RAMALLAH – Becoming a citizen of a country ordinarily comes with a passport. Last year, the United Nations recognized “Palestine” as a non-member state, but many of its citizens say it doesn’t make traveling easier.

The Palestinian passport, which was issued in 1995 and was based on the Oslo Accords reached between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, is essentially a travel document and does not stipulate that its owner is a citizen of Palestine. The document's cover reads "the Palestinian Authority," not "Palestine." While Palestinians have changed the formal letterhead on many of their official documents from "the Palestinian Authority" to "Palestine," they continue to hold Palestinian Authority (PA) passports because Israel does not recognize the name Palestine.

The PA passport is available to any individual who can present a birth certificate showing he/she was born in Palestine; he/she must also hold a current Palestinian identity card. All Palestinians residing in the areas under PA rule are entitled to a Palestinian Authority passport. However, those Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed in 1967, can only hold a laissez-passer, the travel document issued to them by Israel. If they wish to travel to Arab countries that don't recognize Israel, they usually apply for a temporary Jordanian passport. Some Palestinians simply use a Jordanian passport for all of their travel. Qasam Hamayel, a 25-year-old government employee with a Palestinian passport, tried to obtain a visa to go to Holland three years ago, but failed. He said he had all the documents that officials there requested.

"After I was invited by the Dutch government I was asked to present documents to prove that I was a student. I had a bank account, health insurance, and a return ticket but after a month they denied my application." A letter justified the visa rejection on the basis that Hamayel didn't provide proof that he would return to the Palestinian territories. "They said that the Palestinians were recognized as an Authority, but not as a country so they couldn't deport me back if I stayed there illegally," he added.

Only two months ago, Hamayel’s friend Ahmed Omar was also denied a visa to Holland, which means that the new Palestinian state status has so far not translated into fewer limitations on Palestinian movement.

In general, the UN recognition of Palestine as a non-member state last year has not led to great changes in the daily lives of Palestinians. Nevertheless, some countries have taken steps to acknowledge the new status by opening embassies – and other countries, such as Brazil, have even changed the name on their visa stamp from the "Palestinian Territories" to "Palestine." Kuwait has recently opened its first Palestinian embassy, and it allows Palestinians to enter Kuwait using their Palestinian passports.

For Fadi Abu Sa’da, a journalist, having an embassy doesn’t have much meaning. “I was denied a visa to enter Kuwait three times,” he said. Abu Sa’da had hoped to attend the Arab Media Forum, of which he is a board member, two years ago in Kuwait. He made efforts to apply via the forum itself, via a travel agency, and via Kuwaiti officials, all to no avail.

Palestinian-Kuwaiti relations have been strained ever since the First Gulf War, when the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat supported Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. “I wasn’t given a justification or a clear answer, but I believe we are still being punished for Arafat’s position”, Abu Sa’da told The Media Line. Palestinians who lived in Kuwait held Jordanian passports. After Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in 1967, Palestinians living there continued to have the right to apply for Jordanian passports. Palestinian refugees actually living in Jordan were also considered full Jordanian citizens. But in July 1988, Jordan severed all legal and administrative ties with the West Bank. Palestinians who were living in Jordan at the time remained Jordanian citizens, but West Bank residents lost that status.

A source at the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affars told The Media Line that some countries fear that anyone visiting from a third-world country, including Palestinians, will want to stay.

However, some states, particularly the Gulf States may not want a large influx of Palestinians for “security” reasons. Palestinian Deputy Minister of the Interior Hassan Alawi, denies that Palestinians are singled out for discrimination.

The Foreign Ministry source said that there is slow but steady progress being made on the passport issue. Governmental officials in Palestine say as more countries begin to work with them on an official basis, the process will improve. “As we don’t have control of our borders, we can’t sign mutual agreements with other countries. We can’t tell Lebanese officials that we will let their citizens in our areas if they do the same for us,” Alawi told The Media Line.

Obtaining a visa for other countries is also complicated for Palestinians. There are no specific explanations or guidelines as to which countries deny or allow Palestinians visas but many Palestinians express frustration when it comes to gaining access to them.

Shaker Garabedian of George Garabedian Tourist and Travel Bureau told The Media Line that Jordan is the only country that allows Palestinians to enter its territory without a visa. He also said that Palestinians stopped applying for visas to the Gulf States because they know they won’t get them. “Also, visas for Palestinians are more expensive. A Jordanian pays $130 to go to Dubai, while a Palestinian pays $250, if the visa is granted”, Garabedian said.

All other countries require visa applications months in advance, and without any guarantee of success. An individual needs to start the process a minimum of 20 days before his/her departure date. Documents verifying health, employment, and even purchased round-trip tickets are mandatory in order to apply for visas to travel to other countries.

While complications continue to exist, even with the presence of the Palestinian passport, some existing loopholes have facilitated the granting of visa applications. For example, Palestinians are not technically eligible for an official US visa, as the PLO is still listed as a terrorist organization in the United States. Nevertheless, a waiver often enables them to receive visas. Such waivers have helped ease restrictions on Palestinians wishing to visit the United States, and there is hope that other countries will begin to make it easier for Palestinians to travel.

For more stories from The Media Line go to www.themedialine.org

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