For Palestinian-Americans, a Summer Vacation at Wartime

Like their Jewish compatriots, U.S.-Palestinians spend summers with relatives in the West Bank or Israel, getting in touch with their roots, and seeing the conflict and the occupation up close.

Alona Ferber
Alona Ferber
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Maen Hammad in the West Bank. Photo courtesy.
Maen Hammad in the West Bank. Photo courtesy.
Alona Ferber
Alona Ferber

21-year-old Maen Hammad marked the Fourth of July this year coughing up tear gas. The Palestinian-American, who is spending the summer studying Arabic at Bir Zeit University, was at the weekly Bil’in protest in the West Bank, holding up a sign that said, “Happy Fourth of July from Occupied Palestine.”

Just like American Jews who stay with an aunt in Ra’anana or visit Israel to connect with their Jewish heritage, Palestinian-Americans come to the region to visit family and get in touch with their roots. As for Jews, visiting at a time of rockets and IDF strikes, can be tough. Like 15-year-old Tariq Khdeir from Florida, who was severely beaten by Israeli Border Police and placed under house arrest on his summer vacation, the trip also brings them face to face with the lives of their family under occupation.

There are 107,280 Palestinian-Americans, according to the U.S. Census, although the Arab American Institute believes this is lower than the actual number. The top five states in which they reside are California, Illinois, Texas, Florida, and New York, according to the institute. Large populations of Palestinian-Americans are in Chicago, Illinois; Los Angeles County, California; and Wayne County, Michigan – as well as Paterson, New Jersey and Houston, Texas.

Hammad who is from a Detroit suburb, was born in Jerusalem and has lived in the U.S since the age of two. He has many relatives in the West Bank, and his parents still own a house in Ramallah. The visit, his first in ten years, “is like a homecoming,” he told Haaretz in a phone call between classes.

His peer Alyssa Beck, from Salt Lake City, was born in the U.S. and has Palestinian heritage on her father’s side. Her first-ever trip has been particularly painful. The 24-year-old is a cousin of murdered Palestinian teen Mohammed Abu Khdeir, and of Tariq. She spent the days after the body was found with her family in East Jerusalem, some of whom she met for the first time this summer.

“My nerves are fried,” she said. “It wasn’t until yesterday [Tuesday] when the bomb siren went off and the rocket fell that I started to cry.”

Their two-month trip has coincided with heightened tensions on both sides: The kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens in the West Bank, the kidnapping and murder of the Palestinian teen, Israeli strikes on Gaza, and rockets. Despite this, Beck said what she has seen here is far from the impression she had in the States of a black-and-white conflict, and an impoverished, war-torn West Bank.

“You imagine there will be guerrilla-style warfare and suicide bombers, but then you go to Ramallah and there’s traffic and restaurants, and moms raising kids they hope will be doctors,” she said. These moms aren’t raising kids to be suicide bombers.”

What she has understood on this visit, she said, is that there is “blood on both hands, and there’s fault on both sides.” She has been particularly interested to see that even among Jews there are divisions "based on racial divides.”

For Hammad it has also been “eye-opening.” Seeing “how beautiful and welcoming people are” has been inspiring, and seeing the situation from up close has strengthened his Palestinian identity. It also highlighted the distance between his life in the U.S. and the West Bank.

”I’m trying to collectively understand the Palestinians’ lifestyle under occupation, but I come from a suburb in Detroit – I’m not going to fully understand it, I don’t live it,” he said.

Beck, who doesn’t speak Arabic, feels like her “’Americanness’ shows more here” than her Mideast roots. As for media coverage of what happened to her cousin Tariq, she said, “It’s good people are asking questions about it, but that’s because he is American. It’s unfortunate that we aren’t asking the same questions about 16-year-olds dying in Gaza.”

With a relatively stable security situation in Israel and the West Bank in recent years, Palestinian-American visits to the region appear to be increasing, particularly in the summer, says Ed Abington, a former U.S. Jerusalem consul and also former advisor to Mahmoud Abbas. Last month, he notes, the American Federation of Ramallah, one of the biggest U.S. Palestinian groups, held its annual meeting in Ramallah for the first time.

One major sticking point for Palestinian-American visitors, however, is their experience at the Israeli border. Earlier this year, State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki reiterated that Israel is not part of the U.S. visa waiver program because of American concern “with the unequal treatment that Palestinian-Americans and other Americans of Middle Eastern origin experience at Israel’s border and checkpoints.” Haaretz reported in April that Israel agreed to make changes if it can join the program.

Since the 1993 Oslo Accords, Palestinians with foreign citizenship registered in the Palestinian population registry who seek to visit the West Bank must cross into Israel via the Allenby Bridge from Jordan, not through Ben-Gurion International Airport. Many Palestinian-Americans have been denied entry at Ben-Gurion under this clause when saying they want to visit the West Bank. Movement of Palestinian-Americans who come through the Allenby Bridge, meanwhile, is restricted to the West Bank. In addition, other Arab-Americans report being detained, denied entry or humiliated at the border. Israel says its policy is security-related.

Israeli organization Gisha, the Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, describes Israel’s policy as one of “separation and fragmentation that prevents Palestinians from seeing their family members and accessing various parts of the occupied Palestinian Territories.” For those wishing to visit Gaza, or who have an address registered in Gaza, entering is even more complex, Gisha says.

Sam Bahour, an Ohio-born businessman who moved to the West Bank after Oslo, co-founded the grassroots “Right to Enter” campaign in 2006 to address this issue, and travels back and forth frequently. “The only place we cannot be Americans is in Israel or the occupied territories,” he says, adding that not every Palestinian-American undergoes discriminatory treatment. Israeli policy is arbitrary, he says, “like a black box.”

Beck, who has a U.S. passport and no Palestinian ID, had no trouble when she landed at Ben-Gurion Airport, and was issued with a three-month tourist visa, meaning she can travel freely around Israel and the West Bank. Hammad has a Palestinian ID and a U.S. passport. He entered through Allenby Bridge, and cannot travel outside of the West Bank. While his peers travel on the weekend, “I have to stick to five cities,” he says. A practising Muslim, he hoped to get a visa to visit holy sites in Jerusalem during Ramadan, but says relatives advised him this is unlikely in the current security situation.

Not that all of his peers want to visit Israel in the first place. Amira, 21, from Louisville, whose father is a Palestinian born in Jordan, has a regular tourist visa. She went to Jerusalem twice, once to go to Tariq’s court hearing, but doesn’t want to see more, because of her support for the boycott movement. “Before I came, I thought I would be interested, but I would rather not spend my money in Israel,” she says.

Tariq Khdeir, left, being greeted by his grandmother in a mourners tent for his cousin Mohammed Abu Khudeir in the neighbourhood of Shoafat in East Jerusalem, July 6, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Alyssa Beck from Salt Lake City. Courtesy.

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