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Entry Denied: Palestinian Americans Among Thousands Blocked by Israel from Occupied Territories

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The Israeli government has effectively frozen visitation and re-entry of foreign nationals of Palestinian origin to the West Bank and Gaza. We go to Ramallah to speak with two coordinators of the Campaign for the Right of Entry/Re-Entry to the Occupied Palestinian Territory. We’re also joined by a leading Israeli human rights attorney and a Palestinian-American filmmaker recently detained by Israeli officials and deported. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We begin in Ramallah, where the Israeli government has effectively frozen visitation and re-entry of foreign nationals of Palestinian origin to the Occupied Territories. Activists and human rights advocates are claiming that since last year’s election of Hamas, thousands have been denied entry into the West Bank and Gaza. The Israeli government initially denied that there had been a policy change. But on Tuesday, the Israeli coordinator of government activities in the territories released a letter stating that the policy of denying foreign nationals entry had been reversed. The letter was dated December 28th and had been sent to the Palestinian Authority.

AMY GOODMAN: Yet the organization Campaign for the Right of Entry and Re-Entry to the Occupied Palestinian Territory maintains they know of at least 14 foreign citizens who only last week were denied entrance to the territories. They say that in addition to being discriminatory, this policy is tearing families apart, blocking students from finishing their education, and keeping people from their jobs and businesses. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem wrote in a recent report that the crackdown is part of a broader policy to limit the growth of the Palestinian population by, quote, “preventing the entry of spouses and children of residents, and by stimulating emigration from the area.”

Well, we’re going to go to the Occupied Territories now. Sam Bahour and Anita Abdullah are with us now from Ramallah in the West Bank. Sam is a Palestinian-American businessman, one of the coordinators of the Campaign for Right of Entry/Re-Entry to the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Anita Abdullah is one of the other coordinators for the campaign. She’s a researcher at Birzeit University, married to a Palestinian. Leah Tsemel is on the phone with us from Jerusalem. She’s an Israeli human rights lawyer. We welcome you all to Democracy Now!

Sam Bahour, why don’t we begin with you? Can you talk about the issue — you’re in Ramallah right now, though you are a Palestinian-American businessman who also lives here. What’s the problem?

SAM BAHOUR: Well, we have, many of us, the bulk being Palestinian Americans, but foreign nationals of different countries, have come back or come to Palestine following the Oslo Peace Accords to contribute to building a different kind of Palestinian reality, one free of Israeli occupation and one that can merge into the nation-states of the world. And we’ve been here during the good and bad.

We have only been allowed by the Israelis to remain in Palestine with our families and our businesses and our livelihood via tourist visas. That’s the only mechanism that Israel allowed foreign nationals, people who, like myself and like my colleague Anita, who don’t have Palestinian residency, Israeli-issued ID cards to come. My wife does have an Israeli-issued ID card, and many other spouses of foreign nationals do, as well. Israel has allowed us to apply for family unification, but they refuse to process those applications, so we’ve been here for 10, 15, some of us 20 and 30 years, coming in and out of the country every three months, as the only way Israel would allow us to.

Following the January legislative elections for the Palestinian Authority and the emergence of a Palestinian government led by Hamas, Israel took an unannounced measure of denying entry to all of those that left the country to renew their tourist visas. Upon re-entry, they were told they can no longer come back, under the premise, most of the time, of security. And basically, this has resulted into hundreds, if not thousands, of families being separated, as well as businesses being separated from their owners.

We are now in a phase where, after nine months of a very global campaign that mobilized people to speak out against this policy of emptying Palestine from Palestinians and foreign nationals, that for the first time ever Israel last month actually documented a policy reversal. That’s what it was being proclaimed to be. In reality, what we have is a document that puts in writing Israelis’ human rights abuses and violation of international humanitarian law. Even post this new announcement of a reversal of this denial-entry program, we’re seeing people who have been refused entry every single day. We had yet another one yesterday from the Ben Gurion Airport. So things have not changed; just the opposite.

The violations of international humanitarian law have now been documented by the Israeli occupation, and they very clearly say that not only, as you said in your introduction, that the visitation to the Occupied Territories is now restricted, but more importantly maybe are the 150,000 to 200,000 Palestinians that are demanding residency rights to remain with their families, and that’s completely omitted from the letter and basically being ignored by the Israelis completely, even though international law stipulates that families should not be separated under occupation. The occupying power, Israel, has obligations under international law, and they must follow those obligations. Otherwise, we have the law of the jungle, and that’s what Israel has created today: a reality of the law of the jungle.

And we’re asking our home countries, be it the U.S. or otherwise, to take a stance not to allow Israel to continue to discriminate against their citizens when they’re entering Israel, because today we are being discriminated against. If you are an American citizen, such as I am, trying to enter at the Israeli border, if they know that we are from Palestinian ethnicity or that we’re heading towards going to the West Bank, we are either denied entry or entry is restricted. If you’re a Jewish American, or otherwise, coming to Israel or even coming to live in the illegal settlements spread out throughout the West Bank, you don’t go through these same restrictions.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask Anita Abdullah, you’re a researcher at Birzeit University. Your university has had a special impact as a result of this policy. Could you talk about that?

ANITA ABDULLAH: Excuse me? It has had a special impact on?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Your university. My understanding is that there are many faculty that have not been able to return to the territories to be able to teach? Could you talk about the impact on the university of this policy?

ANITA ABDULLAH: Yes. That’s right. In fact, about 50 percent of students and faculty that were supposed to be here next year have either withdrawn or have not shown up, and several of them have been denied entry. About four or five faculty members and several students who came for a special program to study Arabic and about Palestinian society, they were turned back. And the program had to be drastically reduced.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the research you have done around the people who are not allowed to enter the Occupied Territories, Anita Abdullah?

ANITA ABDULLAH: Well, this is not part of my professional research. This is a part of the campaign that we are trying to document as many cases as possible who are being denied entry, who are not allowed to extend their visas, and thereby not allowed to live with their families or being in their jobs, and so forth. We have been able to document about 250 cases, although we estimate that there must be thousands, but most people do not want to have their case documented, because they are afraid that they will be stained and that this will make it more difficult for them to be allowed in once they go out.

Another thing is that most families in the West Bank, for example, where I live, is that they have several family members who have foreign passports and who have not been able to renew these permits, because of obstacles put in the way by the Israeli authorities, and the rest of the family is afraid to be punished collectively for those members of the family who might not have anymore a legal status here, a legal status in terms of the Israeli definition, although the Palestinian Authority wants them here.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to go to break. When we come back, we will continue our conversation and will, as well, be joined by the well-known Israeli human rights lawyer, Leah Tsemel. We are talking with Anita Abdullah on the coordinating committee of the Campaign for Right of Entry/Re-Entry to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, as well as Sam Bahour, who is a Palestinian-American businessman, a part of that campaign, as well.


AMY GOODMAN: As the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made her way to the Occupied Territories, was in Ramallah on Sunday, there are a number of Palestinians who cannot go in and out as freely. We are talking with Anita Abdullah, as well as Sam Bahour. They are joining us from a Ramallah studio in the West Bank. And we’re joined by Leah Tsemel, who is an Israeli human rights lawyer, speaking to us from Jerusalem. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, I’d like to ask Leah Tsemel, to what degree is the Israeli public aware of these restrictions? And what has been the government’s justification, although initially they weren’t even acknowledging that the restrictions existed?

LEAH TSEMEL: I believe that everyone in Israel is able to have all the information, because the information is overt; it’s in the daily press, on television. It’s well-published. But it seems that the Israeli public is quite indifferent or even supportive to this attitude towards the Palestinians. Obviously, I believe that this [inaudible] of denying Palestinians — Palestinians are required foreign citizenship from staying in the Occupied Territories or, for that matter, in Israel, and having roots there is an outcome of apartheid.

There is a need increasingly in Israel to segregate the Palestinians, to isolate them. And every educated, well-known people with impact or connections are not welcome. And I think this is the basis of this policy. They don’t want all these powerful foreigners, some of them with money, some of them with education; they don’t want them around. They want to have poor, needy Palestinians, who would sell their power of work cheaply, and that’s it. This is the main purpose, to isolate the Palestinians and to impoverish them. Therefore, it’s not a surprise that even the higher education policy is very clear. They don’t want to have those foreigners to teach in the different universities. They want to dry up the education, to dry up the economy, and to turn the Palestinians into even poorer and more needy people.

AMY GOODMAN: Sam Bahour, I wanted to ask you, what is the role of the American Embassy when it comes to people like you? You’re a Palestinian-American businessman.

SAM BAHOUR: Well, the role has been different in different times of this campaign. At the beginning of the campaign, back in March of 2006, we were being told that this is an Israeli immigration policy, and basically the U.S. could not interfere with that. We challenged that position, because Israel does not have sovereignty over the Occupied Territories. There is a body of law called international humanitarian law that does have sovereignty while we’re under occupation, and it’s Israel’s obligation to apply international law here. And it’s the obligation of third states, be it the U.S. or otherwise, to ensure that the protected people are protected under international law. And this is where the states needs to play a much more active role.

