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"It must be a mistake, the caprice of a clerk at border control," Aadel Samara responded when his wife Enayeh informed him by phone on May 26 that her entry to Israel, through the Sheikh Hussein Terminal (near Beit She'an), was not permitted. There was no reason to suspect anything but an error. After all, throughout their 30 years together this was the drill: Every three months, a day or two before the Israeli tourist visa in her American passport was set to expire, she would go away for a few days - to Jordan, sometimes Cyprus or Egypt, then return with a new visa for another three months.

Except when Aadel was working on his doctorate in economics, in Britain, she and the children joined him for part of the time.

The Samaras are both natives of Beit Ur al Foqa, a village west of Ramallah. Enayeh was born in 1950; Aadel in 1944. But in 1967, two months before the war, she visited her father, who was working in the United States.

After occupying the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel conducted a census and ruled that anyone who was not present in the territories at the time of the census ceased being a resident. Thus, like thousands of other Palestinians, Enayeh lost her residency status. In 1975, she visited her birthplace on an American passport, as a tourist. She met Aadel, they fell in love and married. When their daughter, Samer, was 39-days-old and still nursing, she accompanied her mother on the quarterly trip to Jordan for visa renewal. They submitted a dozen applications for "family reunification" - in vain.

The Israeli authorities, which have controlled the Palestinian Population Registry since 1967 to this day, refused. So over the years they had no choice but to get used to the frequent travel arrangement.

"We could have built a thriving economic enterprise with all the money we spent on these trips," Aadel tried joking at his house, which seemed so empty to him without his wife.

"Try crossing through the Allenby Bridge," he advised her on May 26. He didn't even tell his children what had happened exactly. "I try not to tell them the tough things, they'd start crying," he explained, as though he had forgotten that Samer was already 30 and Yazan was 26. But when her sister in Amman telephoned on May 28 to say that Enayeh had failed to get through once again, they realized they had been naive to think that their life, with its somewhat odd routine, would not be disrupted.

Aadel spent a month running between various offices of the Palestinian Authority and tried in vain to schedule a meeting with representatives from the American consulate. His sister-in-law in Chicago tried meanwhile to catch her senator's attention. Enayeh herself delivered a letter to the U.S. embassy in Amman and received no reply.

Similar straits

In their rushing about, they began hearing of more and more people in similar straits, and all began to conclude that this went beyond particular cases and was a matter of policy from above. Several of those refused entry say they heard from the officials and policemen at the border crossing that "there are directives from the Interior Ministry," or that "from now on we are permitted to visit once a year, for a month only."

When Enayeh realized her return home was uncertain, she decided to go to her sister in the U.S. Her two children and 3-year-old grandson, Omar, traveled to bid her goodbye. Who knows when they will see each other again.

Aadel cannot leave. In the late 1960s and early '70s, he served five and a half years in an Israeli prison: five for activity in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and several years later - for activity in the Democratic Front (after he had already quit the group over his criticism against the Soviet Union.) In 1998 he was arrested by Palestinian intelligence for 27 days. He had been among 20 signatories to an open letter attacking Yasser Arafat for the corrupt practices of his regime and its failings in dealing with the Israeli occupation. But his periods of incarceration never impacted his wife's tourist visas, so her entry ban is clearly unrelated to his past or political views.

"From the moment we met and up to the moment we said goodbye at the airport, she cried," said her son Yazan. And you? "I cried too," he admitted. "And my sister also cried." His sister said that "Mom aged 10 years" in a month of forced absence from home and the uncertainty regarding when and if she would be able to return.

"We had so hoped," said Samer, an engineer by profession, "that now, when we're adults and earning a living, that Mom would be able to rest, work less hard" (at the beauty parlor she opened in Ramallah). In the four days they spent with her "I felt how weak I am," Yazan recounted. "I can't help my mother. We don't have an authority that can help, and the Israeli regime does as it pleases. Israel's policy is known. If it could, it would expel everyone. By any means possible it will get people out of here."