Off limits to Palestinians

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“This Passport/Travel document is issued pursuant to the Palestinian self government agreement according to [the] Oslo agreement signed in Washington on 13/9/1993. It is required from all those whom it might concern to allow the bearer of this passport/travel document to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford him (her) such assistance and protection as may be necessary.”

Such are the words inscribed on the first page of the Palestinian passport. The forest green cover is adorned with the words “Palestinian Authority” in English and Arabic majestic gold letters and the insignia of the Authority – an eagle with spread wings, a Palestinian flag in its heart.

Although very appealing to the eye, this passport, or “travel document” has proven to be less a symbol of independence than a humiliating reminder of who remains boss.

As of January 1, 2002, Israeli authorities banned all bearers of the Palestinian passport from exiting or entering Israel through Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel. Prior to this date, Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza Strip were still only allowed to use the airport after receiving an “airport” permit from the Israeli authorities. This permit allowed the bearer to enter Israel for a period of only several hours during the traveler’s flight schedule. If for any reason, the flight was delayed or cancelled, the traveler had to request another permit.

But ever since the Intifada began last September, Israel stopped issuing airport permits to those carrying Palestinian passports. Palestinians from the West Bank were forced to exit through Jordan and the Allenby Bridge and Gazans exited into Egypt through Rafah (assuming those exits were not closed by the Israeli authorities). Despite the crackdown, it was still possible for Palestinians with dual citizenship to acquire an Israeli permit to travel in and out of the airport.

Now the newest rules have closed Ben Gurion in Tel Aviv to every West Banker and Gazan. When Walid Hussein, a Palestinian-American father of six, arrived in Tel Aviv on January 2 after visiting the United States, airport officials promptly told him that he would have to take the next flight out.

“Nobody ever informed me that if I had exited from the Allenby Bridge, I could not enter from Ben Gurion,” says Hussein. True, the American Consulate in East Jerusalem did distribute a public announcement at the beginning of the month warning all American citizens with Palestinian passports of this new policy, but since Hussein was abroad at the time, he had no way of knowing. Those Palestinians who had exited from the airport were reportedly allowed a one-time re-entry.

“They told me I would have to go back to Frankfurt and then to Amman,” he recalls. “They wouldn’t even allow me to go straight to Amman from the airport.”

Hussein was then forced to spend one night in the airport holding cell, which he describes as “a little room with three iron bunk beds and different languages all over the walls.”

The next morning at five a.m., Hussein was escorted by police guard to the plane and flown back to Frankfurt, where, to his surprise, he discovered that he had also been booked back to Chicago.

“I was not about to go back to Chicago,” he said. “So I made them book me a flight to Amman at my own expense.” Hussein says he had to dish out around $550 just to get to Jordan. From there, he was taken to the bridge at three in the morning. He was one of the first travelers to cross over to the Palestinian side and make his way home to Al Bireh near Ramallah.

“This is all part of the overall policy of siege and closure,” says Mahmoud Al Agha, head of the passport and naturalization department in the interior ministry in Gaza. “It is collective punishment.”

Al Agha says that this most recent ban cannot be considered a “violation” of the Oslo agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, because the agreement specifically says in all related clauses that any transaction, any permit and any entrance of Palestinians into Israeli territory will only occur upon “approval by Israel.”

“So, even before this, permits were given to enter Israel only after their approval. Now, they are simply not issuing permits,” he says, placidly.

As to whether the Palestinian Authority has acted to reverse this policy, which bars Palestinians only for being Palestinians, with no regard for Israeli obligations to foreign governments and their citizens, Al Agha says the issue has been put on the agenda of every coordination committee and every [joint] meeting. “But unfortunately, there has been no positive response.”

Neither the Israelis – nor the Americans, for that matter – seem to be concerned by the new policy. When Hussein called the United States Consulate in Jerusalem after arriving back in the West Bank he was icily told by a consulate official that “because you are Palestinian there is nothing we can do.”

