- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 29, 2006

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Israel may be forced to reverse a policy of expelling Palestinians with U.S. citizenship from the West Bank and Gaza Strip after a vigorous protest from the United States.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has objected to the policy, which could drive tens of thousands of foreign passport holders from their homes in the Palestinian territories.

The territories are home to about 35,000 U.S. citizens of Palestinian descent, many of whom returned during the mid-1990s after the Oslo peace accord, and have since married and started families.

They have been unable to become permanent residents because Israel, which controls access to the territories, has refused to grant them residency. Although most have made do with tourist visas, Israel recently stopped issuing them, forcing Palestinians with foreign passports to leave immediately or stay illegally at risk of expulsion.

“American Jews, indeed Jews from anywhere in the world, can come to Israel and be granted automatic citizenship. But Palestinians whose families have lived here for centuries do not enjoy the same right,” said Sam Bahour, a U.S. citizen of Palestinian descent who has led the campaign to reverse the policy.

He returned from the United States to his grandfather’s home in the West Bank in the 1990s, and had been staying on tourist visas until last month, when he was issued a final one-month permit and had to prepare to leave.

After contacting influential American and Israeli friends and starting an Internet movement to log victims of the policy, Mr. Bahour was granted a new tourist visa.

The fact that Israel’s reversal has been achieved by negotiation has heartened weary observers of Israeli-Palestinian relations. A vigorous advocacy campaign by Palestinian-Americans in the United States, echoing the kind usually associated with Washington’s pro-Israel groups, is credited with getting the U.S. to pressure Israel.

Mr. Bahour’s success will be welcome news for the likes of Enayeh Samara, who has had to renew her three-month tourist visa 125 times since returning to the Palestinian territories.

Israeli guards barred her from re-entering the West Bank after a recent trip to Jordan. She ended up having to return to Chicago, where she now speaks to her family in Ramallah daily on the telephone.

“I haven’t seen her since May,” her daughter said. “They told her she needed a residency permit, but she has applied for 31 years and they didn’t give her one.”

At the U.S. Consulate in Israel, spokeswoman Micaela Schweitzer-Bluhm said the Bush administration was “very concerned” about the policy. “Lots of Palestinian-American citizens have told us they are facing this problem,” she said.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said the refusal to extend tourist visas was purely a “bureaucratic” measure.

“There are foreign nationals with no legal status, living here as tourists while we turned a blind eye,” he said. “A decision was taken that this was not a good situation.”

But he acknowledged that Israel has failed to process applications for residency permits, and that the new policy has drawn fire from foreign governments.

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