Being Palestinian and American [Archives:2007/1058/Reportage]

June 11 2007

By: Bassem Roomie
and S. Jacobson
The Media Line Ltd.

The Arab American Institute Foundation estimates the number of Palestinian Americans living in the United States at about 252,000. Since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, many of them returned home and invested in national and private projects including high tech, telecommunications and some glitzy tourist developments.

However, since the eruption of the Palestinian uprising in 2000, things have gone from bad to worse. The economic hardships and great losses in investments have obliged many of these Palestinian Americans to shut down their business and return to the U.S.

Another challenge threatening them is the access to the territories, because of what the Palestinians say is a new policy, which prevents the entry of non-resident Palestinians back to the Palestinian areas.

[Ramallah] Groups of red-roofed villas arrayed on the hilltops and surrounded by gentle terraced meadows present an awesome picture of prosperous Palestinian villages on the outskirts of Ramallah. Those sun-spangled houses, with enclosed gardens and beautiful stonework, are symbols of the opulent lives of their Palestinian-American owners.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2000 count, there were 72,112 Palestinian-Americans living in the United States. However, the Arab American Institute Foundation estimates the figure at closer to 252,000.

“It is difficult to say when the first Ramallah immigrants arrived in the United States,” says local historian Ahmad Salah.

However, many of the first immigrants to arrive were Christians fleeing Ottoman Palestine in the 1800s; others came as a result of the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967.

“The Ramallah community is today one of the largest individual Arab communities in the U.S.,” Salah adds.

For decades, those migrants maintained strong ties with their city of origin through regular summer visits.

“They also maintain the tradition of returning to their original homes in their old age,” Salah explains.

The signing of the Oslo Accords and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994 encouraged many Palestinian-Americans to return home and invest in national and private projects including high-tech, telecommunications, medical-supply firms, electronics manufacturers and some glitzy tourist developments.

“This investment was the backbone ofthe economic growth in the Palestinian territories,” says Mufied Hamadan, an economic analyst.

Nowadays, there are thousands of Palestinian-Americans living in Ramallah, including university lecturers, researchers and employees working in various vital development programs, he continues.

The eruption of the Palestinian uprising in 2000, followed by the Israeli checkpoint closure and military incursions, has damaged all the vital economic facets in the Palestinian territories.

This damage not only drove the economy to the verge of collapse, but also created a bleak humanitarian crisis. United Nations reports find that more than two-thirds of Palestinians now live below the poverty line. The unemployment rate is over 50 percent.

The situation was worsened after the landslide victory of Hamas in the Legislative Council last January that resulted in the halting by Israel of the transfer of customs taxes to the Palestinian Authority and the simultaneous suspension of Western donor funding for Palestinians.

These economic hardships and the great loss in wages and investment have obliged many of these Palestinian-Americans to shut down their businesses and quit the country to return to the U.S.

“It's not just a hiccup in our development process; it's a serious aggravating crisis threatening investors with bankruptcy,” says Jamal Saliem, the owner of a fast food restaurant in the city center.

“When I was in America, it was a dream for me to open my own business in Ramallah and live in my village enjoying the abundant sunshine, fresh breeze and warm family relations,” Saliem says. “But now, I have ended up living in a big jail surrounded by Israeli walls and checkpoints. I think I'm going back to the States soon.”

Despite this drawback, other business players cling to the hope that enough of a foundation has been laid that when this round of violence has been played out, they can return to invest in other projects.

“We are still committed to the idea of investing in the homeland,” says Abdel Hamied Kasid, the owner of the City INN Hotel, who invested $ 2.2 million in building the hotel.

“No question, the past few months have been bad, but we hope that the forthcoming months will bring calmness and stability and allow the economy to flourish again.”

The Mecca agreement on the formation of a unity government between Hamas and Fatah revived hopes that the international financial sanctions would be lifted, allowing the economy to bounce back.

Another challenge threatening Palestinian-American access to the territories is what Palestinians say is a new Israeli policy, which prevents the entry of Palestinians with American passports. This policy was in serious evidence last summer, when Israeli security started turning back Americans of Palestinian ancestry at Ben-Gurion Airport and the Allenby Bridge.

Several families, who came to spend their summer vacation in Ramallah, left for Amman to renew their visas and were denied re-entry.

During the summer, only two or three passengers were allowed to enter on each bus that arrived at the Allenby Bridge crossing from Jordan into Israel. The remaining passengers were forced to turn around, says Musa Hussein, an officer working at the Jericho military liaison office.

The ban has so far affected several thousand Palestinian-Americans, whom Israel has kept from returning to their homes and jobs, or from visiting their families in the West Bank. Many visitors spent two days at Ben-Gurion Airport before being put on a return flight to the United States. Others received visas that limited their stays to two weeks rather than the customary three months.

“I was permitted entry, but my wife, who accompanied me to Allenby Bridge, was denied entry,” says Jawad Hamail, who hails from Abu Falah, a village to the west of Ramallah. “I filed a complaint with the U.S. State Department urging them to interfere and defend us from a discriminatory policy, but all in vain,” Jawad adds.

The Israeli authorities see the entry issue in a very different light.

The problem occurs when Palestinians do not hold Palestinian residency, says spokesman for the Coordinator of Activities in the Territories, Shlomo Dror. People with Palestinian residency are not allowed to enter via Ben-Gurion Airport, but have no problem entering via the Allenby Bridge, he says.

The problem arises with people who live in the Palestinian areas on a long-term basis, according to Israel. For example, a few months ago, a Palestinian with foreign citizenship was caught in Tel Aviv, after living in the Palestinian areas for 15 years as a tourist.

As a result of this type of occurence, the office of the Coordinator of Activities, after being approached by the Israeli Interior Ministry, decided to place restrictions on the re-entry of Palestinians with foreign passports and no local residency, in order to deal with the situation.

Rather than going back and forth to Amman in order to renew their visas, Palestinian- Americans can now renew them at local offices of the Coordinator of Activities every three months for up to two years. After that they are required to leave the country for a day, return and start the whole process from the beginning. If they agree to receive Palestinian residency there will be no problem with them re-entering via the Allenby Bridge, Dror says.

Despite the Israeli clarifications, a group of the Palestinian-Americans, who had been denied re-entry, have formed a committee to pressure Israel to reverse its policy. They have also been trying, through international human-rights bodies, to push the U.S. government into intervening in the matter.