Majdi Mohammed, Associated Press
In this Saturday, Feb. 4, 2012, photo, Palestinian Hussein al-Ustaz sits with his children in his house in the West Bank village of Bir Naballah near Ramallah. An international human rights group has urged Israel to lift what it says are arbitrary restrictions on Palestinian residency in the West Bank and Gaza. Hussein al-Ustaz, a Gaza man who moved to the West Bank 15 years ago, before the travel ban, remains an "illegal alien" even though he married a local woman and they have six children.
RAMALLAH, West Bank — 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 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 issued Sunday, Human Rights Watch called on Israel to lift restrictions on residency, saying they are often arbritrary 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."
Israel set up the register after a September 1967 census in the West Bank and Gaza, issuing ID cards to nearly 1 million Palestinians. Human Right Watch said at least 270,000 residents were not present during the census, having either fled the war three months earlier or spending time abroad for work or study.
Israel excluded them from the registry and blocked the possibility of return for many, the report said.
A woman known as Umm Basel, born in Gaza in 1967, said her parents fled to Jordan before the census. After life in exile in Egypt and Jordan, neither of which granted her citizenship, she paid smugglers $200 three months ago to sneak her and her son into Gaza through a tunnel. She has since applied to Israel for a Gaza residency permit, but has received no word the request is being processed. She would not give her full name for fear of repercussions.
Egypt shares a border with Gaza and largely limits passage to those with Palestinians with Israeli-approved ID cards.
Israel's policy on residency rights has fluctuated, along with the ebb and flow of the conflict.
Israel has in principle allowed those with ID cards to 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.
In a related issue, Israel has banned virtually all Palestinian travel between the West Bank and Gaza since the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in 2000. The two territories, on opposite sides of Israel, are considered one entity by the international community.
Israel has cited security grounds, including deadly attacks by Palestinian militants and the violent 2007 takeover of Gaza by the anti-Israel Hamas. Critics say Israel is isolating areas the Palestinians want for their state to weaken their independence bid.
Hussein al-Ustaz, a Gazan man who moved to the West Bank before the travel ban went into effect, remains an "illegal alien" even though he married a local woman and they have six children.
His ID card identifies the 34-year-old as a Gaza resident and Israeli authorities have so far refused to change his registration to the West Bank. If stopped at an Israeli checkpoint, he could face arrest and deportation to Gaza.
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Al-Ustaz said he misses his parents and eight siblings. "My sisters have all married, and I haven't seen them. My brother was killed in Gaza during an Israeli incursion in 2006. I didn't go to the funeral," he said.
Human Rights Watch said about 35,000 Gazans who moved to the West Bank remain there without permits, while Israel last year agreed to register 2,800 as West Bank residents.
Associated Press writers Diaa Hadid in Jerusalem and Dalia Nammari in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed reporting.