Consulate officials in East Jerusalem were wary of making any official statement on the issue. “In general, the US government looks at all its citizens as Americans whether they are Israeli-American, Palestinian-American or British-American,” says Pat Kabra , director of the public diplomacy office at the American Consulate in East Jerusalem. “We try to do our best to help American citizens when they need it.”

Kabra did say, however, that the American consulate is aware of the situation and remains “watchful,” while acknowledging that Israel has jurisdiction over its borders. “But we will continue to work with US citizens as issues arise,” she maintains.

For Palestinians entering and exiting the country, the trip through Ben Gurion Airport has always been humiliating. A Palestinian is immediately taken to the side after showing his distinctive green travel document for a special security check. This check almost always entails extensive questioning, a thorough search through luggage and a quick body search. In rare cases, the traveler is stripped to his undergarments. Palestinians are then personally escorted by a security guard to the baggage check-in and then up the stairs to passport control before they are allowed “on their own” in the duty free section before boarding the flight.

But even these procedures were accepted, especially by those whose new passports seemed heaven-sent.

Hajja Nima Abed had been virtually stuck in her West Bank village for over 20 years. She had come from the United States in the late seventies on a US passport and overstayed her three-month visitor visa. Fearing that she would not be allowed to return should she try to leave on her expired visa, she stayed put quietly for years.

Finally, the pull of family won out. “I wanted to see my grandson graduate,” she says. Her oldest son’s firstborn was to graduate from a Virginia medical school in a few months time. Palestinians with foreign passports who had resided in the country for four years or more were eligible for a Palestinian passport under the new agreement. Hajja Nimeh jumped at the opportunity, like so many other Palestinians in the same predicament.

Hajja Nimeh did make it to the United States that summer five years ago. But after the recent new rule, she is not thinking of going again. Crossing the Allenby Bridge into Jordan during the summer heat or the biting winter cold is not a trip for an elderly woman. Palestinians spend hours waiting in line, hauling their luggage behind them and many have canceled trips or postponed them until better weather eases the already difficult journey.

At Ben Gurion airport, Israel has not only taken a discriminatory stance against Palestinians. Even foreigners with obvious connections to the Palestinians are often hassled and threatened. Birzeit University lecturer Chivvis Moore had a less then pleasant return trip after visiting the United States this Christmas.

“I had gone to the States for three weeks to see my 85-year-old mother,” she tells. “When I arrived at Ben Gurion, they told me my visa was two months expired when I had left [previously], so I would have to take the first plane out again.”

Moore has worked at Birzeit University for five and a half years. She previously worked at an Israeli university for one. Before the start of the uprising, she had no problem acquiring a work permit authorized by the Israeli government to stay and work in the West Bank. However, when contacts were severed between the two sides, Israel stopped issuing work permits for most foreigners working in Palestinian institutions.

What Moore experienced hereafter is nothing less than horrifying. Israeli officials at the airport insisted that she return to the United States, threatening her that she would never again be allowed to enter Israel. When she refused to leave, she was held, perhaps in the same holding cell as Walid Hussein, for three nights and two days under the constant watch of a police guard.

“On the second night they told me if I refused to leave they would put me in a special jail and lock me up before sending two police officers from the United States to take me back.”

Although Moore contacted the US embassy in Tel Aviv, she says they never returned her call. When a friend of hers complained to the US Consulate in East Jerusalem that Moore was being held in a room at the airport, she was politely told that they were sorry but they have no jurisdiction over immigration matters. “I had no help from the US,” Moore says about her mother country, “which I didn’t expect anyway.”

Now Moore has a one-month visa on her passport. If her lawyer fails to obtain a work permit through the university, Moore will have no other choice but to pack her bags and leave the place that she has called home for so many years.

As for Palestinians, the illusion of independence granted by the Oslo Accords ended long ago, with the Palestinian passport only one of its fallen rights. As they try to survive in the ongoing Israeli war against them, the ban on their departure from Israel’s airport is just one more sign that the battle between both sides has only just begun.

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