Peoples Geography — Reclaiming space

Creating people's geographies

Israeli Visa Policy Traps Thousands of Palestinians in a Legal Quandary

NY Times | 18 September 2006

Rina Castelnuovo for The New York Times

Sam Bahour at the Ramallah shopping center he built. Israel has effectively frozen certain immigration since the uprising began in 2000.

Published: September 18, 2006

RAMALLAH, West Bank, Sept. 16 — Sam Bahour, an American citizen of Palestinian descent, would seem to be the kind of neighbor Israel would welcome.

Mr. Bahour, 41, has a master’s degree in business from Tel Aviv University and runs a successful consulting firm. He developed a gleaming $10 million shopping center in Ramallah, where he has lived for 13 years with his Palestinian wife, Abeer, and their two daughters.

Yet in all that time, Israel has never approved Mr. Bahour’s application for a Palestinian identity document, which would allow him to live permanently in the West Bank with his family. He has had to rely instead on repeated renewals of a three-month tourist visa since he moved from Ohio to Ramallah in 1993. And now Israel says he cannot renew it anymore.

“I’m facing a tough choice,” Mr. Bahour said. “If I leave, I may not be able to come back here, which is where my life is. If I stay, I will be here illegally.”

Mr. Bahour is one of thousands, or perhaps tens of thousands, of people ensnared by an Israeli policy that has effectively frozen immigration to the Palestinian areas of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip since the current Palestinian uprising began in 2000. This spring, after the radical Islamic group Hamas came to power, Israel severed most contacts with the Palestinian Authority and moved to close the last loophole in its immigration policy — the renewable tourist visa.

Over the past six years, more than 70,000 people, a vast majority of them of Palestinian descent, have applied without success to immigrate to the West Bank or Gaza to join relatives, according to B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group that tracks the issue. Many who followed Mr. Bahour’s route and worked around the ban with tourist visas now have no legal way to remain.

“These people are not really tourists — they are living and working without legal permits,” said Shlomo Dror, the spokesman for the Israeli government agency that handles Palestinian affairs.

“I know these people have a difficult life living this way, and I feel sorry for them,” he said. “I think we can solve this when we renew relations with the Palestinian Authority, but right now, we are not talking to them.”

Mr. Bahour acknowledges that he has options that others in the same situation may lack. His daughters, ages 12 and 6, are also American citizens, and his wife has a green card that would allow her to live and work in the United States. He and his wife own a second home in Youngstown, Ohio, where Mr. Bahour was born and raised, and his profession as a business consultant is portable.

But the family is committed to building a future here, he said.

“People ask why I don’t just leave,” Mr. Bahour said. “I tell them it’s because I want to make a contribution here.”

More common are families in which one spouse has only a Palestinian identity document while the other has a foreign passport, making it difficult or impractical for them to live elsewhere.

Many Palestinians say Israel is pursuing a systematic policy of limiting the population in the Palestinian areas, even if it means separating family members.

“Most every Palestinian knows someone with this kind of problem,” said Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman for B’Tselem.

In her view, the Israeli policy has several purposes: to apply political pressure on the Palestinians, to create a bargaining chip that could be used in future negotiations and to be a tool in a battle of demographics.

The largest single category of people affected by the Israeli policy is Jordanian women of Palestinian descent who have married Palestinian men and want to move to the West Bank to live with their husbands, Ms. Michaeli said.

Many of those women come to the West Bank on tourist visas and stay on after their visas expire. Complications arise when the women eventually want to travel or visit relatives in Jordan. If they leave the West Bank or Gaza, they face the risk that Israeli authorities will not allow them to return.

Palestinians also say the Israel policy will keep out well-educated, middle-class and politically moderate members of the Palestinian diaspora who could play an important role in developing Palestinian society.

Ali Aggad, a Jordanian citizen of Palestinian origin, has been working in the West Bank since 1999. He is now the general manager at the Unipal General Trading Company, which distributes consumer products for international companies like Procter & Gamble.

For seven years, Israel has routinely granted him a tourist visa that has allowed him to spend weekdays working in the West Bank and weekends in Amman, Jordan, with his wife and two sons. Without warning, Israeli authorities denied him entry to the West Bank twice recently, he said.

Procter & Gamble’s office in Tel Aviv is trying to resolve his case with the Israeli authorities, Mr. Aggad said, adding, “All I can do now is wait and hope it works out.”

In the past few months, about 50 United States citizens have notified American diplomatic offices that Israel has prevented them from entering the West Bank, said Micaela Schweitzer-Bluhm, a spokeswoman at the United States Consulate in Jerusalem.

“This is an issue we’ve been monitoring for several months, and it has been raised with the Israeli authorities,” she said.

Many people of Palestinian origin sought to return to the Palestinian areas of the West Bank and Gaza after Israel and the Palestinians signed an interim peace agreement in 1993.

Under a 1995 accord, Israel initially agreed to allow 3,000 immigrants to the Palestinian areas each year, as part of a family reunification process, said Mr. Dror, the Israeli official.

Demand proved to be so great, he said, that Israel later increased the number to as many as 20,000 a year. Even so, there was a backlog of some 50,000 applications when Israel froze the process in 2000. Israel resumed allowing immigration last year, but soon froze it again when Hamas won power.

One of the applications stuck in the pile is Mr. Bahour’s. He said he applied for permanent residency in 1994 and had not received a reply.

Meanwhile, his current tourist visa expires Oct. 1, and Israeli authorities have written “last permit” in his United States passport.

“I still don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said. But he will not leave if he can help it. “If I walked away now,” he said, “I feel I would be letting my community down.”

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