I thought an hour would suffice to hear about Elaine Zoughbi’s return to her house in Bethlehem. After all, I already knew the background.
She’s a U.S. citizen, 59 years old, married for 30 years to a Palestinian from the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. The couple has a daughter and three sons. After a visit to the United States, she flew back in early April and was immediately deported from Ben-Gurion Airport. One border control officer told her frankly that it’s because she’s married to a Palestinian. That is Elaine’s crime, and that’s the punishment.
But I was wrong. The recounting of her return took almost two and a half hours. Do note it is a temporary return.
This time, she had to coordinate her entry with Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories. On May 15, a month after she sent in her request, a COGAT official replied in writing: Because she is suspected of “illegal settlement activity in the area,” she will be allowed to enter the West Bank via the Allenby Bridge from Jordan only if she deposits a bond of 70,000 shekels ($19,500) to guarantee that she won’t violate the terms of her visa – three months only, and only within the West Bank.
She almost scrapped the trip, including attending her son’s wedding on May 25. Where, she worried, would the family get another 70,000 shekels on top of the cost of the wedding? Moreover, it struck her as absurd to pay money to be in her own home.
Her husband, Zoughbi Zoughbi, said canceling was inconceivable. The wedding couldn’t happen without her. So he borrowed money from friends, and the money was transferred from a bank in Bethlehem to the Israeli account that had been specified in COGAT’s letter.
At the same time, Zoughbi devised a Plan B: If his wife weren’t allowed to enter, the wedding would be held in Jordan. Therefore, they didn’t send written invitations to friends and family.
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Every member of the family described what happened from his or her own perspective. Their daughter Marcelle, who had finished her studies in the United States and flown with her mother to Jordan, presented each episode of the story like a sitcom actress: How she had to explain over and over, to every Jordanian driver and bureaucrat, why they got in a taxi heading for the Allenby Bridge and then, a second later, got a message telling them no, they had to stay in Amman for another night. Why they weren’t certain Elaine would be allowed to cross the bridge. Why Elaine was with her in the line for Palestinians rather than the line for foreign nationals.
Marcelle also had to explain over and over why, when they finally reached the Allenby Bridge on May 22 and crossed to the Israeli side of the terminal, the entry visa that Elaine had received just a little while earlier was suddenly canceled, after about eight hours of argument with various bureaucrats. It was stamped with two red lines and the threatening words “Entry denied,” also in red. They were told to return to the Jordanian side. With all their luggage. Three days before the wedding. “And we thought Israel had excellent relations with the United States,” her Jordanian listeners said. “Why treat an American citizen that way?”
With the affability of a sitcom actress, Marcelle described how she burst into tears when she was told that her mother wasn’t allowed to cross. She wept, and a COGAT soldier (“I liked him,” Elaine said) brought her water. Elaine also cried, and the woman in charge of border inspections (“I liked her,” Elaine said) brought her water.
This happened several times. There were tears and water at every twist and turn of the story. Outside, two of her sons were waiting for them in the heat, a blistering 47 degrees Celsius.
An hour wasn’t enough, because there was so much red tape that wasn’t completely clear, and running around with suitcases and phone calls, and dizzying twists and turns. Officials from COGAT and the Interior Ministry said that Elaine couldn’t enter that day, but would be allowed to enter the next day. And she was (after waiting in the Israeli terminal for several hours).
Once at home, she did what people do in their own homes – host guests, tidy up, water the plants, prepare dinner with her son. But for the crime she committed when she married a Palestinian and brought Palestinian children into the world, she must pay by being deported from her home in another 70 days.