“You have another passport?” asked the Israeli officer in her thick Eastern European-accented English as I passed my papers through the window slit. I am guaranteed to be asked this question every time I cross the Allenby Bridge to enter or leave Palestine; a query meant specifically to determine whether I have American or European citizenship. I replied to the negative, uncertain if the callow conscript on the other side of the thick glass would believe me. She looked into my eyes for a few seconds as if to measure my honesty while she compared my features to the photograph in my Palestinian-issued / Israeli-approved travel document. She then tapped a few keystrokes into her computer, stamped the document and with a look of disgust threw it back at me while shouting “bo” (come) to the next person in line. I was through, yet I had the same inescapable feeling that I get every time: They must hate having to let me in. They do not want me here.
Had I been a citizen of any Western country with visa-free travel privileges to Israel, my foreign passport would have been registered and stamped with a special seal in Hebrew that identifies me as a Palestinian, complete with my West Bank ID number. With this stamp, my foreign citizenship would cease to be recognized and the privilege of carrying the passport of a “friendly state” deemed useless. Like any other Palestinian from the occupied territories, I would be subject to military rule and confined to specific areas of the West Bank, with access elsewhere (including to Jerusalem, where most members of my generation in the Ramallah area were born) denied. The message from the occupiers is clear: “If you are able to go out, then stay out. If you come back here, we’ll make sure you regret it so you will not want to stay.” I regularly refer to this special stamp as the “fuck you-stamp”.
Crossing the Allenby Bridge, which is currently the only access point for West Bank Palestinians to the outside world, reminds me of both the pain and privilege of possessing a Palestinian identity card. This card, which affords the holder residency in the occupied territories, is issued by the Palestinian Authority but only with the permission of the Israeli occupation regime as stipulated by the Oslo Accords. Prior to these Accords, Israel issued almost identical cards directly. When the Israeli army conquered the West Bank and Gaza Strip from the Jordanians in 1967, it clamped a curfew over the territories it had seized and performed a census. Only those Palestinians physically present were given permission to continue living there. Palestinians who happened to be residing, studying, or even vacationing abroad were not allowed to return. Israel claimed that those abroad could apply for family reunification permit, or “lam shaml”, to obtain ID cards and return home; however, only a tiny fraction of such applications were approved annually [http://www.hamoked.org/Timeline.aspx?pageid=timelineachmashgada]. Of course, those unable to return joined the majority of Palestinians in exile who had already lost their homes and possessions during the Nakba in 1947-48.
Not only were the vast majority of ‘lam shaml’ applications denied, but Israeli policy made it quite easy for Palestinians to lose their residency privileges if we desired to work or study abroad. As it happened, I won a scholarship to go to college in the United States. As was policy at the time, I was required to surrender my ID card to the Israeli authorities in exchange for a travel permit, or “laissez passer”, through Tel Aviv airport. The permit (a passport-like booklet issued by Israel that provocatively listed my nationality as Jordanian even though I was not) was valid for one year at a time. I would have to return before it expired or else lose my ID card and with it my residency. The problem was that my permit expired in May of the following year, while the final semester of college ended in June! The International Students Office at my college was kind enough to intervene on my behalf with the Israeli consulate in Chicago which agreed to extend my document, something the office had to repeat in the subsequent years since the document was extended one year by default. The May expiration date of my laissez passer became an annual “will they or won’t they” nail-biter. As it happened, I was lucky, since anecdotal evidence was that the Chicago consulate was more lenient in such matters than other Israeli consulates in the US that had actually refused to renew such documents. I later came to know of many Palestinians, including a few of my own family members, who lost their IDs after moving abroad because they failed to return in time due to life events. It was only in 2012 that Israel admitted their policies had resulted in the banishment of a quarter of a million Palestinians from the occupied territories between 1967 and 1994, when the establishment of the Palestinian Authority ended the practice of having to surrender one’s ID card to travel [http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/israel-admits-it-revoked-residency-rights-of-a-quarter-million-palestinians.premium-1.435778]. Palestinians of Jerusalem; however, have witnessed an increase in the rate of revocations of residency since then. [http://www.btselem.org/jerusalem/revocation_of_residency].
Despite the Oslo Accords, or rather because of them, Israel still maintains control of the population registry in all the Palestinian territories (including, even today, the Gaza Strip). While the Accords stipulate that Palestinians born abroad can be registered in their homelands until age 16 as long as one parent has an ID card, in practice only children under 5 were regularly granted registration. The occupation regime unilaterally decided to require that children born to Palestinians abroad be physically present inside the occupied territories in order to be registered as residents, then proceeded to deny children over 5 the “visitor permits” they needed to enter [http://www.hamoked.org/timeline.aspx?pageID=timelinerishumyeladim]. As a result, Israel effectively has forced families who chose to temporarily live abroad into permanent exile. Similar restrictions on non ID-possessing spouses of Palestinian residents have also forced couples to either live apart or unite outside of Palestine.
Palestinian ambassador-at-large Afif Safieh often states that Israel’s goal is to gobble up as much land as possible with as few Palestinians as possible (or as he says, “as much geography with as little demography”). The draconian Israeli policies to limit the growth of what’s left of the Palestinian population in Palestine, hand-in-hand with the expansion of Jewish-only settlements throughout the land [http://www.icahd.org/node/271], can only be interpreted as proving his point. Yet this is the entity that the world expects Palestinians to negotiate with “in good faith”, oblivious to the fact that those very Israeli leaders who feign willingness to negotiate “peace” continue to promote policies that clearly demonstrate they do not want us there to begin with. The evidence is clear: they never have. Unfortunately for them, we’re not going anywhere.
Identity cards – residency – exile.
Jareer Kassis is a scientist trained in cancer research currently working in North Carolina. He was raised in Ramallah, where his family still lives. Jareer tweets here.