The good news that Condoleezza Rice “wants the Israeli government to explain restrictions on Palestinian-Americans traveling on U.S. passports in Israel and the Palestinian territories” spread like wildfire in the occupied Palestinian territories. Rice has apparently listened to something from the Palestinian side!Maybe she saw the ads that the Palestinian grassroots Campaign for the Right of Entry/Re-Entry into the oPt had placed in all the local papers during her most recent visit - a photograph of her and Abbas with the caption “Wish we could be there to help you!”, meaning that Americans, and Palestinian-Americans especially, are being denied entry to the oPt, and so are also denied the opportunity to play a role in the peacemaking she was seeking.
But elation must be tempered with caution, because the experience of Palestinians with the Israeli government from whom Rice is asking “an explanation” is never straightforward. The Israeli government’s response so far is as follows:
“We are aware of this issue, and we are looking into it at senior levels,” an Israeli official said yesterday. “We are waiting to receive additional information from the administration.”
It sounds reasonable and measured. It’s as though they are talking about a computer glitch: “We are aware of the problem; we are looking into it.” We are being led to believe that it is “an administrative” issue that has nothing to do with the government - some kind of bureaucratic misunderstanding.
If the Israeli government really wants to be helpful, it would gather the following specific information from “the administration” at its borders. How many foreign passport holders, including Americans, have been denied entry to the oPt yesterday? How many since June of 2006? How many since 2000? How many family unification applications is the Israeli administration sitting on? What nationalities are involved?
These are important questions, since that’s what journalists and politicians have been asking the grassroots Campaign for the Right of Entry/Re-Entry to provide. How many?
For various reasons, it’s been difficult for the Campaign to come by comprehensive figures. In addition to posting an entry denial form on its website (www.righttoenter.ps) and the cases it has documented as a result of word-of-mouth referrals, the Campaign is now looking into organizing a grassroots Allenby Watch volunteer cadre to be stationed daily on the Jordanian side of the King Hussein Bridge simply to document the daily denials, as people are sent back to Jordan from the Israeli border. The watch would be similar to Machsom Watch, a voluntary group of Israeli women who have been conducting daily observations at military checkpoints to monitor human rights abuses . People, of course, are also being denied entry at Sheikh Hussain border crossing and at Ben Gurion airport.
It would be so much easier if the Israeli government finds out such “additional information” from its administration and hands it over to the press and to the US State Department, wouldn’t it?
The legitimate Palestinian fear is that the Israeli side would obfuscate the probe that Rice has called for. During her last visit, Rice asked Israel “to ease some travel restrictions on Palestinians and open certain crossings to help people go about their daily duties.” She was referring to the siege of Gaza and restrictions on Palestinian travel, not to the systematic denial of entry of foreign passport holders into the West Bank. The knee-jerk reaction of “security” is not even plausible in the latter case. Israel’s “security” measures, like so many that it takes against the Palestinians, are disproportionate to the suffering they entail. Often, Israeli military action is not motivated by security, but by a desire for brutal collective punishment, as has been evident in Gaza since June 25 when the Israeli soldier was captured.
Rice’s probe has not started with a big bang as evidenced by the following excerpt from the US Department of State press briefing of October 12:
QUESTION: One other thing, then. She [Condoleeza Rice at ATFP] made some reference to travel by Palestinian Americans having difficulty I suppose getting to either Israel or the territories. Can you elaborate on that at all?
MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah. There have been some cases, more than a handful, where there have been some difficulties of people that previously have been able to freely cross between Israeli areas and Palestinian areas aren’t able to do so.
QUESTION: U.S. citizens?
MR. MCCORMACK: Yes. Well, they may be —
QUESTION: Or whatever.
MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah, maybe dual citizens. Regardless, they hold U.S . passports as American citizens, so it doesn’t make a difference.
MR. MCCORMACK: And this was brought to the attention of the Secretary, and it’s something that she’s looking into and she’s going to raise with Israeli officials.
QUESTION: Has she reached any temporary conclusions? Is it some discrimination or is it based on thin suspicions of terrorism? Is it —
MR. MCCORMACK: You know, I think —
QUESTION: Is it generic bigotry? What is it?
MR. MCCORMACK: I’m not going to try to, you know, characterize and broad-brush, Barry. I think that each — obviously, each individual case will be different. But the fact is there’s more than a handful of these cases, and it is something that has got her attention. We’re talking about American citizens here.
QUESTION: Passport holders?
MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah.
QUESTION: Thank you.
It’s been clear from the start that the reason behind the visa denial policy about which the Israeli government is now collecting “additional information” from its administration was motivated politically.
The policy is meant to put pressure on the Hamas-led government and to punish Palestinians generally, as the majority of foreign passport holders who are denied entry have family connections in the oPt, and they and their families are very, very unhappy. Another end Israel means to achieve through this policy is to isolate the West Bank in various ways: There are few internationals in the West Bank to witnesses Israeli aggressions, little or no international expertise to develop education, business, health or government.
If all this would come out in Rice’s probe, perhaps the US would pressure Israel to ease these restrictions not just for its nationals, but also for all internationals (and especially Palestinian expatriate nationals) who wish to visit or reside in the oPT for legitimate reasons.
Rima Merriman is a Palestinian-American living in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank.