For Palestinian Americans, home brings little freedom
TURMUS AYA, WEST BANK // Ahmed Kassem is a Palestinian and an American.
His US passport, however, does not protect him from the suffering of living in Israeli occupied territory.
Like other West Bank hamlets, Turmus Aya faces attacks from Jewish settlers, a judicial system of military tribunals and checkpoints blocking access to holy places and friends in Jerusalem.
What makes this Palestinian village different is that most residents voice their discontent in a distinct American twang, and sit outside their sprawling villas, wearing clothes bearing symbols of American sport and culture.
Turmus Aya's more than 5,000 US citizens such as Mr Kassem identify strongly with their "American values" but are also proud Palestinians opposed to an Israeli occupation they see as reinforced by diplomatic and financial support from the US government.
For Mr Kassem, that became especially difficult to reconcile when his president, Barack Obama, visited the region last month embracing Israelis but offering little to Palestinians.
"Obama just came to show how much of a Zionist-Israeli advocate he is," said Mr Kassem, 79, an American Palestinian and holder of a chemical engineering doctorate from the University of Southern California who spent most of his life in the United States. In 2001, he retired from a career in the US aerospace industry and moved to Turmus Aya after living in Los Angeles for 45 years.
"If most Americans understood what was going on here and what we face, they wouldn't stand for it."
Estimates on the number of Palestinians with US passports who live in the Israeli-occupied territories of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem vary widely. According to analysts as well as officials in the Palestinian Authority (PA), they number in the tens of thousands and probably constitute the largest West Bank community of Palestinians who carry foreign passports.
In several West Bank villages near Ramallah, Palestinian Americans form the bulk of residents. With money earned in the US, they often build palatial residences as second homes or for relatives who live permanently in the territory.
"They contribute a lot to the Palestinian economy and like any other Palestinian community, they are committed Palestinians," said Nour Odeh, a PA spokeswoman.
But their US citizenship matters little when it comes to Israeli policy. Or as Sam Bahour, a Palestinian American who lives in the West Bank, put it: "Because we're Palestinian residents here, Israel refuses to acknowledge we're Americans."
He was referring to the Israeli-regulated identification cards issued to Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that grant them residency in those territories. When Palestinians are issued these cards, Israel stops recognising their US citizenship, blocking them from acquiring Israeli visas and denying them entry through Israel's international airport and other ports of entry.
"The moment I got my residency status in order to stay here with my family, Israel no longer acknowledged I'm American, so now I can't go to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the beach. I'm confined to the West Bank and I'm part of a collectively punished population," Mr Bahour said.
He added: "As an American ally, we give Israel US$3 billion [Dh11bn] a year, and yet they get away with discriminating against people like me, a US citizen, so blatantly."
In Turmus Aya, where about 70 per cent of its 7,500 residents are US citizens, the restrictions are no different. Its residents must access the West Bank from Jordan through an Israeli-controlled crossing for Palestinians.
But the village's pressing problem was the encroaching Jewish settlements, said Talal Jabara, Turmus Aya's deputy mayor and a US citizen whose family lives in New York. Israel has confiscated village land for settlements and forced residents to obtain permits to access some olive orchards, which on multiple occasions have been poisoned and burnt by Israeli settlers.
"American or not, we're like any other Palestinian here because we're facing the same occupation," said Mr Jabara, adding that US citizen residents in the West Bank wanted more support from US diplomats. "They usually don't do anything," he said.
The US State Department said it stands "ready to assist" its citizens in accordance with international law. It said the US government keeps "records of denials of entry based upon discrimination to raise with the Israeli government".
An official from Israel's foreign ministry said the policy of denying entry to US citizens of Palestinian origin who hold West Bank identification documents was part of the interim peace accords of the 1990s, signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Citing violence carried out by Palestinians against Israelis during the uprising that began in 2000, the official said that its "rules have become more stringent" to compensate for "security risks".
Last year, hundreds of Turmus Aya youth clashed with Israeli soldiers in the village after Jewish settlers were accused of throwing rocks at Palestinians. Using tear gas and bullets, the soldiers dispersed the Palestinian crowd, which villagers said included young Americans holidaying in the village.
"The Americans get crazier with the military because they all think they're tough," said one teenage boy in Turmas Aya, referring to how American youth joined in the protests during the incident.
Turmas Aya was a centuries-old traditional farming community. Fearing conscription into the Ottoman Empire in the early 1900s, residents began emigrating to the United States and Latin American. That trend continued when Jordan controlled the West Bank from 1948 until 1967 and accelerated after Israel captured the territory during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Palestinian holders of US passports here include Muslims and Christians. They retain links with their ancestral homeland for a variety of reasons, including family ties in the occupied territories and a sense of Palestinian nationalism in the diaspora, said Samir Abdullah, an economist in Ramallah. There was a burst of Palestinian-American investment in the territories during the 1990s peace process, when hopes were high that Palestinians would become independent.
Still, not everyone embraces such strong American influence. Some residents who live here permanently worry residents who spend part of their time living in America focus too much on building ostentatious villas in Turmus Aya or holding elaborate summer wedding parties here. After an accident involving a botched fireworks display at a wedding reception last summer, the village spiritual leader, Sheikh Ziad, posted a manifesto on the community mosque urging modesty and generosity.
"There's no reason to flaunt this wealth," said Sheikh Ziad, 60, whose 11 siblings and six of eight children all live in the US.
For the Americans here, the threat of violence from settlers or security forces keeps them on edge. Surveying olive trees poisoned last year by settlers, Emad Jabara, 38, a resident of the Bronx and passionate fan of the New York Yankees, said he and his seven children love spending summers in Turmus Aya.
While expressing concern for his family's safety, several settlers loomed in a nearby olive orchard as he spoke. "I'm mean, come on, man," he said. "What happens here is absolutely crazy."
Back in his Turmas Aya villa, Mr Kassem described how during university in the US he was nearly drafted into the US military during the Korean War.
He instead went on to receive a doctorate at USC. "U-S-C looks good to me!" he said, using a chant he used during American football matches at the university.
He would rather spend more of his retirement in southern California because he missed the beaches, he said. But he had to keep an eye on the family property and farmland. Since 1967, he said Israel confiscated over a hectare worth of family land.
"The West Bank is small, and you feel boxed-in when you're denied access into Israel," he said before describing how an Israeli soldier three years ago nearly pushed him to the ground at a checkpoint.
"What we want is support from our government, but what can we do?"