LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. Israel has begun to restrict residency permits in the occupied West Bank. The move has left tens of thousands of Arabs, most of them married to Palestinians, living in the territory illegally. NPR's Linda Gradstein reports from the West Bank capital, Ramallah.
LINDA GRADSTEIN: Five years ago, Liali Tartere(ph), then 20 years old, left her family in Jordan to marry her Palestinian cousin in Ramallah. She entered the West Bank on a three-month tourist visa issued by Israel and applied for residency and a Palestinian ID card. She assumed she would get the documents, since she was married to a West Bank resident. But for six years, since the outbreak of the latest round of Israeli/Palestinian fighting, Israel has frozen all such applications. Now Liali worries that if she leaves the West Bank to see her family in Jordan, she will not be allowed to return. So she stays in Ramallah, rarely leaving her home because she's afraid that an Israeli soldier at a roadblock will ask for an ID card that she doesn't have. She says the hardest thing is not seeing her family.
Ms. LIALI TARTERE (Ramallah Resident): (Through translator) The first year of my marriage here was the most difficult. Then when I started having children, things, I thought, would get better. However, after having children I wanted my mother to be by my side.
GRADSTEIN: In a voice choked with tears, she describes how her parents sent a video of the recent wedding of one of her cousins in Jordan.
Ms. TARTERE: (Through translator) And when I was watching it I did not - could not even recognize my own brother. I had left them when they were children, and now they've grown and I could not recognize them.
GRADSTEIN: The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem estimates there are 72,000 people who are now residing illegally in the West Bank. Most of them, like Liali, are Jordanians married to Palestinians. Until recently they could legally stay in the area on three-month tourist visas, which Israel routinely granted. But for the past few months Israel has made it much harder to get those tourist visas. Sabine Haddad, the spokesperson of the Israeli Population Registry, says that according to the law every visitor to the West Bank has always needed a special permit from the Israeli army in addition to the visa. But she says that regulation was often ignored.
Ms. SABINE HADDAD (Israeli Population Registry): What happens is like the two, three last years, all the authorities didn't pay much attention to this policy. We didn't pay attention to the permit.
GRADSTEIN: But recently, Haddad says, a decision was made to enforce the regulation, and anyone without a permit is being turned away at the border. Israeli human rights groups and Palestinians say it's almost impossible to obtain these permits. This new policy is also affecting hundreds of Palestinian American businessmen who travel frequently between the U.S. and the West Bank. Many of them have been told they will no longer be allowed entry.
One man, Sam Bahoor(ph), who has lived in Ramallah on a renewable three-month tourist visa for the past 14 years, was given only a month-long entry visa when he arrived a few weeks ago. And Israeli authorities at the border stamped the words final renewal into his passport. Jessica Montell, the executive director of B'Tselem, says the Israeli policy has broad implications.
Ms. JESSICA MONTELL (Executive Director, B'Tselem): It's clear that demographics is the primary motivation for the policy. The only explanation is that they want to decrease the Palestinian population in the West Bank.
GRADSTEIN: Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Mark Regev dismisses B'Tselem's claim.
Mr. MARK REGEV (Israeli Foreign Ministry): That's just simply not true. Under international law there is no obligation to provide automatic residency to anyone who marries a resident, or a citizen, for that matter.
GRADSTEIN: Back in Ramallah, Leili Tartere says she cannot continue to live this way. This summer her husband took her two older children to visit Leili's parents in Jordan. It was the first time they had seen their grandchildren, but Leili couldn't go with them. She says all she wants is to live a normal life in Ramallah. But without any legal status, she says that's impossible. Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Ramallah.
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