Israel pushes out dozens of aid workers by not extending visas

Israeli authorities have not issued documents to humanitarian helpers, nor renewed existing ones, since the war in Gaza began eight months ago

Guerra entre Israel y Gaza
Gazans wait for a food distribution outside an International Committee of the Red Cross warehouse in Gaza City, June 11, 2024.Anadolu (Anadolu via Getty Images)
Antonio Pita

Since the war in Gaza began eight months ago, Israeli authorities have been quietly hindering the work of NGOs by not issuing temporary work visas to aid workers, nor renewing existing ones. Dozens of foreigners working for NGOs focusing their work in Palestine have had to leave their homes, usually in Jerusalem, as their visas have expired. Israel has also changed its policy toward U.N. system organizations, amid the biggest crisis in the region in decades. Now U.N. staffers must renew their visas every two months as a general rule. Joseph Kelly, acting director of the coalition of 80 humanitarian organizations (AIDA), calls the obstacles “a mixture of political decision and administrative negligence,” while the Israeli authorities insist that it is only a bureaucratic problem aggravated by the war.

The situation has plunged into uncertainty the hundreds of (mainly Western) employees of the 150 or so international NGOs working in the Palestinian territories of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The vast majority of these organizations — which are registered as non-profit organizations with the Israeli Ministry of Welfare and Social Affairs — work with local partners (counterparts, in the jargon of the sector) in Gaza (in areas that have become particularly important, such as medical care and aid distribution) and in the West Bank, where the population is also most in need of assistance.

Kelly estimates that around 50 humanitarian workers have had to leave the country since the start of the war. Since then, the outcome has varied, depending on personal situations (the visas of the family members of aid workers also depend on them) and the internal rules of each organization. When their visas expired, some 15 aid workers ended up working remotely, sometimes from other regional headquarters, such as Cairo or Amman, according to the latest survey of the situation carried out by AIDA, dated April 30. “It is damaging our capacity because Jerusalem is where many strategic decisions are made,” says Kelly.

Others enter and leave with a tourist visa. A dozen have stayed illegally, or without being clear about their legal situation, with the consequent risk of being deported and banned from entering for years. And 16 have received an extension of between three and six months. They are, in any case, partial figures, because only some of the NGOs responded to the survey and there are dozens of other groups outside AIDA, explains Simone Manfredi, country director of the Terre des Hommes foundation, based in Switzerland, and a member of the executive committee of the coalition.

Beyond personally affecting the aid workers, the measure has had a clear impact on the work of NGOs, almost all of which have programs in Gaza. Up to 111 requests for new visas are still in a drawer waiting to be processed. “They are mostly from the first three or four months, after that they have almost stopped being requested,” says Manfredi. These are work visas, both for new hires abroad and for those who change NGOs in the country.

Twenty-eight percent of the requests are for the position of country director. This is the case for Manfredi. “This means we can’t have a power of attorney, exercise legal representation, sign contracts, open a bank account in Israel... Fundamental things to operate,” he explains. “It’s very random. In meetings [with Israeli authorities] they tell us that they are thinking of putting another inter-ministerial system in place, but there is nothing in writing. It’s a gray area that complicates the personal and professional situation. I am always at the risk of an agent at the border suspecting something and not letting me in.”

The situation affects NGOs on several fronts. For example, 195 Palestinian workers from the West Bank have not received permits to enter Jerusalem. In another case, emergency technicians from organizations with permission to access Gaza are entering through Jordan and going directly to the Gaza Strip. Their colleagues without valid Israeli visas have no guarantees that they will be able to return from Gaza.

“And then, of course, there is the ability to reach people,” adds Manfredi. The work of NGOs has a very technical part (project management, administration) that is relatively easy to carry out remotely, but another face-to-face part (visiting projects on the ground, identifying needs or meeting with administrations or counterparts) that has been hindered by the loss of dozens of aid workers.


