Expected Rule Change Could Re-unite Thousands in West Bank

Israel revises security policy that barred thousands from uniting with their families in the West Bank.

Enaya Samara, Hayan Ju'beh and Somaida Abbas are only three of the thousands of Palestinians with foreign passports who are waiting impatiently for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories to publish its new regulations.

These regulations, to be formulated in coordination with deputy defense minister Ephraim Sneh, will allegedly enable them to return to their families and their homes in the West Bank, after forced six- to 12-month stays abroad. The changes are meant to prevent the forced separation of families, and to allow thousands of Palestinians married to citizens of Western countries, especially the United States, to come to and stay in the West Bank. They should reverse a 2006 decision by Israel to deny thousands of people entrance to the West Bank.

On December 13, the coordinator of government activities in the territories, Major General Yussef Mishlav, met with European Union representatives to inform them of the promised changes, and various diplomats in Israel passed the news on to their citizens. Sneh confirmed to Haaretz that the Defense Ministry is working on implementing the new policy "to ease and not to burden, to simplify and not to complicate." He preferred not to go into detail, since the regulations have not yet been finalized.

As soon as Sneh took up his post, he initiated a meeting with Interior Minister Roni Bar-On to discuss the matter of denied entry. At the meeting, which took place on November 13, it was decided to post representatives of the coordinator's office at the Allenby Bridge and Ben-Gurion International Airport. They would determine, in consultation with the Interior Ministry, who would receive a visitor's permit (the authorities' term for entrance to the territories).

But meanwhile, Haaretz has learned that the Interior Ministry and the coordinator's office are continuing to block foreign citizens married to Palestinian Authority residents from entering the country. Others have received permits good for a week to a month at border crossings. In addition, 105 people, all spouses and children of Palestinian residents, have submitted visa extension requests through the Civil Administration (which is under the authority of the government coordinator). On November 19 their passports were returned, stamped with the words "last permit." Sneh said this was a "remnant of the previous situation," and that on December 10 the category of "last permit" was canceled.

But meanwhile, new cases of denied entries have disappointed and frightened others who have not left to renew their visa. Some have sought legal aid.

"There will be no 'laundering' for those who have broken the law and remained in the country without a valid visa," said Sneh. The change of policy would not apply to tens of thousands of women married to Jordanian citizens who are Palestinian residents, or a few hundred Eastern European spouses of Palestinians, who live abroad - away from their families - because they have been denied entry, or who have remained in the territories even though their visa has expired.

The stories of Samara (a U.S. citizen), Ju'beh (an Irish citizen), and Abbas (a Swedish citizen) have been told here over the past few months. They, like a few hundred others from Europe or America, have been hurt over the past year by the drastic change in Israel's policy regarding the entrance of Westerners to the territories. Most are spouses of Palestinian residents, and some were born in the territories (including East Jerusalem) but lost their residency status due to a pre-1994 Israeli policy. Over the years they were allowed to stay with their families as "tourists," and a small number received residency. The others renewed their tourist visas every three months.

As first reported in Haaretz in July 2006, the government initially changed this policy without declaring or admitting it. But at Israel's sea and land crossings, the number of people denied entry increased. Some estimates put the number at a few tens of thousands of U.S., European and South American citizens who were permanently living in the territories as "tourists."

There are no statistics showing how many of them did not return to their families this year. Many others did not leave to renew their visa, out of the fear that they would not be allowed to return. As a result, they are now considered to be breaking the law. Among them are many elderly people who were born in the territories. Apparently, thousands passed up family or business trips after learning of the policy change. Palestinian citizens of the U.S. and Europe who live in Ramallah established a group that gained world media attention, presenting the denied entry as discrimination between Jews and Palestinians. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed her displeasure with Israel's policy, the State Department complained to the Israeli Embassy in Washington, and representatives of the European Union submitted complaints of their own.

Sneh says he initiated the change not because of American pressure, but because the policy was "stupid and contravened Israeli interests." The EU representatives reported to their citizens that according to Mishlav, the Interior Ministry headed by Ronnie Bar-On is the body that decided to deny entry to U.S. and European citizens heading to the territories.

The Interior Ministry told Haaretz that the entrance of tourists to the territories has always been the responsibility of the Defense Ministry and the coordinator of government activities in the territories, and that the decision to deny entry was made at a joint meeting between the Interior Ministry, the Defense Ministry and the coordinator.