Sunday, September 16, 2007

political nightmare
Lakeland Family Separated By Rules at Airport in Israel
7 children, declared Palestinians, must stay.
By Cary McMullen
Ledger Religion Editor
LAKELAND | The summer wasn't supposed to end like this for the family of Steve and Wedad Yacoub.

The Lakeland family was separated on Aug. 18 at an Israeli airport as they attempted to return home from a summer visiting relatives in Palestine.

Although the Yacoubs are naturalized U.S. citizens and all their children were born in America, Israeli officials told them they had been designated Palestinian citizens.

They would not allow Wedad Yacoub and 10 of her children to board the flight.

She was forced to choose between remaining in Palestine with the children or return with the three youngest, leaving the other seven behind.

"I begged them. I was crying, the kids were crying. I was very angry," Wedad Yacoub said Wednesday.

Finally, after arranging for the older children to be picked up by relatives and hoping they would follow in a few days, she flew home with her children, ages 10, 5 and 3.

The others, ranging in age from 11 to 22, were driven back to their grandmother's home in Ramallah, where they remain caught in a bureaucratic and political tangle. The family says the U.S. State Department has told them there is little they can do.

At a news conference Wednesday in Tampa, officials with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil-rights group, said the Yacoubs have only two options: continue to press U.S. government officials to persuade Israel to allow the children to leave, or to send them home through Amman, Jordan, a lengthy and expensive process.

Ahmed Bedier, executive director of the council's Tampa chapter, said Continental Airlines has rebooked reservations for the children today at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, but that is where they were denied permission to return, and the family is not hopeful they will be allowed to depart.

"They hate it so much. They are crying on the phone every day, 'I want to come back,'" said Wedad Yacoub.

The Yacoub family is we ll-known in North Lakeland, where four children graduated from Lake Gibson High School and two currently are enrolled there. Another two are enrolled at Lake Gibson Middle School.

"They're good kids, excellent students, all honors-level," said Ralph Gilchrest, principal of Lake Gibson High.

"They're very easy to get along with. They follow the rules, they're mannerly and involved with their school."

Ramy Yacoub, 18, graduated from Lake Gibson in May. He was on the school's wrestling team.

A teammate, Brent Jorge, said he and Ramy would go fishing and see movies together. He said he thought it was "ridiculous" his friend had not been allowed to come home.

"He's American to everyone here. His skin is different, but he's just like everyone else," Jorge said.

Steve Yacoub, the children's father, owns a convenience store in Lakeland. He is a native of Palestine, but has been an American citizen for about 30 years.

As they have each summer for the past four years, in June the Yacoub family traveled to Palestine to visit relatives. They were admitted entry into Palestine through Israel on three-month visas, said Wedad Yacoub. This year, the visit included weddings. Twin brothers Ibrahim and Yacoub Yacoub, 22, got married in Ramallah in July.

There was a hint of problems to come when Steve Yacoub, traveling separately, was denied entry. He was forced to return to the United States and enter the Palestinian territory through Jordan.

The Yacoub's eldest child, a daughter, Palestine Yacoub, who is pregnant, was also turned away and chose not to make the trip.

On Aug. 18, as they tried to return home, Israeli security officials told the children their father's Palestinian heritage disqualified them from traveling as American citizens, Wedad Yacoub said.

A new rule was adopted by Israel in March, stating that citizens of other countries who are of Palestinian heritage may be designated as Palestinian residents and forced to leave the country through Jordan, even if they possess round-trip airline tickets and, as in the Yacoubs' case, U.S. passports. For the Yacoubs, that means an 18-hour wait at a border checkpoint, forfeiting their return-trip tickets and buying new tickets at a cost of about $16,000 .

Bedier, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the family was told the problem could be solved if they signed a paper renouncing their Palestinian heritage and all future intention to become Palestinian citizens.

The Yacoubs immediately contacted U.S. State Department officials, who were sympathetic, but told the family it was Israeli policy.

Bedier said his organization had sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Aug. 29, urging her intervention.

"Our organization has received a rise in complaints over the summer from folks traveling in the West Bank as far as unfair treatment by the Israeli authorities, either on their way in or out. ... We find that this treatment is unacceptable, that no American citizen should be subjected to this kind of humiliation. We're puzzled by the double standard in the treatment," he said.

Ariel Roman, director of media affairs for the Israeli Consulate General in Miami, said his of fice was awaiting information from the Israeli government but offices there were closed for the night.

Keith Rupp, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow, who has been working with the Yacoub family, said Wednesday that according to information from the State Department, the Israelis were holding fast to their policy, which they ascribed to "rising violence" in the Palestinian territory.

"We're not quite sure how they arrived at this decision. ... Our goal is to see an American family reunited," he said.

Rupp said the State Department posted a notice to travelers on its Web site about the new policy, then issued an enhanced warning in July, but the Yacoubs said they had no hint the rules had changed and had never encountered difficulty traveling to Palestine before.

The Yacoubs said they will not wait much longer to find a way to get their children home.

"I can't wait. I need my kids back," said Steve Yacoub Wednesday. "They're missing sc hool, they're missing everything."

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