Critical Currents: A tourist in her own land

Israel has gone to great lengths to limit the number of Palestinians allowed to return to the West Bank

tourists temple 298 88aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
tourists temple 298 88aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
This is the height of the tourist season. Streets are bursting with people speaking a cacophony of languages; restaurants are bustling with diners from near and far; homes are transformed into mini-hotels for relatives and their entourages. From Tel Aviv and Netanya to Jerusalem and Ramallah, the summer heat comes together with an inundation of guests. But it's not the same for everyone. While many Israelis are struggling to keep up with those who arrive on a whim, their Palestinian counterparts live in constant trepidation. They are afraid that family members will be denied entry at the last moment, that their visits will be curtailed or that their mobility will be impossibly circumscribed. The joys of these annual reunions are tempered by bureaucratically induced delays, disappointments and frustrations. Too many Palestinians are being transformed, against their will, into tourists in their own land. Zeina Ashrawi Hutchinson is just one of a growing number of young, educated, Jerusalem-born-and-bred Palestinians who have been stripped of their identity cards and had their travel documents confiscated. Their right to visit their parents, relatives and friends has been denied. Zeina's story has been circulating widely for the past month, not only because she is Hanan Ashrawi's daughter, but also because her experience exemplifies that of so many her age. Zeina's family history in Jerusalem goes back many centuries. Until recently, she was the proud holder of a Jerusalem identity card and, was consequently entitled to Israeli travel documents (the only ones she possessed). Her mistake was that she completed high school, college and graduate school in the United States. She even married an American citizen and gave birth to a son. She possesses a green card, but has neither a US nor a Palestinian passport. When Zeina approached the Israeli Embassy in Washington last month to obtain a returning resident visa - as she has annually in the past - she was unceremoniously informed that her visa application was denied and that her documents would not be renewed. Her pleas for a tourist visa to attend her ailing father were also turned down. In Zeina's own words: "I am neither a criminal nor a threat to one of the most powerful countries in the world, yet I am alienated from my own home." Only a concerted campaign on Zeina's behalf, conducted at the highest levels by Israeli as well as Palestinian friends, finally led to the granting of a limited tourist visa. Zeina is not alone. Virtually every educated Palestinian family has a similar story to tell. Most Palestinians in Zeina's situation, however, do not boast such a powerful lobby; they are unable to come home even as accidental tourists. FOR YEARS, Israel has gone to great lengths to systematically limit the number of Palestinians allowed to return to the West Bank, and especially to Jerusalem. In an effort to alter the demography as well as the geography of the territories occupied in 1967, birth registrations have been recorded sparingly, family reunification permits have rarely been granted and, most recently (in the wake of changes in the law), partners of Palestinian Jerusalemites have been prohibited from joining their spouses. For the past decade and more, Palestinian Jerusalemites residing outside the city for more than seven years - be it on its outskirts or abroad - are relieved of their rights. If they hold foreign passports, they automatically forfeit their standing. Israel still controls the population register in both the West Bank and Gaza. Displacement has become - all too sadly, in light of Jewish history - part and parcel of Israeli overrule. This policy is fundamentally misplaced. In quantitative terms it has if anything backfired. In Jerusalem, Palestinians now comprise 256,820 of the city's population of 746,300 (more than 35 percent). The annual growth rate runs between 3%-4%. At this pace, within a decade Jews will constitute barely 60% of the city's residents. Palestinians are here to stay - in Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and as a national minority within Israel proper. This is their home. It makes absolutely no sense to try to crudely and arbitrarily limit their numbers; it is even more foolhardy to bar the best and the brightest. The administrative manipulation of Palestinian life and the subsequent dispersion of families fuel resentment and enhance acrimony toward all things Israeli. The real problem, however, goes much deeper. The purposeful exclusion of young, educated, productive individuals, by decimating the already weak Palestinian middle class, unravels the tenuous fabric of Palestinian society. Encouraging their outward migration and subsequent exclusion not only means that Israel is weakening its economic and social backbone, but also denuding it of the next generation of enlightened Palestinian leadership. Such a move plays directly into the hands of the extremists; it also compromises Israeli values and interests in the immediate as well as the long term. THE INTERNATIONAL community justifiably frowns on conscious dislocations of this sort. Untold harm - which no explanation can mitigate - is done to Israel's global image. A new, disenfranchised Palestinian diaspora peoples the major brokerage houses, law firms, international financial institutions, transnational corporations and leading universities. These young professionals would like to know that they can bring their skills back home; for Israel, it would be better to encourage them to do so. Family cohesion is the backbone of Palestinian society, just as it has been for Jews over the centuries. Israel cannot look itself in the mirror if it knowingly disrupts Palestinian family life and distances relatives from their homes and from each other. Respecting human connections through restoring their residency rights can go a long way to redressing these wrongs and cultivating a climate of joint living. Occupation, by definition, is a bundle of contradictions. Nowhere is this more apparent than in policies related to people and land. When the two come together, these inconsistencies become explosive. Jerusalem is my home and Zeina's. Her documents should reflect her identity and birthright - as do mine.