About six months into our campaign, we were able to lobby enough that we were able to find that Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, in a statement in Washington, D.C., after one of her visits here, actually stated in a public statement that she would do, quote, “everything in her powers,” unquote, to make sure that American citizens are not discriminated against because of their ethnicity. She has been here since, and we have daily had people returned at Israel’s borders. Remember, there’s no other way to get to the Occupied Territories, except through coming into Israel, and they have a right, under law, to provide transit for anyone wanting to reach the Occupied Territories.

As far as the U.S. is concerned, it’s even more complicated, because there’s a 1952 friendship treaty between the United States and Israel that obliges both parties to allow citizens of each other’s country free transit rights, not residency rights, because each has their own immigration policy, but transit rights. And it uniquely serves our purpose, because we’re not asking for residency or visitation rights to Israel. We are looking to reach the Occupied Territories to be able to serve our communities in building a different reality on the ground. And it’s kind of awkward that the U.S., being the leader of this quartet that’s working on the Middle East peace process, is turning a blind eye when the community of foreign nationals are being turned back, while at the same time calling for more pluralism in Palestine.

The foreign national community here, whether it’s Palestinian backgrounds or foreign nationals from other countries, are all part of the plural part of our society. And, as Attorney Tsemel said, most of them have resources, whether it be academic, medical or economic, that can serve to build a different kind of Palestine. And the international community needs to acknowledge that Palestine cannot change into what they want it to be by remote control. We need our human resources to be tapped to be able to serve building a different kind of Palestine.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Sam Bahour, in terms of the Israeli policy toward foreigners who are not Palestinian nationals or other Americans, for instance, are they giving them more ability to travel into the territories than the Palestinian nationals who are holding foreign citizenship?

SAM BAHOUR: Absolutely not. Those of us from Palestinian ethnicity are facing this on a regular basis. Equally are facing it, those that are not from Palestinian background. We’ve had several people approach the campaign, teachers from an American school here in Ramallah that have been turned back. We’ve had business people, some very large business concerns, U.S. business concerns, on the ground here in Ramallah serving the economy at large; they were turned back.

The policy has been rather generic in its application, and I think it goes to show, even one step further, that we can take President Carter’s word of “apartheid” and the Israeli researcher Ilan Pappe’s word of “ethnic cleansing” and put those two things together, and the result of that equation would be a continued unilateral Israeli policy to empty Palestine from Palestinians or any other resources that are interested in building Palestine.

So we are just as committed to ending the occupation as everyone else, but we feel that our contribution to ending the occupation may be building bridges and building an economy or building an education system, and it seems that Israel doesn’t want even a constructive approach to building Palestine. The only result of this will be emptying Palestine of about a half a million Palestinians, as well as creating, as Attorney Tsemel said, an economy that’s basically a Somalia-style economy. And I fear that if the international community does not rise to the occasion and make sure international law is applied by Israel, as the law defines, then we will be in for another round of violence that’s much more worse than we’ve seen before.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask Leah Tsemel about first the Israeli government denying there was a policy around freezing visitation and re-entry, and then issuing this policy change, the Israeli coordinator of government activities in the territories releasing a letter stating the policy of denying foreign nationals entry had been reversed. Do you hold out hope with this letter’s release?

LEAH TSEMEL: I heard about the letter. I haven’t seen the consequences on the ground yet. I think there is a general tendency — this has always been the tendency to encourage people who have studied abroad or have married foreigners to immigrate, to empty the territories as much as possible. And until I will realize that everyone can enter and stay on the visa tourist and then leave and come back again, I would not believe that there is a major change.

I wanted also to mention one very important point. We get information that there are close, or more even than half-million Israelis who live in the United States and have dual nationalities. Those and most of the Israelis have a second passport and third passport and third nationality, just to kind of — to be on the safe side. I think that there should be a demand for mutuality, the same as that Jew Israelis have toward our American citizens, we, the Americans, have to your Israeli citizens, because Israelis can come and go with the re-entry permit or, as I said, other nationality into the United States, and at the same time, there is no mutuality, and Americans are not allowed in here.

AMY GOODMAN: Leah Tsemel is a Jewish Israeli human rights lawyer. She’s speaking to us from Jerusalem. And we’re now joined by Suzy Salamy, who is a Palestinian-American filmmaker. She just attempted to get into the Occupied Territories to do a film, to chronicle what’s happening there. She was held in a cell. She was detained, then she was deported. She’s home in Columbus, Ohio, now. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Suzy.

SUZY SALAMY: Hi, Amy. How are you?

AMY GOODMAN: Good. Can you describe what happened to you and when it happened?

