Ramallah, West Bank — Walking through the sunny, well-kept streets of Deir Debwan, a half-hour outside Jerusalem, it is easy to see why this tony Arab enclave has been dubbed the Beverly Hills of the West Bank.
Thanks to the success of its far-flung sons and daughters, multi-level homes abound. Some have indoor swimming pools. And at one time or another, nearly half the town’s 8,000 residents have lived in the United States.
“I love New York,” enthused Rabhia Ghannam as she sat in the living room of her spacious 12-room house. “I loved shopping at Century 21. I loved my house and my friends. But I missed my family. Here I have my sisters, my sister-in-law and her children.”
Ghannam, 38, and her husband, Radi, now the town mayor, lived in New York some two decades. But like thousands of other Palestinians, they have abandoned the Palestinian diaspora and cast their fate with the Palestinian entity on the West Bank and in Gaza.
Since September 1993, when the Oslo agreement was signed, 40,000 to 50,000 expatriate Palestinians, a large percentage of them former U.S. residents, have moved back to the West Bank legally, according to Israeli and Palestinian officials.
But unlike the Ghannams, who have obtained permanent resident rights here [CK?], many can do so only by grappling with Israel’s deliberately difficult entrance and residency requirements — or circumventing them altogether.
Adnan, for example, a 40-year-old businessman born and raised in Ramallah who moved to Los Angeles in 1975, is now back living in his native city on borrowed time. Just a few days ago, his Israeli tourist visa expired, and he hasn’t yet taken steps to replace it.
“For now,” he says in an undertone, “I’m here illegally.”
Since coming back to the place he calls “Palestine,” Adnan, who asked that his real name not be used, has built a small home on his family’s land and set up a successful business. His wife and children, most of whom were born in the U.S., joined him in 1990.
Although Israeli law permits many Palestinians who move abroad voluntarily to maintain their residency rights through yearly visits home, Adnan failed to make this annual journey. As a result, he lost the right to live in the West Bank on a permanent basis.
Despite the fact that he lacks a permanent-resident permit, Adnan is one of a growing number of Palestinian expatriates who are living in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel itself as illegal aliens. While there has always been a trickle of Palestinians coming back to their birthplace, the Oslo Accords prompted a wave of immigration that peaked in the mid-’90s. Israeli and Palestinian officials disagree on the number of Palestinians who have returned here legally.
But what they do agree on is the number of people who have entered the country with three-month tourist visas (usually from Western countries with diplomatic ties to Israel) or six-month family reunification permits (usually from Jordan and other Arab countries) and simply overstayed their welcome.
David Bar-Illan, a top adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, estimates that “there could be as many as hundreds of thousands” of Palestinian tourists “who simply disappear” inside Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. “We don’t know the exact numbers, and many of these people ultimately leave, but it is worrisome,” he says.
Other Israeli officials believe that the number of Palestinian illegal aliens totals no more than 50,000 — far less than the 100,000 or so foreign workers from Eastern Europe, Africa and the Far East with expired work permits.
To stem the tide, the Israeli government has begun to deny visitors’ permits to close relatives of Palestinians who are known to be in the country illegally. To date, Israel has not carried out a large-scale operation, as it has with foreign workers, to weed out the illegals and expel them.
Daoud Berakat, deputy director of the Department of Refugees of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, says that the number is lower still.
“I don’t think there are hundreds of thousands, not even thousands,” he says. “No Palestinian can enter without passing an Israeli checkpoint. Not at Rafiah [at the Egyptian border], not at the Jordan River [from Jordan], and not at Ben-Gurion Airport.
“Maybe some people stay longer than they’re supposed to, but this is something that needs to be resolved at the negotiating table,” he says.
The fact that Palestinian visitors are defying Israel’s intentionally strict immigration procedures is a violation of the Oslo agreement, according to Bar-Illan.
“The whole point is that what is called the ‘right of return’ is being implemented in practical terms without the agreement from Israel,” Bar-Illan charges. “According to the Oslo Accord, the issue of Palestinian returnees is to be decided in the final-status talks. Creating facts on the ground is a violation.”
Not An Act Of Defiance
Sitting in his air-conditioned office in an upscale Ramallah mall, Adnan insists that it is Israel’s “discriminatory” immigration policy, not an act of defiance, that has turned him and other Palestinians into illegal aliens.
“I’m from the West Bank and I returned because my family is here and this is my home. My whole life is based in the West Bank,” he says.
Thanks to his American passport, Adnan says, “I’m able to travel out of the country whenever my visa expires. It’s not a comfortable situation but I have no choice. Every time I come back, I pray that the Israelis will give me a new visa. Although I’ve never had a problem getting a visa, I know several people who have.”
