By SAM BAHOUR
Published: October 7, 2006
Ramallah, West Bank
THIRTEEN years ago, I left a comfortable life in the United States for an uncertain future in the West Bank. Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization had just signed the Oslo Accords. Like many others, I saw an opportunity for Palestinians to finally build a society and economy that would lead to freedom — to a thriving Palestine alongside Israel.
As a Palestinian-American businessman, I was determined to do my part. So I moved to the West Bank city of El Bireh, where my family has lived for centuries. There I helped create a $100 million telecommunications company, which today employs more than 2,000 Palestinians. I earned an M.B.A. through Tel Aviv University. Then I developed a $10 million shopping center — the first of its kind in the Palestinian territories, employing more than 220 Palestinians. I married and had two beautiful daughters.
Now the Israeli authorities have decided that my life here has come to an end.
Even after the Oslo Accords were signed and the Palestinian Authority established, Israel retained control of all borders and of the Palestinian Population Registry. Nothing or no one gets into or out of the West Bank and Gaza without Israeli permission. For a dozen years I have waited for Israel to approve my application for Palestinian residency.
American Jews, indeed Jews from anywhere in the world, can come to Israel and be granted automatic citizenship. Thousands of American Jews freely enter and exit Israel to live in illegal Israeli settlements in the middle of the West Bank. But Palestinians whose families have lived here continually for centuries do not enjoy the same right. I need a residency card from Israel to live with my Palestinian family in my grandfather’s home in the Palestinian West Bank.
For 13 years, I’ve lived here by renewing my tourist visa every three months. Last month, an Israeli soldier stamped my American passport with a one-month visa and wrote “last permit” on it in Arabic, Hebrew and English. Now I am faced with a terrible choice. I can leave, uprooting my family and abandoning the businesses I’ve worked hard to build. I can leave alone and be separated from my wife and daughters. Or I can remain here “illegally,” risking deportation at any time.
My situation is not unique. Thousands of Palestinians are in a similar limbo. Most have less desirable options than mine. My children are American citizens. We can return to the United States. But I came here with a vision, and I remain determined to play a role in developing an economy, nonviolently ending Israel’s military occupation and building a Palestinian state.
Israeli policies effectively discourage people like me. According to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, it has been official Israeli policy since 1983 to “reduce, as much as possible, the approval of requests for family unification” of Palestinians. B’Tselem reports that in the last six years alone, more than 70,000 people have applied for permission to immigrate to the West Bank and Gaza to join family. Their applications have either been denied or, like mine, languish.
Each Palestinian who leaves lessens what Israelis openly call the “demographic threat” of a growing Palestinian population. But Israel needs to understand that the real threat comes not from demographics. It comes from controlling an entire population, breaking families apart and placing obstacles in the path of economic development.
Israelis and Palestinians are destined to be neighbors. One neighbor cannot ensure its security by condemning the other to hardship and despair. Many people like me — business owners, educators, artists and others — whom Israel is denying entry came to build bridges, not walls. We came to invest in a better life to follow this occupation — a bright, joint future for Palestinian and Israeli children alike.
Sam Bahour is a co-editor of “Homeland: Oral Histories of Palestine and Palestinians.”