SUZY SALAMY: I attempted to get into Israel. I flew into Ben Gurion Airport on the 4th of January, was immediately pulled aside. Once they see your passport and they see your last name — my last name is Salamy; it’s Palestinian — even though it’s an American passport, they pull you aside, and you’re held for many hours. I was held for eight hours, and during that time, I was interrogated by four different people. And they decided at the end of it that I was going to not be allowed to enter. They put me in a detention center. They strip-searched me. They put me in a detention center and then the next morning brought me directly to an airplane, Air Canada airplane.

AMY GOODMAN: Suzy, did you say they strip-searched you?

SUZY SALAMY: Oh, yes. They do that all the time to people they deem as security threats. They went through my items, you know, to see if they had any sort of bomb residue on it. And then they took me into a room and, you know, made me take off my bra, drop my pants, etc., even though I had already been there for eight hours. If anything was going to happen, it would have already happened, if I had anything on me. But, you know, the point is to humiliate and make you feel powerless.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you were born here in the United States?

SUZY SALAMY: Yeah. My grandfather is from Ramallah — was from Ramallah. I have relatives who still live there now. Most of them have left, because of the occupation, but my main drive was to go there and shoot a documentary on this program called Birthright Unplugged, which brings American Jews into the West Bank to show them what it’s like for Palestinians and brings Palestinian refugees into Israeli to show them what Palestinians inside Israel live like. The irony is that I couldn’t get in to show them, but, of course, the American Jews could go in without a problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Sam Bahour, what is your situation right now? My understanding is you were recently denied a permit of re-entry. What is your status and that of your family at this point?

SAM BAHOUR: Well, I’ve been here on three-month intervals for the last 13 years, very difficult in terms of planning for family or business. Last October, when I attempted to renew my tourist visa, it was stamped “last permit.” Many people have received this stamp during this last phase, and that means that you have to leave the country and take the risk of reentering and possibly being denied entry. This is when the campaign decided that we would take the issue of “last permit” at a very global media kind of approach, and we think that we were very successful in raising all the needed eyebrows from a governmental point of view, as well as from a human rights point of view, and I was able to re-enter.

Right now, I have to take a decision again in February to leave and take the risk of coming back, or like thousands others have done, to ignore leaving and overstay the visa until this is solved politically, but that would mean I would not even be able to leave my neighborhood, because Israeli military jeeps are in every city, including Ramallah, and at any one of those checkpoints or any jeep that would stop me would mean I could be deported on the spot. So this is from a personal level.

From a business level, it’s even worse. You know, this is the holy land. We missed, basically, the Christmas season, because pilgrims were hesitant to come back during Christmas out of fear of being denied entry, because by that time they had heard that throughout 2006 people were being returned.

We were hoping that this movement from the Israeli side by issuing this letter would have solved this issue properly, because we wanted to be able to be able to see pilgrims come back for Easter. That seems like it’s not going to happen. Our next target is summer, because many Palestinian Americans and Palestinians with relatives abroad want to come back during summer vacation, and we’re getting a lot of calls, basically telling us, “Should we come back or not?” And that’s a very hard thing to tell someone, is not to come back to see your family.

AMY GOODMAN: Your family is in Ramallah now?

SAM BAHOUR: Yes, I have —- my wife is here and my two daughters, a six— and 12-year-old. They all have Palestinian IDs. I’m the only one who doesn’t. So if I am denied entry, I fear that it will only be a matter of time before I would ask my family to join me. And I think this is what the Israeli policy is all about: forcing ethnic cleansing in a very sterilized way, one family at a time at the border. And before we know it, we’ll have a half a million people that were forced out of Palestine, just like what happened in 1948, just like what happened in 1967, but in 2007, it’s being done in a very sterile way.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Suzy Salamy, you’re back in the United States. How long were you held for, and what are your plans now? Do you hold out hope with this letter that the Israeli government has released, stating the policy of denying foreign nationals entry has been released? Will you try to go back in to do your film?

SUZY SALAMY: Oh, yes. I will absolutely try to go back in. I mean, that letter, I think, was released before I was detained, so obviously it didn’t work for me. But I plan to fight it as much as I can, whatever I can do from here — unfortunately, it’s going to be difficult — but I do plan to return and try to return this summer to continue to shoot this documentary and visit family that I have there.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us. I’m sorry the Israeli Embassy didn’t join us. Sam Bahour, Palestinian-American businessman, speaking to us from Ramallah, as well as Anita Abdullah, who together with Sam is involved with the Campaign for the Right of Entry/Re-Entry to the Occupied Palestinian Territory. She is also a researcher at Birzeit University. Leah Tsemel, Israeli Jewish human rights lawyer, speaking to us from Jerusalem. And Suzy Salamy, an independent filmmaker who was just deported from Israel, as she tried to get into the West Bank.

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