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For the first time since 1967, Israel is preventing the entry of Palestinians with foreign citizenship, most of them Americans.

Most of those refused entry are arriving from abroad, but have lived and worked for years in the West Bank.

According to a growing number of accounts from West Bank residents, petitions to the High Court of Justice and monitoring by Haaretz, the number of those barred from entering Israel en route to the territories has been steadily rising since April 2006.

The Interior Ministry and Civil Administration made no formal announcement about a policy change, leaving returnees to discover the situation when they reach the border crossings.

By various estimates, the ban has so far affected several thousand American and European nationals, whom Israel has kept from returning to their homes and jobs, or from visiting their families in the West Bank. This could potentially impact many more thousands who live in the territories - including university instructors and researchers, employees working in various vital development programs and business owners - as well as thousands of foreign citizens who pay annual visits to relatives there. The policy also applies to foreigners who are not Palestinian but are married to Palestinians, and to visiting academics.

The first group to suffer are Palestinians born in the territories, whose residency Israel revoked after 1967 while they were working or studying abroad. Some eventually married residents of the territories, or returned to live with aging parents and siblings. Israel rejected their applications for "family reunification" (i.e., requests to have their residency restored). However, until recently Israel permitted them to continue living in the territories on tourist visas, renewable every three months by exiting and reentering the country. In some cases the State also granted them work permits.

Citizens of Arab states (whether or not of Palestinian origin) have been barred from entering Israel since 2000. A handful were allowed in as "exceptional humanitarian cases" - mostly when a first-degree relative is dying or has died - but even this practice was suspended in April.

One of the demands that Israel has posed in specific cases which attorney Leah Tsemel represented before the High Court of Justice, is that applications for visitation permits be authorized by a low-ranking official from the Palestinian Interior Ministry, who is not affiliated with Hamas. The ministry refuses to comply with this condition. Now it turns out that this policy has been extended to U.S. and European citizens.

An Israeli Interior Ministry spokesperson told Haaretz that this is not a new policy, but merely a "procedural updating." But the High Court petitions department at the State Prosecutor's Office, which has been addressing the phenomenon with regard to several specific petitions, wrote Tsemel on May 2, 2006 that a policy on entry of foreign nationals to the West Bank would be formulated only "at the start of next week." Since then Tsemel has not learned whether such a policy was indeed drafted.

The U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv told Haaretz that no Israeli official informed them of a change in entry policy, and said that the United States cannot intervene in sovereign decisions of another country. Several people who were refused entry and spoke with U.S. representatives said that the consulate and embassy are well aware of the apparently new policy.

An e-mail from the department of U.S. Citizen Services in Jerusalem to a U.S. citizen who had inquired about entering the West Bank stated that the consul general had met with a representative from the Israeli Interior Ministry regarding the government's entry policies: "The Israeli official conceded that 90-day visa entry cards, which were once routinely granted in the past, especially to U.S. citizens, are now more difficult to obtain, specifically for Palestinian American citizens traveling to the West Bank and for U.S. nationals affiliated with humanitarian organizations. Both the U.S. Embassy and the Consulate in Jerusalem are pursuing the issue."

Israel's Civil Administration stated in response that "the entry to the region of foreigners who are not residents of the territories takes place by means of visit permits issued by the Palestinian Authority and approved by the Israeli side," because coordination stopped after September 2000, and entry was permitted in exceptional humanitarian cases - a practice that was also suspended after the Hamas government was formed. Today, the statement continued, cases "involving special humanitarian need" are being considered.

The Civil Administration confirmed that the applications must be conveyed by a low-ranking official who is unaffiliated with Hamas. The Interior Ministry and Civil Administration declined to comment on the fact that for 40 years, Palestinian citizens of Western countries did not required a "visitation permit."