'PA Only' visa enrages visitors

Visitors to Palestinian territories, even foreigners, barred from touring Israel.

allenby bridge 248 88 (photo credit: courtesy)
allenby bridge 248 88
(photo credit: courtesy)
The government has imposed new restrictions on visitors to the Palestinian Authority, stamping their passports with a visa that bars them from entering Israel. The new "Palestinian Authority Only" visa is the latest in a growing raft of measures imposed by Israel to restrict the movement of visitors to Palestinian-controlled areas. The government says it needs to make sure that people who pose a security risk are not free to wander around Israel. Critics say the new regulations are a violation of international law and the Oslo Accords. Betty Najjab, an American from Centreville, Virginia, who married a Palestinian from Ramallah, told The Media Line she was horrified to discover that she had been given one of the new stamps after visiting her in-laws in Jordan for a family wedding. "I have a round-trip ticket to Ben-Gurion Airport and now I'm not sure whether I am allowed to enter Israel to take my flight back home to the States," Najjab said. "I can't even go back to east Jerusalem. My ticket is expensive so I don't want to lose it. I may have to go back to Jordan and reenter Israel via one of the other crossings and get a new visa rather than lose the ticket." "This new policy is causing a lot of problems for a lot of people," she said. "Last week I went to the Palestinian Ministry of the Interior, but they said there was nothing they could do. They called the Israeli Ministry of the Interior, who said there was nothing they could do either, but that I shouldn't take it personally. If I lose my round-trip ticket, I will take it very personally." Salwa Duaibis, coordinator for the Right to Enter Campaign in Ramallah, told The Media Line she hoped foreign governments would come to the aid of their citizens affected by the new policy, which she described as "a violation of international law." "For the first time, the violation is not targeting Palestinians living in the occupied territories, but the violation is targeting foreign nationals who declare their intention to enter," Duaibis said. "This is extremely serious and deserves the highest possible attention from governments, and we are hoping that because it affects their nationals directly, that something will be done about it," she said. Israeli restrictions on access to Palestinian-controlled areas have been gradually increased since the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000. At first, Israelis were barred from the Gaza Strip and Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank. After two British suicide bombers entered Israel, travelled to Gaza and then emerged from the strip to blow up Tel Aviv's Mike's Place bar in April 2003, killing three people, foreigners were also banned from entering or leaving the Gaza Strip via Israel except for diplomats, journalists and workers for humanitarian organizations. Access was further tightened after Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005. Israelis are officially barred from entering the West Bank's "Area A," under full Palestinian control - including all the major cities such as Bethlehem, Nablus and Ramallah - except with special permission from the army. With the lifting of many checkpoints in the past few months, however, there is little supervision of Israelis who wish to travel there. "I think it is quite legitimate for Israel to be careful and protect its own citizens and to protect its security, but it has to do this in a lawful manner," said Duaibis of the Right to Enter Campaign. "If protecting Israel's security infringes on somebody else's rights, then there is a problem." "Israel wishes to strictly regulate travel of visitors who come to the country, especially those curious to see the West Bank," said Toufic Haddad, a Palestinian-American activist who revealed the new policy on his blog early in August. Haddad said the new visa was a violation of the 1995 Oslo II Accords, which states: "Tourists to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip from countries having diplomatic relations with Israel, who have passed through an international crossing, will not be required to pass any additional entry control before entry into Israel." "Israel appears to be issuing a visa for a Bantustan-like state, that is yet to be declared officially, but which de facto is being created by such bureaucratic measures," Haddad said. Information for travelers posted on the Web site of the US Consulate-General in Jerusalem confirms the recent change in policy. "Since the spring of 2009, Israeli border officials at both the Allenby border crossing and Ben-Gurion Airport have begun using a new entry visa stamp that permits travel only in Palestinian Authority-controlled areas," the consulate warns. "Anyone indicating that they either have connections to the West Bank, or are planning to travel to the West Bank, may get this stamp, which does not permit them to enter into (or, in the case of Ben-Gurion, return to) Green Line Israel. The consulate can do nothing to assist in getting this visa status changed; only Israeli liaison offices in the West Bank can assist - but they rarely will. Travelers should be alert, and pay attention to which stamp they receive upon entry." The new visa being stamped in tourists' passports is being criticized for unfairly restricting the movements of visitors with Palestinian relatives or friends whose first stop may be the West Bank but who intend to visit Israel as well. Many Americans of Palestinian origin but who do not have Palestinian citizenship have been turned back on arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport and told they can only enter from Jordan via the Allenby Bridge. "For some time, the government of Israel has not permitted Americans with Palestinian nationality (or even, in some cases, the claim to it) to enter Israel via Ben-Gurion Airport," states the Web site of the US Consulate. "Many are sent back to the US upon arrival, though some are permitted in, but told they cannot depart Israel via Ben-Gurion without special permission (which is rarely granted). Families have had to travel separately back to the United States in some cases, and some travelers have had to forfeit expensive airline tickets." "To save expense and time, you should travel via Allenby (and be aware of the issue of the "PA-only stamp" mentioned above). Again, this is not something the consulate can assist with, since it is an Israeli government policy," is the official advice. It is not clear when or why the new visas were introduced. The Defense Ministry directed all inquiries to the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories. Guy Imbar, spokesman for the coordinator, said his office only handled humanitarian organizations bringing aid to the Palestinians and directed inquiries to the Interior Ministry. The ministry did not return calls for comment.