Monday, November 13, 2006

He can't leave the West Bank. She can't get in.
Israeli border policy keeps out those with foreign citizenship

By Joel Greenberg
Tribune foreign correspondent

November 12, 2006

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Adel Samara sat in what used to be his wife's beauty salon, now a mostly empty room with a few chairs and leftover hair dryers yet to be sold off.

It has been more than five months since he last saw his wife, Enayeh. Her business has closed, and Samara, a political economist, carries on his work alone from an office next door.

Enayeh Samara, 56, a Palestinian with American citizenship, was denied entry to the West Bank in May when she returned from a short trip to Jordan. She is among scores of Palestinians with American or other foreign citizenship living in the West Bank who have been turned away in recent months as part of a tightened Israeli border policy.

The Israelis say it is merely a stricter enforcement of visa rules. But Palestinians and human-rights advocates suspect the new restrictions are part of a deliberate policy to limit the Palestinian population in the West Bank or even push Palestinian families to leave.

Born in the West Bank, Enayeh Samara moved to Chicago as a teen with her family and became a U.S. citizen. During 31 years of marriage, she has lived in the West Bank on renewable three-month tourist visas issued by Israeli authorities and extended locally or renewed by traveling abroad and returning.

But on May 26, after a brief trip to Jordan to renew her visa, Enayeh was barred from the West Bank by Israeli border officials. Since then she has been unable to return home and is staying with a sister in the Chicago suburb of Westchester.

"When I went to the border they said: `We can't let you in. Go back to America or Jordan, whatever you want to do. We're not responsible,'" Enayeh Samara said in a phone interview.

The Samaras were suddenly separated.

"It is really very painful," said Adel Samara, 62. "You find yourself divorced from your wife because of nothing. There is no justification for this."

Samara's repeated applications to gain his wife resident status in the West Bank were rejected. Jailed by Israel in the past for membership in radical factions, he was barred from leaving the West Bank two years ago when he attempted to travel to a conference in Jordan.

Enayeh Samara said she felt cut off in Chicago. "I am away from my family, my country, my friends. I don't have anything over here, just my sister," she said. "It's the worst thing that can happen, to be separated from your family."

Israeli officials acknowledge that they are tightening controls, refusing the renewable tourist visas that enabled thousands of Palestinians with foreign citizenship to live in the West Bank even though they lacked formal residence there.

"There is no change in policy, but stricter enforcement," said Sabine Haddad, spokeswoman for the Israeli Interior Ministry's population administration.

Israel virtually stopped issuing such permits after the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in 2000. It also stopped processing applications on behalf of Palestinians abroad for permanent residence with spouses or other relatives living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, known as family unification.

There is an estimated backlog of 120,000 family unification requests submitted since the start of the uprising.

Denied entry

The tightened visa policy is especially a problem for the thousands of Palestinian-Americans living in the West Bank without resident status.

The U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem says that it has been notified of more than 100 cases of Palestinian-Americans denied entry to the West Bank but that the actual number of cases could be significantly higher.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice raised the issue with Israeli officials in October and later made public reference to it in a speech to a Palestinian-American group, promising to do everything she can "to ensure that all American travelers receive fair and equal treatment."

Shlomo Dror, the spokesman for the Israeli Defense Ministry department responsible for the West Bank and Gaza Strip, said the tighter entry controls are being enforced to prevent misrepresentation by Palestinians entering repeatedly as tourists but actually staying as residents.

Critics of the Israeli policy say it is designed to make it impossible for Palestinians from abroad to come and live with spouses or other relatives in the West Bank.

In a recent report on the freeze of family unification permits, the Israeli human-rights group B'Tselem and another rights group, HaMoked, suggested that the policy is part of a deliberate attempt to limit the Palestinian population in the West Bank.

The report quoted Brig. Gen. Ilan Paz, a former chief of the Civil Administration, the Israeli military government in the West Bank, as telling B'Tselem and HaMoked representatives that Israel has consistently sought "to limit the number of Palestinians in the [occupied] territories," and that "the considerations are demographic."

Sam Bahour, 42, a Palestinian-American entrepreneur who has been living in the West Bank with his family for more than a decade, said the policy was harming people like him who had moved to the area after the 1993 Oslo accords to invest and help build the local economy.

Bahour, who was born and raised in Youngstown, Ohio, established an American-style shopping mall in Ramallah, played a key role in setting up the Palestinian telecommunications company Paltel and studied in an MBA program at Tel Aviv University.

Seeking a reversal

Faced with the prospect of being denied entry himself the next time his visa runs out, Bahour has been leading a campaign to reverse the Israeli policy.

"The people contributing to economic stability and investment are being kicked out, which means that the part of society that can help build a modern economy is not going to be here," he said.

Nofal Nofal, 35, a Palestinian-American who teaches electrical engineering at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, was faced with a painful choice when he returned with his family in August from a U.S. visit.

His wife, Woujoud, 35, a Jordanian-born Palestinian with U.S. citizenship, was turned back at the crossing from Jordan to the West Bank by Israeli border officials. Nofal, who has West Bank residency, had to decide whether to enter alone with his children or go back with them and his wife. She ended up staying in Jordan with the couple's year-old baby.

A few weeks ago, Nofal took three more of his children to stay with their mother, while he remains in the West Bank with his three oldest children.

"Life is really miserable, and we can't plan our future anymore," Nofal said. "We don't know whether to leave or wait for this to be resolved. American Jews can come here, stay and leave when they want. We, as Americans, should be treated equally."

Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune

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