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Last Updated: Monday, 18 September 2006, 14:48 GMT 15:48 UK
Israeli visa rules trap Palestinians
By Martin Patience
BBC News, Jerusalem

Business consultant Sam Bahour was used to leaving his Palestinian wife and their two young daughters in the West Bank city of Ramallah every few months to renew his tourist visa.

Sam Bahour, Palestinian-American businessman
Mr Bahour could find himself locked out of the West Bank

But now Mr Bahour, 41, faces a tough choice. He can leave the West Bank to renew his visa as usual but risks not being allowed back in. Or he can stay in the West Bank, but illegally.

The Israeli authorities have told Mr Bahour that he has received his final tourist visa and must leave the West Bank by 1 October 2006.

"My 12-year-old daughter was planning a party for my birthday in mid-October," he says, sitting in his office in Ramallah. "But now she thinks it's not going to happen."

Mr Bahour is one of thousands of Palestinians and foreigners affected by an Israeli policy preventing visitors from entering the West Bank in the last few months.

'Hundreds of cases'

Human rights organisations claim that Israel's decision to enforce a law requiring a permit to visit the occupied territories is breaking up families, preventing non-Palestinians from working in schools, universities and non-governmental organisations, and stopping tourists from visiting the area.

These people are not Hamas supporters - they are middle-class Palestinians that Israel should want to do business with
Gershon Baskin
Israel-Palestine Centre for Research and Information

According to the human rights organisation Israel-Palestine Centre for Research and Information (IPCRI), hundreds of cases like Mr Bahour's have emerged in the last few months.

Mr Bahour was born in the United States to a Palestinian father. He travels on an American passport but considers himself Palestinian and has spent the last 12 years living in Ramallah.

He is one of tens of thousands of Palestinians who are foreign passport holders but do not have the paperwork from the Israeli authorities that allows them to reside in the West Bank.

While Israel says they must get a permit to reside and work in the West Bank, human rights organisations say these are extremely hard to obtain.

Long wait

The Israeli organisation B'Tselem claims Israel has refused to process 120,000 requests for such permits since the start of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000.

Mr Bahour says he applied to the Israeli authorities for a permit 13 years ago but a decision is still pending.

For two or three years we didn't pay much attention to [the law allowing Israel to restrict access to the West Bank] but now we're enforcing it
Sabbine Haddad
Israeli interior ministry

For years, Mr Bahour and thousands of other Palestinians have been forced to leave the West Bank every three months, and to re-enter on a fresh tourist visa to maintain their lives in the West Bank.

But now Israel is not issuing these visas to many foreigners.

Many Palestinians believe that this policy change is a reaction to Hamas's taking over the Palestinian Authority in March this year.

"We think that this is an unjust and stupid policy," says Gershon Baskin, a co-director of IPCRI.

"Israel is cutting off its nose to spite its face because of the majority of these people are not Hamas supporters.

"They are middle-class Palestinians that Israel should want to do business with - investors, teachers, and professors. It makes no sense."

Enforcement

The Israeli government denies that there is any change its policy. They say they are only enforcing a law that was always on its books.

"For two or three years we didn't pay much attention to this law," says Sabbine Haddad, a spokesperson for the Israeli interior ministry.

"But now we're enforcing it."

But for people like Mr Bahour, a life of uncertainty has become still more uncertain.

He says that he has put much of his life on hold, and that he has stopped taking on new business projects.

"I'm a consultant and my business requires face-to-face interaction," he says. "How can I take on new business if I'm not going to be here?"

Mr Bahour with other people in a similar situation formed a group to bring awareness to the issue. Mr Bahour says he is busying himself with this work.

He says that he is vigorously fighting to remain in the West Bank. But his visa will expire in a few weeks.

Asked what he will do if he cannot get permission to remain in the West Bank, he says "I will cross that bridge when I come to it."


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