Diplomat: Americans can't visit families

Rights groups: Israel keeping US citizens from seeing relatives in territories.

palestinian flag 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
palestinian flag 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Each day up to a dozen American citizens trying to reach the Palestinian territories are being barred from entering Israel, according to a US diplomatic official. Muhammad Husseini of the American Citizen Services department of the US Consulate in Jerusalem said the US government had been pressing Israel on the subject but it had yet to be resolved. He was speaking at an event in Jerusalem Wednesday charging Israel with abusing human rights by keeping foreigners out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, which organized the event, charged that the policy has effectively separated foreign spouses from their families in the West Bank and Gaza, trapped others who fear they won't be able to return should they leave, and hurt businesses that rely on Palestinian expatriates coming from abroad. The B'Tselem human rights organization presented a report at Wednesday's event which estimated that since the year 2000, Israel has refused 120,000 family reunification requests of Palestinians who want their foreign spouses to reside with them in the West Bank or Gaza. In the past, most Western spouses could get in anyway by entering on tourist visas. But B'Tselem and IPCRI said that since March, those visas have routinely been refused. The move also affects Palestinian dual citizens who don't have Palestinian ID cards - which would automatically grant them entry rights - as well as foreign students, human rights workers and businessmen, according to IPCRI. "This is one of the more blatantly unjust and blatantly stupid things the government has ever done," said Gershon Baskin, who co-directs IPCRI and writes a column for The Jerusalem Post. "This is a policy that cannot be sustained or continue." Sabine Haddad, spokeswomen for the Interior Ministry's Population Registry, denied that Israel had imposed a new policy. She said any foreigner wishing to enter the West Bank and Gaza has always had to receive a visitor's permit from the IDF, but the requirement wasn't enforced. "For lots of years we didn't pay much attention - not us and not the army," Haddad said. But in the past two years, she said, the IDF requested that no foreigner entering Israel in order to visit the West Bank and Gaza be given permission without first obtaining the visitor's permit. Those turned away at the border had not received the necessary permit ahead of time. Haddad said applicants should have no problem receiving such permits if applied for in advance, but IPCRI and B'Tselem said they've become virtually impossible to obtain. The IDF could not clarify whether there was any change in the issuing of such permits by press time. Hanna Quffa, an American-Palestinian, said Israel was only hurting itself by making problems for people like him. Born in Bethlehem, Quffa went to an American university and received US citizenship before returning to the West Bank to open Ernst & Young's first accounting firm in Ramallah. During his time abroad, he said, he forfeited his Palestinian ID card by being out of the country for three consecutive years. Now he fears that should he leave Israel, he won't be allowed to return on his US passport. "If you don't want the Hamas government, who do you want more than Palestinians who were educated in other countries, who are moderate and want to talk peace?" he asked. The more Israel makes it harder for these Palestinians to enter, he said, "the more you lose this group of people."