During the summer months, the city was “empty,” according to people in Ramallah and the neighboring city of El Bireh. Residents of both cities, as well as of the surrounding villages, employed this hyperbole to express the extent to which they felt the absence of thousands of Palestinian-Americans who regularly visited their families in previous summers. Children clad in reversed baseball caps and cropped pants filled the streets with laughter and rolling American accents.
Signs of Israel’s new policy, which prevents the entry of Palestinians with Western, mainly American, passports, were palpable last summer. No one knows the exact numbers of those who were turned back at Ben-Gurion Airport or Allenby Bridge. But for the past two or three months, the streets have been abuzz with reports of relatives blocked at the border: A family of seven, who came to spend two years in Ramallah with their ailing grandfather, left for Amman to renew their visa and were denied re-entry (their grandfather suffered a heart attack); a businessman was permitted entry, but his wife, who accompanied him to Allenby Bridge, was denied entry; an anonymous visitor spent two humiliating days at Ben-Gurion Airport before being put on a return flight to the United States; others received visas that limited their stay to two weeks rather than the customary three months. Still other visitors were denied entry because their parents, American citizens of Palestinian origin in their seventies and eighties, grew tired of traveling to Amman for a day or two every three months in order to renew their entry permits, and thus became “lawbreakers” in the eyes of Israeli border officials.
Those who did manage to visit were reluctant to leave for even a few days to attend family celebrations in Amman. They heard stories about others from Ramallah who decided to “drop by” for a “brief” visit and never returned. Earlier this year, two or three Palestinians on each bus that arrived at Allenby Bridge from Amman were being denied entry. But during the summer, residents felt as if only two or three were allowed to enter. Remaining passengers were forced to turn around. Jordanian passport clerks regularly caution Palestinians with foreign passports to prepare emotionally for the possibility that they will be denied entry. In light of these reports, many Palestinian-Americans simply canceled plans to visit.
“This is a gross breach of tradition,” said historian Nazmi Ju’beh, in reference to the traditional ties these emigrants maintain with their cities and villages of origin: regular visits, financial assistance to those who remain behind and investment in local projects, particularly in construction.
Ju’beh said that in 1901, the first Palestinian from Ramallah, a Christian man named Ouda Dabini, emigrated to the U.S. About fifty years earlier, the first waves of Christian emigration to South America from Bethlehem and Beit Jala had begun. Dabini met stonemasons from Bethlehem, the Talhami family, who came to Ramallah to build the Friends School (a Quaker institution). After hearing wondrous stories of the great success of emigrants from that town, he decided to emigrate. Two or three years later, a wave of emigration from Ramallah began. It later spread to include El Bireh and neighboring villages, and many Muslims as well as Christians. For decades, these emigrants maintained the tradition of returning to their original homes: In their old age, emigrants would return to live in their city or village of origin. According to Ju’beh, this is reflected in inscriptions on tombstones. A tradition also developed of sending children to visit during the summer in order to ensure that they would speak Arabic and get to know other members of their families. After 1994, a new tradition developed in response to the signing of the Oslo Accords: Emigrants wished to participate in the political process of building a state. All three traditions are now threatened.
M., age 72, from El Bireh, and his wife decided to return to their ancestral home in their golden years. Their meager American pension permits them to live well in Palestine; the relatively quiet pace of life in their native city suits people their age, and their family home awaits them. Last summer, M.’s wife went to Amman to renew her visa and was denied re-entry. H., age 61, was also not permitted to return. She was told at the border that she could only return after a year. There are rumors that some are told they may only return after 10 years. Now, H.’s husband has been forced to break the law and remain in the family home despite the fact that his visa has run out.
S.’s father emigrated to the U.S. in the 1930s and fought in the American armed forces in World War II. S., a native of El Bireh and an educator, refused to serve in Vietnam. In the 1990s, he decided to return to the country with his daughter. He preferred to grow old in his native land and feared the influence of America’s permissive society and crime-ridden streets on his daughter. Israel agreed to reinstate his residential status in the city of his birth, El Bireh. But his request that his daughter be granted Palestinian residence was denied. Now his daughter risks deportation (via a refusal to extend her visa).
“I have no complaints against Israel,” said S. “It’s an occupying nation. My complaints are directed at the U.S. We are citizens and they [the U.S.] fail to defend us from a discriminatory policy. We wouldn’t have these problems – split families and being barred from returning to our homes – if we were Jews.”