Israeli policy splits Palestinian families

RAMALLAH — Last May Adel Samarra’s wife of 31 years left the West Bank to go to Jordan to renew her Israeli visa for the 126th time.

On the 125 previous occasions the process had gone off without a hitch for the US passport holder, but five months ago Samarra’s wife was suddenly denied entry as she tried to return to her husband, children and grandchildren.

Like thousands of other Palestinians, Samarra was left stranded by Israel’s recent decision to close a loophole that allowed thousands of foreign passport holders to remain in the Palestinian territories by renewing tourist visas every three months.

The new policy, which Israeli officials say is merely enforcement of an already existing law, has divided scores of Palestinian families and threatens to split up many more.

“I’ve spent half my life with her,” says the glum-faced Samarra, sitting in his wife’s now shuttered beauty salon in downtown Ramallah nursing a bottle of Carlsberg.

An economist with a PhD from London University, Samarra is also an outspoken Marxist with a long history of anti-Israeli political activism. Because of his dissident history, Israel refuses to grant the 62-year-old permission to travel abroad to visit his wife, who has moved in with a sister in Chicago.

“I knew the Israeli occupation could steal my property, but I never thought it would steal my wife,” adds Samarra.

The Israeli crackdown on the tourist visas is part of a broader campaign to undermine the Hamas government, observers say, but Palestinians say it is collective punishment for their democratic choice in January’s parliamentary elections.

For years, foreign residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip simply renewed their tourist visas every three months in order to stay legally, but now that Israel has stopped renewing those visas they find themselves in a unique bind, a bureaucratic no-man’s land.

If they leave, they may not be allowed back in, and if they stay, they do so illegally.

Israel insists foreign passport holders need proper residency visas to remain in the Palestinian territories, but Palestinians say applications are either ignored or rejected.

“The applications for residency go nowhere,” says Anita Abdallah, a Swiss-Palestinian woman married to a Palestinian who fears she too will be denied entry the next time she travels abroad.

Abdallah says Palestinian authorities have over 60,000 unprocessed applications that they haven’t even bothered handing over to the Israelis since the Jewish state severed contact with the Palestinian Authority after Hamas came to power.

Those turned away have been predominantly American passport holders, of which there are about 35,000 living in the West Bank and Gaza, according to the US embassy in Tel Aviv.

Many are businessmen who serve as a pillar of the already faltering Palestinian economy. Many others work for non-governmental organisations, as teachers, or aid workers.

In one of the more dramatic cases, Tariq Ramahi, an American cardiologist from Yale University who was offered a position at Jerusalem’s Al Quds University, has been denied entry.

“Palestinian universities have a significant number of faculty members who hold foreign passports and if these people are expelled it will mean considerable harm to those universities,” warns Israeli peace activist Jacob Katriel.

The steady stream of complaints from US citizens prompted US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to raise the issue with Israeli officials during her recent visit to the region and the US embassy has also sought clarification about the Israeli policy.

“The US government is committed to ensuring that all Americans receive equal treatment,” US embassy spokesman Geoff Anisman told AFP.

Anisman said that over 100 cases of US citizens being denied entry had been brought to the embassy’s attention, and said there were likely many more.

Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Mark Regev says Israel is working to address the problem.

“You had a situation for many years where people were staying here for an extended period of time on tourist visas and this wasn’t correct,” Regev told AFP. “This was a misuse of a tourist visa so the government decided that this shouldn’t be happening.” “The decision has worked against some people who at least claim they have no alternative so the government is looking into the decision that was taken.” Samarra sits in the soon-to-be vacated hair salon, flanked by a gaudy Vidal Sassoon poster and hair dryers ready to be carted off to storage. He thumbs through pictures of him and his wife.

One of the vintage photographs with weathered corners is from their wedding day in October 1975. Another one shows the then-young couple laughing on a rust-coloured futon in a London apartment in the late 1970s.

“She has made me very happy,” says Samarra. “I’ve learned so much from her, more than I learned from all my books.”

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