Monday, September 18, 2006

By Greg Myre
New York Times
September 18, 2006

Ramallah, West Bank — 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

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

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

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


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