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Since April 2006, Israel has imposed a sweeping ban on the return to the country of Palestinians of Western nationality, primarily Americans, who have been living and working in the West Bank for many years. The Interior Ministry and Civil Administration have not made an official announcement about this, and the people affected have only learned of the directive upon arriving at the border crossings.

On learning of the ban, Palestinian citizens of Western countries who have family, work and assets in the territories have sought help from their respective embassies.

Israeli officials have told Western diplomats that entry into the occupied territories through the crossings by Palestinians who are foreign nationals will be restricted to a minimum. The diplomats say they cannot intervene in Israel's sovereign decisions.

Most affected by the directive are Palestinians who were born in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and were stripped of their residency status after 1967, while abroad for work and study purposes. The hope they had of returning to reside in the territories was boosted by the Oslo Accords.

Spouses of Palestinians - business people, academics and teachers who are not of Palestinian origin - are also affected by the ban. Until recently, Israel allowed them to remain in the territories as tourists, and to renew their visas every three months.

Citizens of Arab states (whether of Palestinian origin or not) have been prevented from entering Israel since 2000, even if they're married to Palestinian residents. Since the Hamas election victory, this policy has been expanded and now applies to American and European citizens, too.

There have been an increasing number of cases in which entire families, primarily of a middle-class background, have had to emigrate because of this situation. (Amira Hass)