JERUSALEM — Israeli police Friday arrested an American citizen of Palestinian origin and threatened to deport him in what U.S. officials described as an important test case that could affect thousands of other Arabs on the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Muhammed Akhras, 48, a disabled father of five who had overstayed his Israeli visa, was detained while in the company of a U.S. consular officer in the West Bank city of Ramallah. He is to be deported within a few days and, according to U.S. officials, will be the first Palestinian-American in memory to be expelled from the country for non-security reasons.
The arrest comes in the midst of what U.S. officials have described as a discriminatory crackdown on American citizens of Palestinian origin.
The U.S. consulate in Jerusalem officially protested the situation in April. And the issue came up again earlier this week when an American Embassy official complained that Palestinian-Americans were being harassed at Israel's Ben-Gurion Airport. Some have been refused entry, and more than 100 have had their passports confiscated in the last two months alone.
The move against Akhras appears to be the most serious yet in what an Israeli Foreign Ministry official called a general tightening of controls on illegal aliens.
Although precise figures are unavailable, U.S. officials estimate that about 7,000 American passport holders live among the 800,000 Palestinian Arabs on the West Bank. Israeli occupation authorities say that only a few hundred have permanent resident status and that the others are either there illegally or on visitors' visas.
Citizens Since 1972
A native of the West Bank village of Turmus Aiya, Akhras left in 1964, three years before Israel took control of the West Bank from Jordan in the Six-Day War. He and his wife, who is also a West Bank native, became U.S. citizens in 1972.
But Akhras, a salesman, developed severe problems with his feet, and eventually was considered so handicapped that he was classified as totally disabled by the Social Security Administration. He receives a $900 monthly Social Security check.
In the late 1970s, Akhras began traveling to Israel more frequently than before and spent more time in Turmus Aiya, where he has a family home. Two years ago, he applied on humanitarian grounds to return as a permanent resident to the area.
In the meantime, U.S. officials acknowledge, Akhras has been here illegally, on an expired visitor's visa. Nevertheless, U.S. officials charge that Akhras is a victim of discrimination by the Israeli authorities, who routinely overlook similar visa violations by U.S. citizens of Jewish origin.
"If they picked up people irrespective of color, race, or religion, we would have no basis to object," said one diplomatic source who requested anonymity.
American officials said they are concerned that if Akhras is deported, hundreds of other Palestinian-Americans may follow. But, they added, they have been advised that the Interior Ministry's position in the Akhras case is final.
The U.S. officials have also interceded on Akhras' behalf on humanitarian grounds. In addition to his own disability, he has a child--his youngest--who is epileptic.
"The problem is five children," said Suham Akhras, Muhammed's wife, in an interview. "We can live here on $900 a month, but not in America with five children."
After repeated warnings that they were in violation of their visas, Suham and her husband were arrested in late May in a pre-dawn raid on their home. They spent a week in jail that time while neighbors cared for the children, Suham Akhras said.
Yosef Tov, director of the Israeli Interior Ministry's visa section, said in a telephone interview Friday that the two were released after agreeing that Muhammed Akhras would leave the country by the end of June and that his wife and children would follow two months later.
However, Tov said, Akhras "doesn't want to leave," and he was therefore rearrested Friday after responding to a police summons in the company of a U.S. consular official. Tov said he does not want to have Suham Akhras arrested again because of the children. But he insisted that all "must leave the country. There is no choice."
Suham Akhras has been summoned to appear at the police station Monday.
While Akhras has said he has never received an answer to his petition for permanent West Bank resident status, Tov said the request was denied. The Interior Ministry official said Akhras may reapply once he goes back to the United States, although he gave no assurance that the decision would be any different from last time.
Identity Cards Issued