Middle Eastern welcome

The View from the East


(September 3) - For 25 days in August, my wife and I spent wonderful times in Amsterdam, the Poconos (in Pennsylvania), New York City, Washington DC, the Grand Canyon and Los Angeles. Driving and flying, we covered thousands of kilometers.

During this period we never had to show passports or stop at a checkpoint or answer any personal questions at airports.

It didn't take long for the shock of returning to the Middle East to present itself.

Upon crossing from Jordan our bus was held up by the Israeli bridge security for no apparent reason (maybe the staff had their lunch break). The trip from Amman to Jerusalem took five hours instead of the usual three.

After leaving Jericho by car I was stopped at the entrance to Jerusalem by an Israeli security person who insisted on checking the trunk of my car very thoroughly after reviewing my identification documents.

My next day in Palestine brought another surprise story. I was stopping by to see an American friend who works in a US-supported NGO.

As I waited in the foyer, his assistant Nariman turned to me asking if I could help her. They are not allowing me to visit my husband, she said.

Her husband has been imprisoned for 46 months for the crime of being the head of Bir Zeit University's student union. He is held in an Israeli prison inside Israel (a violation of the Geneva Convention, which forbids occupying powers to transfer prisoners out of the occupied areas).

In order to see him she needs a travel permit. Nariman has always received travel permits from the Israeli authorities. She has never had any security problem, never been arrested or questioned; never has there been any negative reference to her in the Israeli security circles.

When the last permit ran out on June 2, her American boss was told that she is a security threat and that her American director should talk to her about it and finally that her permit is denied. Without a travel permit she is unable to travel into Israel and therefore she can't visit her husband.

Her story seems hard to believe. "Come on," I say, "No one is arrested for being the head of a student union. Besides, you are an American citizen.

"It is impossible that Israel would prevent an American citizen from visiting her husband in jail."

Angry at my skepticism, Nariman pulled out the official charge sheet two pages long with the accompanying translation. True enough, her husband is charged with being part of the Islamic bloc at Bir Zeit, which the charge sheet says is an illegal organization. He is charged with distributing religious documents and recruiting students to the Islamic bloc at the university.

He is not charged with being a member of Hamas, or of incitement or any violent activity. He is simply charged with being a member of the Islamic bloc - the same name given to the party which a number of Arab members of the Israeli Knesset belong to.

"What about the US consulate," I ask in desperation. 'They were not helpful," Nariman replies. "They said they couldn't interfere with the Israeli legal system."

So, having my trunk searched and my morning interrupted with this story, I know that I am back home.