Twilight Zone / No Exit

Two sisters visiting Beit Ummar have been prevented from returning home to Jordan, where their 25 children await them.

The convoluted bureaucracy of the occupation, one must admit, sometimes provides a little comic relief. If it weren't so sad, it would be funny.

Raliya and Wahiba al-Saleibi, two sisters with 25 children between them (Raliya has 15 and Wahiba has 10), came to visit the West Bank village where they were born and got stuck there. For two months now, they've been unable to return to their homes, to their husbands and children and Jordan. Why? Because of a piece of paper. Which one? The pink slip, of course. The piece of paper from the IDF command, where it says "number of accompanying travelers with separate entry instead of exit pass." Is that clear? I didn't think so either.

All of this is a mistake apparently made by the clerk at the Allenby Bridge, who wrote down the wrong number of "accompanying travelers": One instead of 6 for Raliya; 3 instead of 4 for Wahiba. Time and again, Raliya travels to the bridge, and time and again she is sent back the way she came. All because of this slip of the pen, an error that forever repeats itself, in this case for both sisters.

It's a lot more complicated than it sounds. And a lot more ridiculous than it seems. Even the Civil Administration spokesman had trouble understanding this situation.

This week, we sat for a long time in the home of the Al-Saleibi sisters' parents, where they are presently staying, and tried, with them, to divine the method behind the madness. But that's really beside the point. The fact is that, at home in the Jabel Nasser refugee camp in Amman, the sisters' children are waiting - among them a daughter with cerebral palsy and another who is ill; some of the children are very young. And the two mothers cannot get back to them. Exiles in their own village. It's not that they are unable to visit the West Bank, as is often the case, and as is true for their husbands. They can't leave it to return home, to Jordan, where they've been living for the past 25 years, even though they have Jordanian passports.

The two sisters and their husbands are from the same village, two sisters married two brothers, all from Beit Ummar, on the Bethlehem-Hebron road. And now they're being kept apart. For how long seems to be anyone's guess. Amusing, isn't it?

They sit on the couch in front of the decorative wallpaper, depicting a lake, waterfowl, a pine forest, a house with a red-tiled roof and a boat - the impossible dream for all the Palestinians, it seems; bodies of water appear on nearly every bit of wallpaper in every house. A cultural researcher or psychologist ought to do a study some day of why so many lakes and green expanses appear on all this Palestinian wallpaper.

Raliya is 44 and her youngest child is 18 months old; Wahiba is 43 and her youngest is the same age. In 1982, they married the brothers from the village whose residents fled to Jordan in the 1967 war. They've lived in Jordan ever since.

Unlike their husbands, the two women have green Palestinian ID cards issued by Israel. Every two or three years, they come to Beit Ummar, to visit their parents, sister and eight brothers, who still live there, and to register in their ID cards the children who've been born in the meantime. Every two or three years, each one has another two or three children, all legally registered in their documents, ensuring that the youngsters will be able to visit or live here.

It's been nearly 10 years since their husbands were last permitted to visit. All requests for "family reunification" which they've submitted since the outbreak of the intifada have been rejected. The husbands, one a software engineer and the other an electronics salesman, also yearn to visit their village. One made his last visit here in 1997; the other two years later.

This year, the sisters came for their usual summer visit. On July 14 and 15, they crossed the Allenby Bridge, one after the other, on their way to Beit Ummar. They'd never had any problems before, when coming with their children. "We want them to be residents of Beit Ummar, like us," they explain. Raliya came to the village this time with four of her older children and two younger ones, whom she wished to register; her sister came with two of the older ones - a 17-year-old daughter, who wanted her own ID card, and young son, whom she wanted to register in her ID card.

On August 8, Raliya was supposed to return home. She passed through Israeli border control and got stuck on the Jordanian side, because of the mismatch between the numbers on the pink slip, the number of children accompanying her and the names in her ID - if I understood correctly, and if she understood correctly. The Jordanians instructed her to return to the Israeli side, to correct the minor error. On the Israeli side, she was instructed to return to Beit Ummar. She waited for hours at the bridge, hoping someone would be kind enough to correct the error. But she was out of luck.

The next day, she hurried to the office of the Coordination and Liaison Administration in Hebron, showed her ID card, with the names of her children, and asked to have the mistake on the pink slip corrected. We'll check and get back to you, she was told. Since then, she's been going back to the office every few days, and always getting the same reply: "Don't call us ..."

Eventually she was advised to make a formal declaration that the original pink slip had been lost, so she could receive a new, correct one. She did so, but nothing happened. She even tried once more to cross the bridge, on August 25, but failed. This time, her husband brought their seven young children registered in her ID card to the Jordanian side of the bridge, in the hope that they could cross over to Israel, which might help solve the problem, but this idea was turned down as well. The Jordanians explained that if the children came over to the Israeli side, they might not be able to return, if they weren't listed on the pink slip. Once again, Raliya turned back, defeated.

Each of these trips has cost her NIS 126 for taxis to the border crossing and back, plus the crossing fee. If the information on the pink slip is not corrected, she won't be able to return home to Jordan. Her sister, Wahiba, has given up trying to cross the bridge again until the mistake on her pink slip is corrected. It's like something out of Kafka.

A response about this situation was not forthcoming from the Civil Administration by press time.

I examine the pink slip. "Copy 1 shall be given to the resident - Allenby border control, July 14, 2008." Here is the fateful line: "No. of accompanying travelers: 01." In the meantime, Wahiba's father-in-law passed away in Jordan, and she couldn't join her husband in his mourning; her 19-year-old daughter Isra, who has cerebral palsy, is also desperate for her mother's assistance. Ramadan is at its height, the Jewish holidays are approaching, and the two sisters sit in their parents' home on the West Bank, waiting for things to change for the better.