Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

"Israel's demographic war against Palestinians with foreign passports," September 25, 2006.

Meet Sam Bahour, 41 year old, second-generation Palestinian exile born and raised in Youngtown, Ohio.

I first met Sam Bahour in 2002 when I was hosting a KCR program called Peace Watch: Middle East. That show entailed interviewing Palestinians, Israelis, and supportive internationals all working in the nonviolence movement for peace in the Middle East.

For Palestinians, dancing is a traditional form of creative expression the way a capella choral singing is for Doukhobor people. At the time Sam came to my attention, Palestinian school children, including Sam's first daughter, were staging holiday performances for their parents and community.

The catch was that in those days, Ramallah was under what Kevin Neish called a "shoot to kill curfew." The dancers, musicians and their choreographers had to find their way past Israeli soldiers just to rehearse. On the night of the performance the audience of family and community members had to do the same. The show was a raging success.

There is a lot more to that story, but this broadcast is about the present. Sam Bahour is a businessman and consultant. He got an MBA from Tel Aviv University. In 1997, he was instrumental in the launch of Paltel, the first private communications company in the Arab world.

During that seige of Ramallah known as Operation Defensive Shield, he built and opened the Plaza Shopping Center. In the words of Mitch Potter at the Toronto Star, "At a time when Palestinian youths were tempted by violence, Bahour instead did his all to tempt them with jobs."

Like many Palestinians, Sam returned to his family home after Israel and the Palestinians signed an interim peace agreement in 1993.

According to Shlomo Dror, the spokesman for the Israeli government agency that handles Palestinian affairs, 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.

In those days, permission for residency was no problem for Sam's Palestinian-born wife and then-infant child, Areen.

"But for me, it was a different story," Sam told the Toronto Star last week. "I applied to the Israeli authorities who control residency issues in the territories more than 10 years ago and I never received an answer," he said.

Instead, every three months, he packs up and leaves the wife and daughters. They have two now. Areen is 12, Nadine, 6. Sam heads across the border to Jordan where he stays for a couple of days and then comes back on a tourist visa, each time uncertain whether or not this will be when the Israeli border guards on the Allenby Bridge forbid him to return.

Until now.

His most recent tourist visa includes the handwritten notation "final permit." In Sam's words, that means "Either I resolve this before Oct. 1 or I am faced with a terrible decision — do I leave my family and go back to America, or do I violate the visa and become illegal under Israel rules?"

Sam isn't the only one in this predicament.

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.” (Myre NYT Sep 18)

Amira Hass tells of Hayan Ju'beh who was born and reared in Jerusalem, and lived there until he left to study theater abroad. In October 1995 when his Irish wife passed away, Ju'beh decided to take the kids and move back to Jerusalem, to raise them among his large local family. The Oslo Accords and the hope of peace provided further encouragement to return to the city of his birth. He found a job working for the Jerusalem office of the MBC television network.

But in mid-1996, when he applied to renew his travel certificate, Israel's Ministry of the Interior told him: "You are not a resident."

In December 1995, the Ministry of Interior began implementing a systematic policy of revoking the Jerusalem residency status of thousands of Palestinians who were born in the city, but for whom, according to the ministry, Jerusalem was no longer "the center of their lives" - and therefore their permanent residency permit had "expired."

Indeed, according to Dror, demand for family reunification proved so great, that Israel increased the number to a peak of 20,000 a year. Then in 2000 when the Camp David talks collapsed and Israel froze the process, there was a backlog of some 50,000 applications. Israel resumed allowing immigration last year, but soon froze it again when Hamas won power.

The Interior Ministry and Civil Administration have made no official announcement. People affected only learn their fate upon arriving at the border crossings. (Hass No return)

A report released jointly by two Israeli human rights groups, B'TSelem and HaMoked, states that since October 2001, Palestinians have submitted more than 120,000 requests for family unification, which Israel has refused to process.

The result, according to the report is that

"spouses are unable to live under the same roof; children are forced to grow up in single-parent families though their parents want to live together; people do not leave the Occupied Territories to go abroad for medical treatment because Israel will not issue them a new visitor's permit; tens of thousands of women live in the Occupied Territories with no legal status and thus face the constant threat of deportation, become prisoners in their homes, and are unable to live a normal life....

"At the same time, Israel allows the unfettered immigration of Israelis into the West Bank . A policy aimed at changing the demographics of occupied territory is forbidden. This practice constitutes racial discrimination, which must be eliminated wherever it appears."

Sam admits that he has options that others in the same situation may not. His daughters 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 Sam was born and raised, and his profession as a business consultant is portable.

But the family is committed to building a future in Ramallah.

“People ask why I don’t just leave,” he says. “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. (NYT)

B'TSelem concludes that 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.

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. (Myre NYT Sep 18)

“Most every Palestinian knows someone with this kind of problem,” said Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman for B’Tselem. (NYT)

B'Tselem, estimates that more than 70,000 people, have applied without success to immigrate to the West Bank or Gaza to join relatives in the last six years. Those who worked around the ban with tourist visas now have no legal way to remain.

Sam Bahour notes that "After six years of violence, the family unit is just about the last institution that Palestinians can still count on. But for many of us, this policy is tearing even that apart. ... Do I contribute to the emptying of Palestine by voluntarily removing my family to the States or do we separate in the hope of finding the answer?" (Star)

According to Dror, the Israeli spokesman, “These people are not really tourists — they are living and working without legal permits....I know these people have a difficult life living this way, and I feel sorry for them,” [he says.] “I think we can solve this when we renew relations with the Palestinian Authority, but right now, we are not talking to them.” (NYT)

But other Israelis are talking to them. A number of Israeli human-rights activists and friends have joined Sam's Campaign for the Right of Entry/Re-Entry to the Occupied Palestinian Territories. If you know individuals or families affected by this policy, the support group may be of some help to them. If it's more information you want, Electronic Intifada is a good place to start.

"The campaign has really shown the Israeli sense of humanity. One Israeli mother is offering to adopt me, another Israeli has offered to marry me. And a Jewish man in the States has offered to start a legal battle to transfer to me his right of return (which under Israeli law extends the privilege of immediate citizenship to Jews everywhere).

"Ask yourself, who in their right mind wants to invest in Palestine? [Sam says] We are the last ones who are willing to go through this nightmare to try to build a proper country. If you want pluralism and modernization in Palestine, the foreign-passport holders are the bridge," he said. "But if Israel and the international community want a Somalia next door, this is the way to do it."
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