Israeli lawyer Yotam Ben Hillel, who represents several of the affected NGOs, criticizes the opacity of the system and has asked Attorney General Gali Baharav Miara to take action. He has not received a response. “The Interior Ministry says that it has made an extension [of the visas], but it has not communicated it. It is not a transparent or formal process,” he says.

The extension also only applies to air workers who were already in the country, penalizing precisely the NGOs that evacuated their staff (and their partners and children) in the first months of the conflict due to protocols that ensure the safety of their staff, as well as the aid workers who were on vacation or did not want to push the limits of their legal stay. Ben Hillel argues that these individuals have been placed in a situation of “helplessness”: they cross borders or live in Israel with a visa that appears in their passport as expired, trusting in the Interior Ministry guarantees that it will appear to have been extended in the computer system.

Dozens of aid workers have left their rental accommodation and packed their things to return to their countries. This newspaper spoke with six affected people. None of them wanted to reveal their name, fearing Israeli authorities would retaliate against them or the NGOs they work for. One, for example, waited for a solution until February 8. That day, the Interior Ministry’s extension expired for them and the many others who had been waiting up to half a year in vain for the letter to start the renewal process. Resigned, they packed their belongings, notified their landlord and returned to their country. Another desperately approached the Interior Ministry before heading to Tel Aviv airport with their suitcases. They discovered that they had a last-minute extension until July that had not been formally communicated.

In fact, as the Palestinian territories lack an airport and Israel controls all exit points, including the crossing between the West Bank and Jordan, one of the main fears of the aid workers who remain in the area is that if they leave temporarily ― for work meetings, family reunions or vacations ― the border agent, unaware of the situation, will prevent them from returning, not even to notify their landlord and collect their belongings. The B1 tourist visa ― which some aid workers are on ― lasts three months, but can be reduced to nothing more than a few weeks at one of the border crossings.

Aid workers’ immediate family members also depend on these visas: they receive a different one (B2) that allows them to reside temporarily, but not to work. It is the same visa that the Israeli military authorities provide to NGO workers in West Bank cities, such as Ramallah, Bethlehem and Hebron, which are under administrative control of the Palestinian Authority.

No letter, no visa

The process has had its ups and downs in the past, but has been in place for years and weathered the Covid-19 crisis better. Upon arrival, foreigners working for NGOs registered in Israel need to apply for a work visa. And renew it every year. In both cases, they require a letter in which the Ministry of Welfare and Social Affairs requests the visa from the Interior Ministry. But the Ministry of Welfare and Social Affairs, which began delaying or ignoring requests for the letter last summer, has not issued a single letter since October, when the Hamas attack triggered the invasion of Gaza. And the Interior Ministry insists that, without a letter, there is no visa, creating a vicious circle.

For aid workers with a visa — but without a letter from the Interior Ministry — whether they stay or not is, above all, a matter of luck. If they renewed their visa shortly before the start of the war (October 7, 2023), they have months of margin. The rest have left the country, are depending on the opaque extension process, or are working with a tourist visa.

The two ministries involved in the process continue to pass the buck. The Population and Migration Authority — the Interior Ministry agency responsible for visas — has referred the issue to the ministry which issues the letter. “As a general rule [aid workers] must present a letter of recommendation from the Ministry of Welfare and Social Affairs. At the moment, the difficulty has arisen in finding what is required [sic], so we must contact the Ministry of Welfare and Social Affairs,” it responded in writing to this newspaper. In addition, it stressed that it has automatically extended visas for three months, without specifying until what date.

Sharona Mann, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Welfare and Social Affairs, referred the issue to the Interior Ministry and refused to explain why her office has stopped sending the letter.

U.N. staffers follow a different procedure, but this process has also been changed. Since October, they have had to renew their visas every two months, instead of every year or half a year, explains Juliette Touma, the Communications Director of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA). This is a decision of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has not responded to the repeated requests for comment this newspaper has made since April. Last December, the then foreign minister, Eli Cohen, announced that he would not renew the visa of the United Nations humanitarian coordinator, Lynn Hastings, accusing her of “bias” towards Hamas. She had to leave the country.

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