TURMUS AIYA, West Bank—Laila Nofal doesn't really care why the Israelis won't let her mother come home. The precocious 11-year-old just wants Israel to allow her mom, a U.S. citizen, to return to their West Bank village so her family can be together again.
All Mekky al Hafeh wants is for Israel to let him in. The 29-year-old Palestinian master's student from the West Bank city of Hebron hopes to work alongside Israelis at a special center working to solve the Middle East's environmental problems.
The two are among thousands of Palestinians whose lives have been thrown into limbo by new Israeli security measures that are dividing families, undermining coexistence programs and blocking American citizens from living in the region.
Israeli military leaders say the new steps are unfortunate measures needed to counter the rise of the hard-line Hamas-led Palestinian government. Others dispute both the necessity and the wisdom of the measures.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Israel to rethink its stand when she visited the country last month, and a variety of Israelis, including the education minister, have worried that the restrictive policies will embolden extremists while alienating the Palestinian moderates Israel should be trying to strengthen.
On Thursday, Israel's Supreme Court told the military to explain its policies that bar Palestinian students from crossing through Israel to study in the West Bank. The action came in response to a protest filed by Israeli human rights groups questioning restrictions on students from Gaza wishing to study in the West Bank.
Another case challenges Israel's new blanket ban preventing Palestinians like Hafeh from studying in Israel.
"These are exactly the people we should be strengthening to move the peace process along, and all we do is put huge barriers in front of them," said Rabbi Michael M. Cohen, director of special projects at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, which is trying to win Israeli approval for Hafeh to continue his research at its center.
The new regulations are part of a broader Israeli campaign to isolate the Palestinian government, which is now dominated by Islamist militants philosophically opposed to Israel's existence. They also play to many Israelis' fear that the country's Jewish identity will be swamped if millions of Palestinians who fled during decades of war are allowed to return.
One of the most significant changes has been an Israeli decision to begin enforcing long-ignored visa regulations that limit the ability of tens of thousands of U.S. citizens and others to live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip unless they were born there. In 2000, at the start of the second Palestinian uprising, Israel stopped issuing most residency papers to those who wanted to live in the West Bank or Gaza Strip.
Until recently, however, authorities looked the other way as thousands of teachers and business people, among others, entered the territories on tourist visas. Every three months, they'd leave, usually crossing into Jordan for a couple of days, and then return with fresh tourist visas.
But now Israel is refusing to honor that informal system, something many people have discovered only when they've been turned back at the border.
That's what happened when Nofal Nofal, his wife, Wujoud, and their seven children tried to return home in August after spending their summer vacationing in the United States.
Nofal was born in the West Bank; Wujoud was born to Palestinian parents who moved to Jordan; both have U.S. citizenship after living for 10 years in the United States.
In 2002, they decided to raise their children in the West Bank and moved back to their small village. Nofal, because he was born in the West Bank, didn't need Israeli permission. But Wujoud did, so every three months she left to renew her tourist visa.
When the family arrived on Aug. 29 at the main crossing between Jordan and the West Bank, Israeli border officials kept the family waiting for six hours, then refused to let Wujoud enter. Stunned, she returned with her infant son to Amman while Nofal traveled home with the six older children.
Wujoud has tried to return home five times. Each time Israel has placed a large red "Entry Denied" stamp in her passport, Nofal said.
The separation has taken its toll on the family, Nofal said, especially on his wife.
"Imagine a mother without her children," he said.
Nofal called the ban part of a "silent evacuation" of Palestinians from the West Bank and other critics have referred to it as a "silent transfer." Nofal suggested that Israel was trying to prevent successful businessmen such as himself from helping to build the foundations of a healthy Palestinian state.
Hafeh is caught up in Israel's new blanket ban on Palestinian students. Before, Israel was willing to examine students on a case-by-case basis, and dozens of Palestinians studied at Israeli universities for advanced degrees that aren't available in the West Bank or Gaza. But no more.
Hafeh had hoped to join the small Arava Institute, which strives to create a balance of Arabs and Jews to work on cooperative programs at its center in the Negev desert. It currently has only one Palestinian among its 30-odd students—and he's from Jerusalem, so he has an Israeli-issued ID.
But Hafeh hasn't been able to win approval, which distresses David Lehrer, the center's executive director. "This should be something the state of Israel and the Israeli army support because we are encouraging moderation," he said. "In a sense they are shooting themselves in the foot."
Lehrer's criticism is shared by a range of influential Israelis, including the education minister, the leaders of the top universities and a coalition of human rights groups.
Shlomo Dror, a spokesman for Israel's Defense Ministry, said the elevation of Hamas as the ruling party in the Palestinian government left the military with little choice but to tighten the regulations.
Now the country can never be completely certain that the Palestinians it lets in aren't working with militants. "Every Palestinian who comes to Israel, there is some kind of risk, so we are trying to reduce the risk," he said.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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