Happy ending for bookseller under deportation threat

East Jerusalem bookseller Munther Fahmi for two years faced the threat of deportation.

Palestinian book shop owner Munther Fahmi 390 (photo credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)
Palestinian book shop owner Munther Fahmi 390
(photo credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)
The joy of east Jerusalem bookseller Munther Fahmi knew no bounds on Thursday when he cracked open several bottles of French champagne to celebrate a victory which his lawyer Amnon Mazar said had been achieved against all odds.
The plight of Munther Fahmi, who was born in Jerusalem in 1964, and who for two years faced the threat of deportation, excited the attention of local and foreign media, diplomats, Israeli and Palestinian authors, publishers, academics and even MKs – but seemingly to no avail, until the end of last week when he was granted a reprieve.
Fahmi, who is the founding proprietor of the bookshop at the American Colony Hotel in east Jerusalem, is a living bridge across the Israeli-Palestinian divide.
He stocks books by Israeli and Palestinian authors as well as books by authors from around the globe.
Given that the shop is relatively small, the range of titles is quite remarkable. His bookstore is a place in which anonymous readers rub shoulders with famous personalities such as Quartet representative to the Middle East Tony Blair, EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan and former US president Jimmy Carter, to name but a few. Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals come there not only to buy books but also to engage in debate and dialogue in a neutral environment in which freedom of thought and expression are encouraged.
Fahmi frequently hosts readings in one of the hotel’s reception rooms drawing writers, foreign diplomats, journalists and free thinking Israelis and Palestinians.
Why was Fahmi in danger of being deported? Because he made a few cardinal errors.
The first was not applying for Israeli citizenship when it was available, and simply opting to remain a resident.
The second was to go abroad to study at age 21, and to remain in the United States for almost 20 years before deciding to come home.
Not that he had not set foot in Jerusalem in the interim. He visited frequently, entering the country on an American passport – and not via Ben Gurion airport. There were fewer hassles for him if he flew to Amman and came in to Israel by bus or cab from Jordan. Because he had been away for such a long time, and acquired US citizenship, he lost his residency rights, which he had for a brief period after his return. After that, for five years he had a service visa, which is the visa issued to diplomats and members of foreign institutions and organizations who are stationed in Israel. Then, for more than a decade, he lived as a tourist in the city of his birth. Many Palestinians who lived outside of Israel for seven years or more have lost their residency rights.
Whenever Fahmi’s tourist visa expired, he traveled abroad so that he could reenter the country and get a visa renewal. But approximately two years ago, the Interior Ministry told Fahmi that there would be no more renewals and that he would have to leave.
What had inspired him to come home in the first place was the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993, and seeing former PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin shake hands on the White House lawns in Washington.
For Fahmi, this was a euphoric moment.
Upon returning to Israel, Fahmi’s residency was still valid, and soon after he began working for UNESCO, which provided him with a five-year service visa.
Mazar said he could not retrieve Fahmi’s service visa as he was no longer entitled to it, and besides that, he was interested in obtaining permanent residence for Fahmi, who since April, when his last tourist visa expired, has been without status.
Through appeals to the Supreme Court and an interministerial committee on humanitarian issues, Fahmi has managed to delay his departure.
The Supreme Court rejected his appeal, but understood that his family and his business interests are all in Jerusalem, where he also paid taxes, and therefore recommended that he take his case to the interministerial committee.
Starting over at his age would be difficult. Fahmi has built up a market in Israel, and a book shop in any location in the United States would not have anywhere near the appeal of one that is on the seam of east and west Jerusalem with all that entails.
Over the past several months a petition on Fahmi’s behalf has been circulating over the Internet.
Hundreds of people from Israel and elsewhere have signed it, including authors Amos Oz and David Grossman.
Human rights groups such as Hamoked and the Association of Civil Rights have also taken up his cause, insisting that as a native of Jerusalem, it is his inalienable right to live in the city of his birth.
The interministerial committee after six months of deliberations drew the same conclusion and has granted him two years residence with a Jerusalem identity card.
Pending good behavior, the chances are high, according to his lawyer, that he will receive permanent residence status at the conclusion of the two-year period.
Sitting at a media conference in the Pasha room of the American Colony Hotel on Thursday afternoon, Fahmi pondered on “the long night of uncertainty and gloom” and said that he could never have imagined the pain and loss of confidence in life brought on by nonrecognition in the land of his birth.
He also expressed his gratitude for the kindness as well as civil and social courage of Israelis and international friends and acquaintances who gave him their support over the past year when he was living in limbo.
All this, plus the assistance from the Supreme Court restored his hope in humanity, his confidence in society and his joy in life, he said.
Mazar said that public pressure coupled with media exposure of Fahmi’s case had been an important catalyst in influencing the decision in his favor.
“It was a very difficult battle,” said Mazar, who has been waging it for the better part of six years. “I’m very happy to be where we are right now because it could set a precedent,” he said, adding that he did not know of any other instance in which a person who had lost residency rights and held the citizenship of another country, could have his residency rights restored.
Fahmi, who received written notification from the interministerial committee, has yet to receive the document attesting to his new status, and will report to the Interior Ministry next week. He will then have to return in a year to have the document renewed, after which if all goes well he will be a permanent resident of Jerusalem for the rest of his life.
Almost delirious with excitement, Fahmi spoke in English, Arabic and Hebrew, using the latter when it came to the toast.
“Lehaim!” he boomed as he raised his glass high in the air.