Cleveland Plain Dealer
One man's journey from Youngstown to life as a businessman on West Bank: Sam Bahour
Published: Sunday, October 10, 2010, 3:00 AM
Plain Dealer guest columnist Plain Dealer guest columnist
President Barack Obama correctly placed Middle East peace on top of his agenda, but he must be careful. International law must be his guiding light; anything less is just prolonging the conflict and playing short-term politics.
I live in my father's birthplace of Al Bireh, eight miles north of Jerusalem. We enjoy a yard with dozens of fruit-bearing plants, and yet we are literally a three-minute walk to downtown Ramallah, our commercial center. Our bedroom window affords us a clear view of one of the many eyesores that pepper West Bank hilltops: an illegal Israeli settlement.
When Palestinians and Israelis signed the infamous Oslo Peace Accords in 1993, I set my sights on relocating to Palestine to participate firsthand in what everyone believed was the beginning of the end of Israel's military occupation of Palestinians.
Israel controls every port of entry into the West Bank. My father, who first left Palestine for the United States in 1957, was not physically here when the 1967 Six-Day War took place so he was not counted in the census that the Israeli military conducted upon seizing control. Palestinians who were present were issued identification cards, which granted them permanent residency. To this day, my father can only return to his birthplace as a U.S. tourist for a maximum of three months. Having been born in the United States, I entered the same way for 15 years. After marrying my Palestinian wife, I applied to the Israelis for residency back in 1994. Lack of permanent residency meant that I was forced to leave and re-enter the country every few months.
In 2006, during one of my visa renewal trips to Jordan, I was given (after a six-hour wait) a tourist visa, but this time my U.S. passport had handwritten in it, in Hebrew, Arabic and English: "Last Permit." The Israelis forced me to make a choice: leave or stay in Palestine and overstay my visa, which would be cause for deportation as soon as an Israeli patrol stopped me, as regularly happens. I created a third option: I joined the Campaign for the Right to Enter and reached out to many Israeli friends to assist in making my case for permanent residency, which ultimately was granted by the Israeli military.
So, as a U.S. citizen who for 15 years traveled at will, I was now, for Israeli purposes, classified as a Palestinian. The day I was given my ID card, I lost my freedom of movement. Today, the only way to get to Jerusalem, Israel or my Israeli alma mater, Tel Aviv University, is to make a request to the Israeli military for a permit, which is rarely granted. To use such a permit means to travel on foot for several hours through the most humiliating animal stall-like checkpoints.
It still astonishes me how a U.S. citizen can be treated like trash the minute he becomes associated with Palestinian residency, while an American Jew who has no family ties to this place whatsoever can leave Cleveland, land in Tel Aviv airport and freely go to one of the many illegal Jewish-only settlements spread throughout the West Bank. Not only will this newcomer be welcomed and encouraged by Israeli authorities, but actually have a "right" under Israeli law to automatically ascertain Israeli citizenship. All the while, my West Bank (not refugee) father is being torn apart every time his three-month visitor's visa is up and he is forced to head back to Youngstown and wait another year before he can make another visit to his birthplace to see his granddaughters.
Freedom-of-movement issues aside, I had a soft landing in Palestine. I was recruited to help establish the first Palestinian telecommunications company, which is the Palestine Securities Exchange's blue chip and the largest private-sector employer. Israel applied just enough restrictions to make it nearly impossible to succeed. This experience was a crash course in political economy and a wake-up call that this military occupation had no intention of ending on its own.
At the outset of the Oslo Agreement, everyone was upbeat, even those, such as myself, who were critical of the agreement. Believing that Palestinians and Israelis are bound to live together, I decided that I must broaden my understanding of the Israeli community, so I enrolled in a master's of business administration program at Tel Aviv University. I did not want another degree on my wall as much as I wanted to understand Israelis as individuals, not soldiers.
Being upbeat did not last for long. When an Israeli Jewish extremist assassinated Israeli Prime Minster Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, things took a turn for the worse. In 1996, the then (and now) prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, launched American-supplied helicopter gunship attacks on protesters in the outskirts of Al Bireh. From that point on, peace became more associated with the process than an outcome.
Juggling among the political breakdown, work and raising a family, I left PALTEL to establish my own management consulting firm.
My second major economic project was the creation of Palestine's first modern retail shopping facility, the PLAZA Shopping Center. Everyone here calls it a mall. PLAZA introduced a Western-style supermarket and an indoor children's play area to Al Bireh. My father, a career grocer in Youngstown, took special pride in seeing his son transfer some of the family business know-how to his hometown. After tremendous hurdles, the shopping center opened and the supermarket chain it houses just opened its 10th branch.
Despite all the hardship and frustrations, we remain constructively engaged. Our two daughters are enrolled in the Friends (Quaker) School and are getting a top-notch, bilingual education while at the same time enjoying all that Palestinian culture and tradition has to offer.
I'm starting to feel a sense of hope that the world, in particular the American public, is starting to understand the Palestinian-Israeli "conflict." Sooner rather than later, the Holy Land -- Palestine and Israel -- will be the destination of choice for all travelers. Until then, we continue to prepare for your arrival.
Bahour is a Palestinian-American business consultant from Youngstown living in the Palestinian city of Al-Bireh in the West Bank. He is co-author of "Homeland: Oral Histories of Palestine and Palestinians" (1994).
To reach Sam Bahour: firstname.lastname@example.org
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