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Residents Shut Out of West Bank

Scores of Palestinians are separated from their families since Israel tightened reentry rules.

October 21, 2006|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Abdelhakeem Itayem, a Palestinian with American citizenship, was counting on a simple overnight stay when he traveled from the West Bank to Jordan on a business trip.

Six months later, he is still there, trapped in bureaucratic limbo.

Israeli officials, who control the border between Jordan and the West Bank, refused to let him return when he presented his U.S. passport at the crossing from Jordan.

"I came to Amman for one day. I had one suit and a change of clothes for one day. And now I can't go back," Itayem said by telephone from the Jordanian capital, where he has rented an apartment while awaiting an answer.

The long delay has kept him from his wife, Lisa, and their seven children, who remain in the family's home near Ramallah, said Itayem, 41. It also has cost him his job as a manager for a Palestinian distributor of foreign consumer goods.

"It's breaking my heart," he said.

His plight is not unique. Activists say scores of Palestinians who carry foreign passports, mostly American, have been denied entry this year since Israel moved to close a loophole that once allowed residents to enter repeatedly on renewable Israeli tourist visas.

The policy has created a quandary for the Palestinian Americans who remain: If they leave to get a new three-month stamp, they may not be allowed back. If they stay, their current Israeli visas will expire. Many say their previous applications for formal residency in the Palestinian territories were rejected by Israel or never acted upon.

"The Israelis are turning their back to any logic," said Adel Samara, whose wife, Enayeh, was refused entry in May after she crossed to Jordan to get her American passport stamped with a fresh Israeli tourist visa.

Samara, a Palestinian economist and writer, said Enayeh, 56, is staying with a sister in Chicago after living in the West Bank for 31 years on a succession of short-term Israeli visas. Making matters worse, he said, Israel won't let him leave because of his past involvement in nationalist Palestinian groups.

"I can't go outside, and she can't come inside," Samara, 62, said in Ramallah. "It is like a form of divorce."

Israeli officials say the tourist visas were not meant to serve as documents for Palestinian residency or work in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The new restrictions have created uncertainty and anger among Palestinian Americans, especially in the West Bank, where they number at least 30,000 and are leading players in business and academic life.

A group of Palestinians with American citizenship has lobbied diplomats and launched a campaign to draw attention to the problem. Samara, who is also a U.S. citizen, is working with an Israeli advocacy group to challenge the legality of the new rules.

He and others charge that Israel imposed the tighter rules to punish Palestinians for electing the militant group Hamas in January's parliamentary elections, and to reduce the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel rejects those claims.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice raised the visa issue in meetings with Israeli officials in Jerusalem this month. American diplomats say they have asked Israel to explain the policy.

Israel acknowledges that the rules, overseen by the Interior Ministry, have caused problems. Officials said the change was an attempt to curb misuse of tourist visas, which had become a favored means of entry for thousands of Palestinians with foreign citizenship.

"It was decided in the government, at a medium-level bureaucratic level, that this is wrong. How can you let people be here when they are obviously not tourists? It's an abuse of the tourist visa," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

The tightened policy, however, is having "unintended consequences" that officials are now trying to correct, Regev said.

Israel has said that Palestinians living in the West Bank should apply for residency, which is granted by the Jewish state, rather than continue seeking tourist visas.

But many Palestinians complain that they have been denied residency, or have met with inaction.

After the signing of the Oslo interim peace accords in the early 1990s, Israel agreed to allow 3,000 people to move into the West Bank and Gaza Strip each year, an annual quota later raised to 10,000 and then 20,000, said Shlomo Dror, a spokesman for the office that serves as liaison to the Palestinians.

But he said the Palestinian Authority, created in 1994, often failed to provide the names of those who were living in the Palestinian territories and in need of formal residency.

Israel has frozen applications aimed at unifying families since the outbreak of violence in 2000. And since Hamas won office in January, Israel -- which considers the group as a terrorist organization -- has refused to deal with the Palestinian Authority government.

Dror said the number of people without proper residency status had grown to 60,000, in part because of Israel's freeze on the family-reunification process. "We are trying to sort the problem out and find a different way," he said.

Itayem, who was born in the West Bank but moved to Chicago at 15, said he might relocate his wife and children to Amman during the winter break for schools. But doing so would leave no one to watch over his 75-year-old mother and 38-year-old sister, who is disabled, he said.

The episode has left Itayem angry and disoriented. He found work in Amman at a sister company of his former West Bank employer. But Itayem is staying in an unfurnished apartment and has no clear answers to why he cannot go back to the West Bank, his home for the last 12 years.

"What kind of a life?" he asked. "My wife is in one country, and I'm alone in another country."

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