battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas continueAFP

Along with cumbersome border checks and relentless Israeli bombardment, the humanitarian response in war-ravaged Gaza faces a new challenge: a de facto freeze on visas for many international aid workers.

Israeli authorities have stopped issuing new visas or renewing old ones for foreign employees of international NGOs, most of whom occupy senior positions, according to three senior humanitarian officials and a body representing more than 80 groups.

As of Thursday, 57 aid workers’ visas had expired since the war broke out on 7 October, while 42 more “will expire in the coming few weeks”, said Faris Arouri, director of the Association of International Development Agencies (AIDA), whose members work in the Palestinian territories.

At least 50 requests for new visas -- for staffers ramping up the response to worsening humanitarian conditions in Gaza and the West Bank -- have gone nowhere, Arouri said.

“The total is close to 150 positions that we urgently need as of two months ago, not tomorrow,” Arouri said.

“We see it as part and parcel of a larger-scale Israeli blockade on aid operations and humanitarian aid both in the West Bank and Gaza.”

The United Nations has also been affected, with scores of visa applications currently “unanswered”, a UN official told AFP, requesting anonymity given the sensitivity of the issue.

Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Lior Haiat told AFP there was “a change of procedures... regarding the issuing of visas to the NGOs” and that the issue “will be resolved in the near future”.

‘Grey zone’

The war in Gaza erupted with Hamas’s unprecedented 7 October attack on southern Israel, which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

Israel’s retaliatory military campaign has killed at least 31,045 people, the majority women and children, according to the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza.

Grim reports of Gazans subsisting on leaves and animal fodder as children succumb to malnutrition have focused attention on dramatic shortages of food aid, to say nothing of medicine and other essentials.

While no one believes granting visas to international aid workers would immediately alleviate suffering in Gaza, the visa freeze has left 15 organisations without country directors in Israel, Arouri said, making what little work they can do even more difficult.

Work visas for international NGOs require a recommendation letter from Israel’s Ministry of Welfare and Social Affairs, which has not issued any since August, three senior humanitarian officials told AFP.

After the 7 October attack, the ministry said it would not be able to issue new recommendation letters, but foreign aid workers were granted a blanket visa extension until 8 February, the officials said.

No further extension has been announced.

The country director of one NGO working on water and sanitation in Gaza and the West Bank, whose visa has expired, said it is possible to stay in Israel by obtaining a document confirming an application for a new visa has been submitted.

But the country director said humanitarian officials holding this document cannot travel to Gaza and the West Bank.

“It really hinders the coordination and effective management of our Gaza operations,” the country director said, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardising relations with the Israeli government.

Meanwhile, some aid workers who have applied for visas have been ordered to leave the country, with no word on when they might be able to return.

“It’s never clear,” the country director said.

“It’s like everything is a grey zone.”

Tensions with UN

The United Nations, which deals with the foreign ministry, is still receiving some visas, but it currently has 67 unanswered applications, the UN official said.

Most of these are for staffers with the UN children’s agency UNICEF, the World Food Programme and UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.

Israel has accused UNRWA of employing 450 “terrorists”, including about a dozen it said were involved in the October 7 attack.

While one-year visas used to be the norm for UN staffers, now just two months is more common, and one month for spouses and children.

Typically, there is no communication from the government on the applications, but in December Israel said it had “revoked” the visa of Lynn Hastings, the UN humanitarian coordinator for the Palestinian territories, accusing her of “dangerous rhetoric” and bias.

One humanitarian official told AFP that, in light of such statements, there were concerns that taking positions like calling for a ceasefire would cause aid workers to be seen as “an enemy of the state” -- putting their visas, and the work of their organisations, at risk.