"I don't know what to do. My options are either to stay and have my visa expired, or to leave and not come back for a year or two," Asi explains.


Asi, one of hundreds of Palestinians with foreign passports, who has been affected by a tightening of Israeli visa rules, may have to move his wife and four children back to the US.

 

Speaking about why he moved his family to Palestine, Asi said: "I want my children to learn the language, and our traditions. When they finish high school here, they will go to study in the US."

 

US officials say they began receiving complaints in March from Americans who were refused entry by Israeli border officials.

 

The consulate is recording these accounts, and diplomats have raised the issue with Israel.

 

But Israeli officials say the problem is procedural.

 

Sabine Haddad, a population administration spokesperson of the Israeli ministry of interior, said: "I want to clarify that nothing has changed.

 

"The only thing that has changed is that for two or three years we let people enter without permits."

 

Permits required

 

Haddad says that Israeli border officials and the military were notified by the ministry of justice that any foreigner planning to enter the West Bank or Gaza needs a pre-arranged permit.

 

Those who have tried to attain this permit, however, find that neither the Israeli army nor the Palestinian interior ministry is able to help them.

 

"The only thing that has changed is that for two or three years we let people enter without permits"

Sabine Haddad,
Israeli official

Since Israel's disengagement from the Gaza Strip in September last year, Israeli authorities have required foreign passport holders to co-ordinate with them before entering Gaza via Israel.

 

The only other access point, the Rafah crossing to Egypt, is reserved for Palestinians carrying residency documents, and has been closed for much of this year.

 

Palestinians fear that the West Bank, like Gaza, will be cut off from foreign tourism and trade.

 

Those affected by the visa crackdown include prominent business persons, educators, government consultants, development workers and the Palestinian diaspora.

 

Palestinian-Americans

 

An estimated 35,000 Americans live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Some are of Palestinian origin, while others are married to Palestinians or work for Palestinian or international organisations.

 

Sociologist Salim Tamari says that trade and family lines leading to the Americas are typical of Eastern Mediterranean societies.

 

Foreign nationals have found it
difficult to cross Israeli borders

"It's only with recent times and the Israelis that it became difficult to come back," he says.

 

But the majority of foreign nationals seeking residency in the West Bank are Jordanian citizens requesting to join children, parents or spouses. They are Palestinians who were separated from their homeland by war.

 

Procedures for legalising residency in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were frozen by Israel in 2000, with the start of the Palestinian uprising. The Palestinian ministry of the interior says it has a backlog of 120,000 petitions.

 

Israeli human rights workers say the tightening of visa rules is an additional form of pressure on the Palestinian government.

 

But Yehezkiel Lien, research director of the Israeli human rights organisation B'Tselem, says Israel's main reason for freezing Palestinian residency petitions is the "demographic consideration" - the desire to maintain a Jewish majority between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.

 

Illegal, but defiant

 

Nevertheless, many foreign passport holders have continued to live in the West Bank despite the freeze by renewing a tourist visa every three months. Still others have remained illegally.

 

"Many towns and villages hosting US and Latin American citizens, would be deeply affected by the visa crackdown"

Mahmoud Abdullah,
Ramallah council member

Last week, nearly 200 Palestinians gathered at the al-Bireh municipality at a meeting called by the Campaign for the Right of Entry/Re-Entry to the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

 

Ramallah council member Mahmud Abd Allah told the group that villages and towns in his district, many of them hosting US and Latin American citizens, would be deeply affected by the visa crackdown.

 

There has been no official contact between the Israeli government and Palestinian ministries since the Islamist movement Hamas won elections in January.

 

Israel and the US are leading an international economic and diplomatic boycott of the Palestinian Authority.

Source: Aljazeera