De-developing Palestine, one "visit permit" at a time

22 September 2009

I am an American citizen of Palestinian descent and have been employed by the Arab American University-Jenin (AAUJ) in the occupied West Bank as an assistant professor of American literature for the past two and a half years. This month, while attempting to re-enter the West Bank through the land border with Jordan to start the academic year, I was denied re-entry by the Israeli authorities and questioned at length about my Palestinian heritage. The stated reason for the denial was that I had broken the law.

Through the office of a lawyer in Jerusalem that AAUJ had to hire at great cost and the support of the Israeli Committee for Residency Rights and the Palestinian Campaign for the Right of Entry/Re-Entry to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, as well as efforts initiated by the US consulate and AMIDEAST, I am now back in Jenin.

I have managed to avoid the fate of Dr. Stacy Krainz, also an American citizen and the former chair of the English Department at AAUJ, who left on vacation in 2006-2007 only to be denied re-entry and disappear forever and, in the process, incapacitate teaching and learning at the fledgling department for some time to come. She too was told that she had broken the law.

Despite my re-entry, my problems and the problems of my international colleagues employed by Palestinian universities are far from over. Internationals employed by Palestinian universities are deliberately issued the kind of visa that puts us in a de facto illegal status; it’s even stamped with “not permitted to work”. Alternatively, we are denied entry at the border on the basis that we do not have a work permit, but at the same time, in a Kafkaesque twist, there is no mechanism by which we can get a work permit.

AAUJ expects to renew my restricted “visit permit” when it expires in three months through an Israeli administrative office at the Bet El settlement near Ramallah. I will be issued, as in the past, a tourist visa stamped with “not permitted to work” or one that implies, by its very nature, that paid employment on my part is illegal.

Additional difficulties involve the kind of “visit permit” I have been issued, which is now stamped with “Palestinian Authority only,” referring to those discontiguous islands of land in the West Bank determined by the Oslo accords to be under Palestinian semi-autonomy. The trouble is that Israel keeps these violations of my rights as an American citizen and of the rights of Palestinian institutions to build their capacity within the “the forms of law.” Such gross violations ought not to be tolerated.

Within the forms of Israeli law, I and all of my international colleagues at AAUJ and at other Palestinian universities are now illegally employed and subject to whatever penalties Israel wishes to apply, such as abrupt denial of re-entry. What’s more, my “PA only visa” restricts me to stay and travel but not to work in 40 percent of the West Bank. Within the forms of Israeli law, I and my colleagues could be subject to a penalty at any time.

International academics at Palestinian universities are entitled to know what the mechanism is by which we can enter. Why is there no procedure for me and my colleagues to get work permits for the West Bank through the university at which we work? How can I, as an American citizen with a permit to PA areas only, visit the relatives I have in Haifa, inside Israel?

So far this semester, my American colleagues who entered through Tel Aviv have been given visit permits not limited to PA areas only, even though they have shown their contract with AAUJ at the border and honestly declared the purpose of their stay. My case, and the case of another American academic who teaches at Birzeit University near Ramallah and who was also denied re-entry to resume his post, has another layer of complication. We are Americans of Palestinian descent. This apparently gives Israeli authority the right to belittle our nationality.

I have been writing Consul General Daniel Rubenstein at the US consulate in Jerusalem and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, asking them to safeguard the integrity of my American nationality and all that it entails. My American and other international colleagues and I are waiting for answers from our respective consulates regarding our current legal dilemmas as professionals in the occupied West Bank. We need a mechanism by which Palestinian universities (and by extension all Palestinian development institutions) can apply for work permits for the international staff they hire.

Rima Merriman is assistant professor in the Modern Languages Department at the Arab American University - Jenin.