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Humanitarian workers face deportation from Israel after freeze on visas

<span>UNRWA workers with a consignment of medical aid for hospitals in Gaza.</span><span>Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Anadolu/Getty Images</span>
UNRWA workers with a consignment of medical aid for hospitals in Gaza.Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Anadolu/Getty Images

Israel has stopped issuing visas for international staff of humanitarian organisations that work in occupied Palestinian territories, hampering efforts to get food and other vital supplies into Gaza.

Dozens of foreign aid workers, including heads of organisations, have had to leave Israel and the Palestinian territories, or are overstaying their visas and risking deportation so they can continue working, an alliance of aid groups has warned.

Emergency response teams, who have the specialist experience to deal with the multiple challenges of working in Gaza, are particularly affected, said Faris Arouri, director of the Association of International Development Agencies (AIDA), an umbrella group representing aid groups operating in the West Bank and Gaza.

Related: UN warns Rafah attack would be ‘nail in coffin’ of Gaza aid as deliveries halve

They are deployed on short notice from regional headquarters to deal with unexpected crises, but the visa block means aid groups have not been able to bring any experts into Jerusalem, from where most aid to Gaza is coordinated.

Visas are required to enter Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, but new ones have effectively been blocked by the ministry of welfare and social affairs. Its officials must provide a letter of recommendation before a visa application can be processed, but they stopped issuing these after the 7 October Hamas attacks.

At the time, the ministry said the state of emergency affected its work, and all humanitarian visas were automatically extended to 8 February 2024. When that exemption expired, the ministry told the humanitarian organisations it had stopped issuing letters and the visa process was being discussed by “various government authorities”.

“Instead of advocating to enter Gaza, we are being forced to advocate just to let staff come to Jerusalem,” Arouri said, adding that the visa freeze was unprecedented.

“There have always been ups and downs, especially since the second intifada [from 2000 to 2005]. There were phases where there were some restrictions or where access was harder. But never on this scale.”

The bar on visas for foreign staff is compounded by a ban on Palestinian staff from the West Bank entering either Jerusalem or Gaza. This means that teams are fragmented geographically when they are facing the biggest crisis in decades.

The trickle of aid getting into Gaza is not enough to relieve severe shortages of food, clean water and basic medical supplies, and doctors say that children have started dying from malnutrition.

“We have 15 country directors without visas, who have had to leave, or are preparing to leave,” Arouri said, adding that although teams were trying to work remotely, the separation of key staff was “strangling” operations. “You need them on the ground, with access to Gaza.”

A survey of about a third of AIDA members – 35 organisations – found that more than 150 jobs were affected, Arouri said. The visas of 57 staff had already expired, more than 40 others would expire within weeks, and humanitarian organisations were unable to recruit another 50 international staff needed to scale up operations in Gaza.

If Israel does not start issuing visas again, all foreign humanitarian workers will have to leave by early autumn, when the last visas issued in 2023 will expire.

David Lammy, Britain’s shadow foreign secretary, raised the issue in parliament on Tuesday, calling on the UK government to pressure Israel for action.

“Humanitarian visas must be renewed now,” he said. “With no humanitarian visa renewals since the outbreak of this war, [Israel is] leaving humanitarian workers facing deportation when the Palestinian people need them most.”

UN aid workers are also affected by a visa clampdown, with staff given only short-term access to Israel and Gaza. “Visas for most international staff, including those in Gaza, have been limited to one or two months,” UNRWA chief, Philippe Lazzarini, said in a letter to the president of the UN general assembly listing logistical challenges.

Relief work is further hampered by a bar on foreign humanitarian workers – including diplomats and UN staffers – entering Gaza from Israel through the Kerem Shalom border crossing, about two hours’ drive from Jerusalem, it is understood.

UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine, has not been granted permits by the Israeli authorities to deliver aid to northern Gaza for more than a month and said at the weekend it could no longer function there.

Logistical blocks have also led to dangerous situations, such as an airdrop of food supplies into the sea off Gaza earlier this week, a senior international aid worker said.

But the weight of food means airdrops can only supply relatively small amounts and can be easily diverted by anyone with weapons.

Video shot by a bystander shows desperate crowds gathered on a beach on Monday as people wade into the water or head into sea on makeshift craft to collect food parcels, the New York Times reported.

A spokesperson for Israel’s foreign ministry, when asked about why the visa process had been halted, said “this issue is being looked into by governmental authorities”. The interior ministry and welfare ministry did not respond to requests for comment.