Looking very much the American businessman, with the Jerusalem Post sprawled across his desk, the young entrepreneur admits that he should have made a bigger effort to visit the West Bank while still residing in Los Angeles.
“Money was tight sometimes and it’s an expensive trip from L.A.,” he says, “but yes, I should have come every year to keep my residency.”
After a pause, however, his voice takes on a defensive tone.
“I was born in the West Bank and should have the same rights to live here as any Russian immigrant who just got off the plane and can live anywhere he wants. This is my home, and I should have the same rights as any Jewish settler,” Adnan says.
One Palestinian relief worker who spoke on condition of anonymity says that for the Palestinians, “the issue of returnees is even more important than the issues of Jerusalem or financial compensation for lost property.”
“It’s a very emotional issue, especially when you’re dealing with refugees from 1948 and displaced people from 1967. The majority of Palestinians probably wouldn’t return if they could — and I’m sure the Israelis will impose a quota on those who do want to come back — but people want the choice,” the relief worker says.
Since 1948, the year Israel was established, most of the world’s 7 million Palestinians have lived outside the West Bank and Gaza. During Israel’s War of Independence, about 600,000 of the nearly 1 million Arabs who lived in British Mandatory Palestine fled to neighboring Arab countries and became refugees.
Heeding the words of their leaders, who predicted a lightning victory against the fledgling Jewish state, many left believing that they would return within weeks. Others were pushed out by advancing Israeli troops.
Approximately 300,000 Palestinians were displaced during the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Tens of thousands more emigrated voluntarily in its wake. Still others emigrated between 1987 and 1993, during the difficult years of the Palestinian intifada.
About 3.5 million Palestinians live in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, while 2.5 million live elsewhere in the Middle East. The Palestinian Information Office in Washington puts the number of Palestinians residing in the U.S. at 300,000.
Shlomo Dror, a Defense Ministry spokesman, asserts that the PA is in no hurry to promote full-scale immigration to the territories under its control, even if it were given that option.
“About two years ago [Moammar] Khadaffi decided to throw a lot of Palestinians out of Libya, and they ended up on the Egyptian border. Shimon Peres was prepared to say yes, we’ll take them in, but the Palestinian Authority didn’t make a request,” Dror says. “Afterwards, a high-ranking Palestinian official explained why.”
According to Dror, the official said, “ ‘What if we let them in? Then what? Lebanon and Syria and Iran will all expel our people and we’ll be under pressure to absorb them. At the moment we can barely take care of the people who are already here. If everyone returns, who will send money from abroad?’ "
Berakat of the refugees department doesn’t deny that the Palestinian Authority is financially unprepared for a huge wave of immigration, but insists that it will welcome any Palestinians in distress.
“It’s true that times are difficult, but like the State of Israel, if there are problems abroad and Palestinians come to us, we will live with it. When its [Jewish] communities were in trouble, Israel wasn’t prepared to absorb them either, but it did,” he says.
“It’s not that the Palestinians here don’t want their brethren outside the country, but we hope that their eventual absorption will be done properly, according to a plan, with assistance from the World Bank and the international community.”
‘Not Sorry I Came Home’
While there is no doubt that the Palestinian Authority has its financial woes, the fact is that many of the returnees — both legal and illegal — have, like the Ghannams, built handsome, even stately homes on land still owned by their families. Many have successful businesses and therefore continue to contribute to the local economy.
As pleased as they are to be back in the West Bank, most Palestinian Americans say they are deeply disappointed by the pace of the peace process.
“I’m not sorry I came home, but there are many problems,” says Mayor Ghannam, Rabhia’s husband. “The lack of progress in the peace process has discouraged people from investing, and the building boom we had for several years is nearly dead. At the moment people are waiting to see what happens before moving back.”
Dina Hammad, a 34-year-old nurse who lived in the U.S. until 1991, when she and her husband felt compelled to return home, legally, for “family reasons,” says that the peace process has been “a big disappointment.”
Referring to the strict Israeli closure, which Israel clamped on the West Bank and Gaza after several suicide bombings last year in Jerusalem, Hammad says, “for a time we couldn’t even leave our village. I’m a nurse and had to work, but instead of taking 10 minutes to reach Ramallah, it took 45 minutes through the back roads. Conditions have been worse since the peace process began, not better.”
Despite the hardships, Hammad says that returning was the right decision.
“Things aren’t going the way I expected, but even with the closures I’m glad to be back,” she says. “I wanted my children to know their culture. My children know they are Palestinians.”