Friday, November 03, 2006

[ePalestine] AP: Israel Hardens West Bank Immigration

Nov 2, 7:02 PM EST 

Israel Hardens West Bank Immigration 

Associated Press Writer

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) -- Twelve years ago, Hanan Ramahi passed up a doctorate program in Middle Eastern studies at the University of Chicago and returned to her ancestral Palestinian homeland to set up a school for English-speaking students. 

At that time Israel and the Palestinians seemed on the road to peace, and thousands of Palestinian Americans like Ramahi flocked to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, wanting to lay the groundwork for a Palestinian state. They reconnected with family, married, built homes, established businesses. 

Today, with the peace effort in tatters, Ramahi and others find themselves living here on borrowed time. 

Earlier this year, without any announcement, Israel stopped routinely renewing the three- month visas that enable Palestinians with foreign passports to live here.    Israeli police, in charge of the border crossings, have refused repeated requests for the number of people turned away, and if any of them is considered a security threat, Israel hasn't said so. 

The Campaign for the Right of Entry/Re-entry to the Occupied Territories, a Palestinian grass-roots group, has more than 100 cases on file but believes there are thousands reluctant to come forward for fear it will doom their efforts to renew their visas. 

The U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem said it has received complaints about travel restrictions from more than 100 U.S. citizens. 

The change of policy clearly troubles some senior Israeli officials. Maj. Gen. Yosef Mishlav, the coordinator of Israeli policy in the West Bank and Gaza, told the Israeli Cabinet on Wednesday that it's a mistake and is causing a humanitarian problem, according to his spokesman, Shlomo Dror. 

Israel's defense and tourism ministers also support a return to the practice of "chain visas," but any policy change will require further discussion, said a senior Cabinet official on condition of anonymity. 

Among those denied entry in recent weeks is a mother of seven from Yonkers, N.Y., a German-trained city planner, and the head of the fledgling English department at the West Bank's Arab American University. Ramahi is one of many who are overstaying their visas rather than leave and be barred from returning. She won't even leave her West Bank town of Ramallah in case she is caught with expired papers at an Israeli military checkpoint. 

Palestinians charge the clampdown is part of a long-standing Israeli effort to keep down their numbers in a demographic battle for control of the West Bank. "It's forced transfer," says Palestinian American businessman Sam Bahour, using a term that means mass expulsion. 

Bahour argues, as do many Israeli moderates, that he is precisely the kind of peaceminded, job-generating Palestinian whom Israel should welcome. He moved to Ramallah from Youngstown, Ohio, in 1995, created hundreds of jobs for Palestinians with his investments and helped build the West Bank's only shopping mall. Yet this summer he was warned his visa wouldn't be renewed, although he has since received a three-month extension. 

Unlike Jews, who are free to enter Israel, receive automatic citizenship and even settle in the West Bank, Palestinians have faced difficulties ever since they came under Israeli rule in the 1967 war. Some foreign passport-holders were able to obtain residency, but many others like Ramahi and Bahour had to make do with tourist visas, renewable by traveling in and out of the Israeli-controlled territory every three months. 

Then came the uprising in 2000, with suicide bombings which severely hardened Israeli attitudes to Palestinians and made visas harder to get. Then, last January, the Palestinians elected the government of radical Islamic Hamas, which Israel is boycotting, and it was about then that the latest restrictions came into force. 

Israeli critics say that regardless of politics, the measure is shortsighted. 

"The fact that they are being pushed out in a brutal way - through legitimate legal procedure, but still being pushed out - in my mind goes deeply against the Palestinian and Israeli interests," said Ron Pundak, head of Israel's Peres Center for Peace and one of the architects of the peace agreements signed in the 1990s. 

Neither the Israeli prime minister's office nor the foreign ministry would comment on the issue. 

But other Israeli officials, speaking before the apparent shift of position in Wednesday's Cabinet meeting, said the government was simply enforcing the law and that it can't grant tourist visas to people who are not really tourists. 

Dror suggested solutions could be found if the Palestinian Authority, the body set up under the peace accords to run the Palestinian territories, wasn't led by Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel or renounce violence. 

"All these problems wouldn't happen if we had a working relationship with the Palestinian Authority," Dror said. 

