Restricted: Visas Good for West Bank Only

U.S. Protests New Policy Targeting Arab Americans

By Nathan Guttman

Published September 30, 2009, issue of October 09, 2009.
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Omar Rahman was on his way from America to a friend’s wedding in Jerusalem. The 25-year-old journalist, born and raised in Washington to parents of Palestinian descent, had visited the West Bank and Israel many times before, and although he was used to the four-hour wait at the border crossing, he had never encountered any problems.

But last July, when Rahman went through the Allenby Bridge border crossing between Jordan and the Israeli-controlled West Bank, the Israeli officer put a new stamp on Rahman’s American passport, restricting his visit to only the West Bank.

When Rahman noticed the stamp, he was already dressed in a suit and riding in a taxi on his way to the wedding. He was stopped from entering Israel at the border crossing near Jerusalem. “We tried walking through, but the soldiers refused to let me in,” he said. “I told them it must be a mistake, but they wouldn’t listen.”

Rahman did not make it to the wedding. Nor did another American guest. The stamp, saying “Palestinian Authority Only,” meant they could not cross the Green Line that forms the border around the West Bank.

Dozens of Americans from Arab backgrounds have reported encountering similar problems since Israel instituted a new entry policy this past spring.

According to the new policy, those entering with a declared intention to visit the West Bank are not given permission to visit Israel proper. Furthermore, Israel now strictly enforces an existing but seldom implemented policy of refusing to allow foreigners wishing to visit the West Bank to enter through Ben Gurion International Airport. Those travelers are directed to the Allenby Bridge border crossing.

While most American citizens entering Israel are allowed full access to Israel and the West Bank, Arab Americans coming to visit their families in the West Bank are likely to receive the “Palestinian Authority Only” stamp on their passports.

The Israeli regulations do not make any formal distinction between Americans of Arab descent and other American tourists, but evidence collected by Arab advocacy groups clearly indicates that all those complaining of being restricted by Israel upon entry were of Arab descent. The only exceptions of Americans not of Arab descent who were being stopped were those involved in the International Solidarity Movement, who came to Israel to support and provide humanitarian help to Palestinians.

There were few reports of similar problems encountered by Europeans of Arab descent.

The issue has become a main rallying cause for Arab Americans in recent months, as they demanded that the Obama administration confront Israel over what they defined as discrimination against American citizens of Arab descent. In a September 3 letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Arab American Institute urged the administration to take action. “We hope you will agree with us that the rights of American citizens traveling abroad should be protected,” the letter reads, “and that, under no circumstances should other governments be allowed to discriminate against or revoke the rights of any group of Americans based on their ethnicity, faith, or race.” The letter is signed by AAI president James Zogby and the group’s chairperson, George Salem.

Last August, in response to reports about Arab Americans being singled out and restricted when entering Israel, the State Department publicly criticized the practice and demanded an official explanation from Israel. “We have made it quite known to the Israeli government that we expect all American citizens to be treated the same regardless of their national origin, and these kinds of restrictions we consider unacceptable,” State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said in an August 19 briefing.

Israel, according to an Israeli diplomatic source who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak, said that the issue was being examined and that there were only a handful of cases in which Americans were restricted from entering Israel.

The foreign ministry and the interior ministry, which is in charge of border crossings, set up teams to discuss the issue, the source said.

Complaints from Arab American organizations regarding the treatment of American citizens from Arab backgrounds in Israel date back to the 1980s. Now, activists believe the situation has gotten worse.

Israel had informed the United States about the toughening of entry limitations for those wishing to visit the West Bank, and the American consulate general in Jerusalem put out an alert advising American citizens coming to the West Bank to enter through the Allenby Bridge and to be aware of the different stamps Israeli border officers may put on their passports.

The rationale behind the regulations, Israeli officials explained in recent weeks, was that visiting the West Bank does not necessarily provide the right to visit Israel and that Israel does not have to allow foreign nationals wishing to visit the Palestinian Authority to go through its territory and its airport.

But Arab advocacy groups, backed by State Department statements, argue that this policy is implemented only when the foreign national is from an Arab background. Most American tourists traveling to Israel will not encounter any questioning or restrictions at the border and will be allowed to travel freely between the West Bank and Israel.

Though the Obama administration has taken a strong public stand against the Israeli policy, it has not yet succeeded in driving any change. This became apparent to one Palestinian American family of five that traveled in August to visit relatives in Jerusalem and the West Bank. The father, speaking with the Forward on condition of anonymity because of his concern about repercussions, said that at the passport control in Ben Gurion airport, four of the family members received regular entry stamps, but his wife, who in addition to her American citizenship holds a Palestinian identification number, received the “Palestinian Authority Only” stamp.

The family members had to split up during their vacation. They stayed in the West Bank, and only the father and children were permitted to go through the border crossing to visit Jerusalem.

Furthermore, the mother was not allowed to travel to the airport for her flight back to Los Angeles and was required to leave through the Allenby Bridge and buy a new ticket from Jordan’s capital, Amman. When family members sought help from the American consulate in Jerusalem, they found that their government could do nothing. They were referred to the consulate’s Web site, which states, “Please note that only Israeli liaison offices in the West Bank can assist — but they rarely will.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com






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