Stricter Policy Splits West Bank Families
Americans Who Live There Denied Visas

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 23, 2006

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- The last time Adel Samara saw his wife, Enayeh, was the morning in late May when she pulled away from their home in Beit Ur in a taxi bound for the border. Her trips to Jordan had become routine, never lasting more than a few days.

In order to renew her tourist visa, Enayeh, a U.S. citizen, had left the West Bank every three months during their three-decade marriage. For years, Israeli officials had denied her residency applications, so shuttling across the border to get a fresh visa in her U.S. passport was the only way Enayeh, 56, could live legally in the place she was born. This time, they refused to give her the tourist visa.

Since then she has moved in with a sister in Chicago, leaving Adel to shutter her beauty salon on a hectic street here. Their case highlights a change in Israeli policy that has left thousands of U.S. citizens of Palestinian descent locked out of the occupied territories where they work, invest and have families.

"At first she thought it was just a mistake," said Adel Samara, 62, a bespectacled former U.N. official and political activist who holds a doctorate in economics. "Then we realized it was not and that it was actually a very large problem. I never knew it before."

For decades, Palestinian foreign nationals have entered the West Bank and Gaza Strip on three-month tourist visas, renewing them regularly, because residency cards were difficult to obtain. But in recent months Israel's Interior Ministry has refused in many cases to grant new visas, separating thousands of family members from their relatives inside lands the Jewish state occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.

The tightening has coincided with the rise this year of Hamas, a radical Islamic movement, to head the Palestinian government, which most foreign donors have cut off from economic aid. Palestinian officials and Israeli human rights groups contend the shift will undermine private investment in the territories -- investment the Bush administration is seeking to encourage -- while potentially driving out the professional class most likely to have relatives abroad.

"It is a policy that can only be seen in the context of population control," said Nabeel Kassis, president of Bir Zeit University near this city, who along with 10 other Palestinian university presidents warned in an open letter this month that the policy is depleting faculties, student bodies and exchange programs. "They are taking away a segment of the population that could help most with state-building."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in a recent speech to the American Task Force on Palestine, pledged to guarantee that all "American travelers receive fair and equal treatment." The State Department raised the issue with Israel's government earlier this month, and a campaign by Palestinian Americans to reverse the policy has emerged here.

"The policy has not changed in the last years, but rather the implementation has," said Sabin Hadad, a spokeswoman for Israel's Interior Ministry. Hadad said visitors to the territories have always been required to secure a special permit from the civil administration, Israel's military government there. But she acknowledged that "this is a rule we did not follow with precision" until the Justice Ministry ordered them to do so earlier this year. Israeli human rights groups say an estimated 70,000 foreign nationals are awaiting visitor permits, which the military rarely issues.

"I know there have been problems," Hadad said. "Now anyone who arrives at the border without a visitor permit is prevented from entrance. It's not important where you come from."

Demographics and refugee claims have played a central role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and advocates of an independent Palestinian state in the territories watch for any changes in Israel's complex permit and immigration policy. Many of them see this shift as the most significant in years.

Throughout the occupation, Israel has controlled the registry of all Palestinians living in the territories and decided their residency status, even after the 1993 Oslo accords established the semiautonomous Palestinian Authority. Applying for and maintaining Palestinian residency has been a complicated, frequently changing process.

Palestinians counted in Israel's first census after the 1967 war were given residency cards that had to be renewed regularly. Relatives who were abroad at the time were allowed to apply for family unification, a process that gave as many as 50,000 Palestinians residency status in the first years after the war.

The number of those granted residency steadily declined until Israel established a quota system that, by 2000, granted 4,000 family-unification requests a year. When the Palestinian uprising broke out in September 2000, Israel stopped processing the applications, citing security concerns.

Since then, a backlog of 120,000 applications has accumulated, according to the Palestinian Interior Ministry, which passes them on to the Israeli government. But Israeli officials looked the other way when foreign nationals updated their tourist visas every three months with quick trips abroad.

Israeli officials now say the boycott of the Hamas-led government that took office in March makes collaboration on the pending applications impossible.

"This trouble all started after this business with Hamas," Najah Odeh, 75, said from her living room in Ramallah overlooking the Muqata, the Palestinian Authority presidential compound. "Why does everyone have to be punished because of this choice?"

Odeh's daughter, Aidah, was born in Toledo, Ohio, and moved here last year to help her mother recover from back surgery. When she attempted to renew her tourist visa in July, she was turned back at Ben-Gurion Airport, an entry point off-limits to Palestinian residents but not U.S. citizens.

Aidah and her husband spent the next two months in Amman, Jordan, trying to find a way to return. Earlier this month, their attempt to cross at the Allenby Bridge was denied, and the couple moved to Toronto. Her employer, IBM, had a job waiting for her there.

"She didn't do anything wrong," Najah Odeh said. "She's not a politician. She doesn't even like Hamas."

Sam Bahour, a business consultant born in Youngstown, Ohio, lived on his tourist visa for nearly 13 years until Israeli officials wrote "Last Permit" in his U.S. passport in late July. He took his case to the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, where he told officials that they were "allowing our strongest ally in the region to discriminate on its borders."

A broad man with a neatly trimmed mustache who calls himself "as American as the president," Bahour arrived here in 1994 to help the fledgling Palestinian Authority privatize the telecommunications system. He has since developed a $10 million shopping mall and opened a thriving business consultancy, gaining an MBA through a joint program run by Tel Aviv University and Northwestern University.

Bahour lives in the adjacent city of El Bireh with his wife, a Palestinian resident, and their two young daughters, who attend the Friends School, where the Australian who teaches seventh grade has been blocked from entering the territories.

A few months after receiving his last permit, Bahour challenged the Israeli decision by trying to cross again. Without explanation, he was given another three-month visa.

The uncertainty, Bahour said, makes it impossible to plan more than a few months ahead and will discourage private investment from Palestinians abroad. He is not sure he or others like him will be able to remain.

"This falls into a much larger scheme of unilateralism by Israel to force not a government collapse but a societal collapse," Bahour said. "We're not looking to end the occupation, we're not looking for the right of return. We are looking to do business here, to be with our families."

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