Israel gave the Palestinian Authority several opportunities in the past to find a permanent solution for the foreign passport holders but their offers were ignored, according to Dror. He said the problems could have been settled before 2000, had the Palestinian Authority been more cooperative in supplying lists of applicants for residency. 

The roughly 35,000 Palestinian Americans are the largest group of foreigners in the West Bank and Gaza. Some have residency, others rely on tourist visas. 

Those threatened by the new policy are angry at their government for failing to ask Israel why Jewish Americans are allowed in freely, but not Palestinian Americans. 

"I feel almost as though the U.S. has left me alone, has left me to fend for myself in a forest of wolves," said school director Ramahi, now 37, who was 9 when her family settled in Eugene, Ore. "It's unacceptable, a double standard, a glaring double standard." 

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice raised the issue with Israeli officials during a recent visit, but has not come out publicly against the hardships caused to them, other than to say she expects all American travelers to be treated fairly. 

James Zogby, an Arab American lobbyist in Washington, wants firmer action. "The Israelis know to blow this off," he said. "What they don't know to blow off is a direct public challenge." 

The visa woes are disrupting all parts of Palestinian life. 

Universities fear for their top professors. 

Ramahi's brother, renowned Yale-trained cardiologist Tarik Ramahi, 44, was warned at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport upon arrival in September he might not be let in the next time because he's a frequent visitor. 

Tarik Ramahi, who shuttles between his home in New Haven, Conn., and the West Bank, has established a Department of Medical Specialties at Al Quds University, teaching cardiology and gastro-enterology, the first such program for the Palestinian areas. He also treats patients free of charge at Jerusalem's Augusta Victoria Hospital, where he was born, and at its West Bank clinic. 

He is in Chicago for an American Heart Association meeting, and is due back at Al Quds in late November to teach classes. 

The visa ban is also dividing families. 

Nofal Nofal, an electrical engineering professor, was separated from his wife, Woujoud, at the Israeli-controlled Allenby Crossing between Jordan and the West Bank in late August, after the couple and their seven children, ages one to 13, returned from a summer holiday in the U.S. 

The Nofals are U.S. citizens, but Mrs. Nofal, born in Jordan, does not have West Bank residency, unlike the rest of the family. She now lives in Jordan with her parents and her four youngest children. Her husband and the three oldest live in his home village of Turmus Ayya near Ramallah. The family had moved to Turmus Ayya from Yonkers in 2002 after he was offered a teaching job at Bir Zeit University. 

"I don't have a plan. I just panic," said Nofal, sitting on a swing set in his village garden. 

He said he shouldn't be forced to lose his job and return to the U.S. in order to keep his family together. "This is the job that I love. This is the job I went to school for," he said. "This is where we come from." 

Some 70 percent of Turmus Ayya's 7,000 villagers have U.S. passports, thanks to a few adventurous ancestors. Many shuttle between the West Bank and small businesses in Chicago, New York or Los Angeles, and send home savings to build ornate retirement villas. 

Nofal's neighbors, chatting outside the local mosque one recent afternoon, reported similar problems. 

Travelers say uncertainty adds to their anxiety. Some make it through the borders, while others, who ostensibly are in the same category, are denied. 

Many get on the next plane back to the U.S. if rejected, while some try to fight to get in. 

Nasser Dahdul of Los Angeles, denied entry at Ben Gurion on Oct. 5, obtained a temporary injunction against his deportation and has been at an airport holding cell since then, awaiting a hearing at Tel Aviv's District Court. 

Dahdul, 39, grew up in the U.S., but has spent most of the past six years in his family's home village of Deir Dibwan with his elderly parents, wife and two small children. His Israeli attorney, Leah Tzemel, hopes a ruling in Dahdul's favor could serve as a precedent and overturn the visa freeze. 

Bahour, the businessman, said he requested residency in 1994, but that his case is still pending. His wife is a West Bank resident, while his daughters, ages 6 and 12, are also U.S. citizens. Bahour is baffled why the Israelis would want him to return to the U.S. 

"Every job I create contributes to Israeli security," he said. "If they cannot see that, they are completely blind." 

© 2006 The Associated Press. 


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