(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
A Jewish businessman from Australia is suing the Interior Ministry after he was denied entry to Israel last Sunday. He was eventually allowed in two days later, only after a good friend posted a NIS 30,000 bond for him at the ministry and he promised to provide documents proving his Jewishness.
Ronnie Shahar, 36, whose parents are Israelis living in Australia and who owns a permanent residence in Israel, tried to enter the country via the Allenby Bridge from Jordan as he had previously done, by his count, more than 150 times. But in this instance, he was refused a tourist visa and told to return to Amman, where he had been on business for four days.
Shahar told The Jerusalem Post that he was given no reason for the refusal, which left him stranded in Jordan. He is charging that his rights as a Jew seeking to enter Israel were violated and the incident caused him much emotional distress.
The Interior Ministry, however, said that due to the amount of time Shahar spends in Israel, he was no longer eligible to enter the country merely on a tourist visa. Shahar's permanent address is indeed in Jerusalem, but, he told the Post, he spends more than 80 percent of his time abroad due to his private currency exchange business.
"The center of his life is in the State of Israel and he is no longer seen as a tourist. A person cannot keep entering and reentering Israel on a tourist visa without end," explained Sabine Haddad, the spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry's population registry.
She said a tourist visa was meant for a person visiting the country for a short time, usually under three months.
"A person must find a visa suitable for their status. If he is working then he needs a work visa, if he is a student then he needs a student visa," she said, adding that requesting a bond is standard ministry practice and that he will get the money back when he proves he is Jewish.
"He told the ministry that he should be allowed in because he is a Jew and the ministry asked him to prove that," continued Haddad. She also said that if Shahar wanted to avoid future problems, he should probably change his status.
According to Shahar's lawyer, Zvi Singer, Jews have more leeway than non-Jews on how much time they can spend in Israel on a tourist visa.
"The Interior Ministry does not have the authority to prevent a Jew from entering the country," said Singer. "They should have contacted him in advance and made him aware that he could no longer enter as a tourist, not leave him stranded in an Arab country."
Shahar recalled that he had encountered similar problems entering the country three years ago at the Allenby Bridge crossing, but had still managed to enter several more times since then without any problems at all.
Haddad could give no reason as to why the Interior Ministry did not try to notify Shahar in advance to inform him that he might face problems entering the country too many times on a tourist visa, but she did say that if the Interior Ministry considers Shahar a permanent resident, "then by Israeli law he must enter Israel with an Israeli passport and if not, he can legally be denied entry."
According to Shahar, upon his arrival at the border crossing last week he was told to wait while Border Police personnel checked into his visa request. After an hour, Israeli officials at the crossing told him that he would not be permitted to enter the country.
"They took my bags and put me in a taxi by force back to Amman," said Shahar. "Denying me entry was scandalous. They gave me no reason but just sent me back without a word. This should not have happened in a first world country, there should have been some sort of explanation, but they just didn't communicate."
Shahar said he then contacted the Israeli Embassy in Amman, but they couldn't explain why he had been denied entry. He was merely told that in order for him to enter Israel, he must prove to the Israeli authorities that he was Jewish.
"I was in Jordan and did not have such documents," said Shahar, referring to his parents' marriage license and his birth certificate. "They could have easily verified my status. I gave them my parents' information and they could have checked."
Shahar was then told that if he wanted to enter Israel, he must pay a bond to the ministry to be redeemed only when he produced the relevant paperwork. Shahar's parents encouraged him to pay the bond and clear the incident up when he arrived in Israel.
"I was forced into a blackmail situation," said Shahar, who decided at that point to contact his lawyer to handle further arrangements. "What would have happened if I did not have the money? I would have been stranded in an Arab country."
Haddad stressed that Shahar would get the money back when he presented all the required documents. However, Singer said the documents were sent to the ministry last Thursday and that as of Monday this week, he had still received no response and the money had not been returned.
Haddad also said the situation was complicated by the fact that Shahar tried to enter Israel at the Allenby Bridge and not via Ben-Gurion International Airport, where there is a satellite office of the Interior Ministry designed to assist with such problems.
Shahar, though, said he had run into such bureaucratic problems before when dealing with the Interior Ministry, and his recent treatment had only left him further distressed.
"I have no objection to obtaining Israeli citizenship," said Shahar. "I once went to the Interior Ministry and waited for three hours but no one knew how to help me. I really believe that Israel does not encourage immigration at all. And after this experience, I feel like packing my bags and leaving Israel for good."
Hilary Leila Krieger contributed to this report.