I drafted this piece in August during a delegation visit to Palestine and Israel with the Interfaith Peace Builders. It’s message is especially relevant as the UCLA student union considers a bill to promote dialogue and “positive investment” towards peace in Israel and Palestine. For Palestinians living under military occupation, monetary investments are not enough.
Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American businessman who was born and raised in Youngstown Ohio. In the 1990s, Sam married his wife - a Palestinian from the West Bank - and moved there to start a family. In most countries, Sam could apply for a green card or to be officially recognized as a foreign resident of the state; in Palestine, whose international travel is controlled by the state of Israel, Sam could only apply for a three-month tourist visa to live on the land where his father grew up, where his wife was born and raised, and where his family decided to raise their children. “Every three months I had to leave the country and re-enter for 15 years,” Sam told us. At first, Sam would travel—but very soon going to the United States became too expensive; going to Jordan became too boring. Eventually, Sam would just cross the border between the West Bank and Jordan, buy a cup of coffee on the other side of the border, visit the duty free shop for some chocolates for his children, and immediately return to the West Bank. “I had it down to four and a half hours,” Sam said. The border control agents all knew him by name.
After 2006, Israel started denying entry to foreign nationals like Sam in response to the democratic election of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. “They wanted to suffocate us so we’d [leave] voluntarily,” Sam said, explaining that Israel wanted to empty Palestine of Palestinians. If foreign nationals realized that they would soon be denied entry to Israel, they would likely pick up and move their families to places where they did not face this risk. Foreign nationals like Sam often had more money than Palestinians living in the West Bank—if these people left, the size of the Palestinian middle class would decrease, creating conditions that would make poorer Palestinians also want to leave. Sam soon got a “last permit” stamp when re-entering the country. Israel had meanwhile ceased to process tens of thousands of residency applications like his.
During the failed “peace process” in the late 2000s, Israel used these residency applications to force Palestinians to participate in the talk. In exchange for retreating from their position of non-negotiation, Israel processed 30,000 applications, including Sam’s.
One day, Sam got a call saying that his Palestinian ID was ready to pick up. Sam showed us his ID saying, “This is not a Palesitnian ID—this is an Israeli military idenfitication card.”
“Even before looking at my ID, they’d know if I’ve been to prison,” he said noting the green color of his ID booklet, distinct from the orange color of ex-incarcerates.
Sam drove from the West Bank to Jerusalem to pick up his ID as a 100% legal driver on Israeli roads. His tourist visa entitled him to drive with the yellow license plates of Israeli residents. But Sam drove home as an illegal driver. With Palestinian status, his required plates change to green and white. Sam was no longer allowed to travel outside of the country from Ben Gurion airport, to travel into Jerusalem and Israel, or to drive on roads with Israeli plates in the West Bank and Israel—-even though the state had no problem with him doing this for 15 years under a tourist visa. He lost all movement and access.
“The only place in the world that I cannot be American is in Israel and the West Bank,” he said.
Sam, who as a businessman made frequent trips into Jerusalem, could no longer do so. He learned that he could apply for 1-day permits as long as he had an invitation letter, paid a 10 shekel fee, and filled out an application. These took one day to process, so Sam always had to make plans one day in advance.
During his first application process, the officer asked Sam for his “magnetic card.”
Being an American, Sam assumed her asking for his credit card meant that the application fees had gone up and erupted in outrage. The woman gave him a weird look and sent him out to the main lobby, where other Palestinians were waiting. The Palestinians laughed at him for not knowing, and Sam learned that the “magnetic card” is one that demonstrates he is not a “security threat” to the state of Israel.
Having secured a magnetic card, Sam ran into another block his second time around. He had his Palestinian ID, he had his magnetic card, but he was missing his “business man’s card.” Not a business card, as Sam had thought was being asked, but yet another form of identification that showed the Israeli government he actually was who he said he was.
“It’s not about security,” Sam told us at this point, expressing his disbelief in how arbitrary the system is.
“There is no one button,” Sam said to us when we discussed what it would take for peace and justice to come to the region.
Ending the occupation is the first step, though, he said. Only after the occupation of Palestine ends can any genuine conversations begin about how people are going to live together.
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Since meeting Sam, the World Bank released a report that Israel’s occupation of Palestine deprives the Palestinian economy of $3.4 billion. Lifting the restrictions on the West Bank would allow the Palestinian economy to grow by at least a third, the international monetary institution says.
If more investments can’t help a businessman like Sam Bahour, among the most connected and well-resourced of Palestinian society and who feels the effects is of the occupation as much as he does, those without as much money or resources are certainly feeling things even worse.
To my fellow classmates at UCLA discussing positive investment and dialogue right now, I hope you can understand that the only goodfaith way towards peace in this disputed region is through ending the crippling effects of military occupation.