Doors of Re-entry Shut to Palestinians

A Swedish citizen describes what he calls insulting treatment at the airport.

AMMAN - Seven months after Swedish citizen Somaida Abbas was refused entry through Ben-Gurion International Airport, the insult can still be heard in every sentence spoken by this successful economic adviser describing his efforts to return to his wife and three children in Ramallah. Finally, they came to him in Amman.

His wife, Saada Shobaki, took a half-year's leave of absence from the Palestinian Economy Ministry. His kids left their school and kindergarten. They now live in a rented, furnished flat without personal character except for the charming mess of the children's toys and drawings. Hanging by the door are the keys to Abbas' house in Ramallah. He already lost one set of keys -- to his house in Jerusalem. Abbas was born in 1959 in Jerusalem, where he lived and studied until about 20 years ago. Because he went to study and work abroad, Israel revoked his residency rights.

Abbas was among the first Palestinians with Western citizenship to be hurt by the new, undeclared Israeli policy of prohibiting Palestinian re-entry to the country. This policy affects people who want to visit family or return and live in the occupied territories, as they had for the previous 10 or 15 years on tourist or work visas that only Israel has the authority to grant, and did so until 2000.

The massive wave of refusal of entry and non-renewal of visas began in early spring of this year, after the establishment of the Hamas government. Abbas was refused entry on February 6 when he returned from a short business trip to Sweden and Turkey. In Sweden he took part in an initiative to advance economic cooperation between Palestinian, Israeli and Swedish business people. In Turkey he talked with officials from the Turkish Foreign Ministry about re-opening the Erez industrial zone.

At first Abbas, his friends, and the many people with which he was professionally involved, including many Israelis, thought that a mistake had been made, that there was a misunderstanding. After all, only a mistake could bar entry to a senior economic adviser appointed by the Palestinian Authority to develop the idea of shared Israeli-Palestinian industrial zones after Israel began increasingly to limit the entry of Palestinian workers to its territory.

"If Moses wouldn't come to the mountain, we'll send the mountain to Moses," Abbas said was the idea. "Industrial zones would insure income for the Palestinians and security for the Israelis. The donor nations would finance it. Yitzhak Rabin, Yossi Beilin, Abu Ala (Ahmed Qureia, a senior PA figure) -- everybody believed in the idea. And I was appointed to lead the project in 1995. The intent was that these zones would compete [by offering lower wages - A.H.] at first with countries like Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Egypt and then with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines."

The hope that this economic horizon would mark the way to peace, Abbas says, led to him leave a lucrative job in Sweden, where he had studied and became a citizen years ago. The dozens of meetings he took with Israeli representatives were held in Defense Ministry offices in Tel Aviv, where he entered "without their even checking me," and in the Civil Administration offices in Beit El and Tul Karm.

But all this did not help him when he landed at Ben-Gurion Airport in February with his Swedish passport. "The woman took my passport, and I waited. An hour went by. That's normal. When two hours went by I felt something bad was going on. A Russian [-Israeli] officer came - I knew he was Russian by his accent - and said 'Abbas, that's enough. You're cheating the State of Israel. You work in Israel.' I answered him, 'I never worked in Israel, I work in Ramallah.' I showed him my file number in (the Civil Administration) in Beit El. But he kept on. 'This is not legal.' 'How is it not legal?' I answered him. In 1996 I got a work permit every half-year. We stopped getting work permits from Beit El in 2000, but we renewed our tourist visas every three months. My wife and children are in Ramallah, not in Israel.' But he said: 'Nonsense," Ramallah belongs to Israel.'"

Abbas landed at one o'clock in the morning on what he calls "black Sunday." At 7 A.M., the shift of "the Russian" ended, and he wanted to put Abbas back on a plane to Stockholm. Abbas refused. Voices were raised. He demanded that the two tough policemen not touch him. He called the emergency number for the Swedish Embassy, which could do nothing because it was Sunday, and Israel was a sovereign country. He called an acquaintance at the Peres Center for Peace. He could do nothing either. Abbas was put in a detention cell at the airport.

"Suddenly I became a criminal," he said and did not hide his tears of insult.

"They persuaded me that it was just a question of laws and procedures and that I had to receive a 'service visa' and then there would be no problem." They put Abbas on a plane to Turkey, from which he went on to Jordan. More than a month later, with the intervention of an Israeli businessman in the department for the peace process in the Foreign Ministry and of a United Nations development company in which he worked, Abbas received a service visa from the Israeli Embassy in Amman for three months. It was signed by Consul Shaul Moseri.

But on March 22, at the Allenby Bridge, Abbas was refused entry. The visa was from the Foreign Ministry, and the Interior Ministry did not approve his entry, he was told.

"I can find work in 16 different countries," Abbas says. "But Sweden spoiled me. I got used to being a human being, who is treated with respect, who has rights like other people. No one has the right to take a father from his children. Not even Ehud Olmert. You are preventing Palestinian parents from living with their children in their country, and then you ask why the Palestinians hate Israel."