Freedom to Travel

The View From The East

By DAOUD KUTTAB

((October 1) - Hello, this is Mr. Olmert," said the voice on the other end of the telephone.

The Israeli mayor of Jerusalem was calling my colleague, Ayman Bardawil, to inquire about the difficulty he was having getting a pass to the airport.

Ayman, the director of Al Quds Educational Television, was invited to a conference in Barcelona that dealt with Euro-Mediterranean cultural cooperation. Aliza, the wife of the right-wing Israeli mayor, who was invited to the same conference, had been approached to intervene on Ayman's behalf to ensure his safe passage to the conference.

Ayman, an architect by education and now an animator and television administrator, was rather surprised by the call from the high-profile politician. A day earlier he had gone to the Israeli Liaison office outside Ramallah with his airplane ticket, his regular pass to enter Israel and conference invitation in order to get the additional permit to allow him to pass through the airport passport control.

This was not his first time traveling. But this time the Israelis refused to grant the airport pass, saying that by the time he is scheduled to be in the airport a hermetic closure order will be in effect.

An Israeli official whom Ayman had called earlier could not help, saying that the decision was made by the security people and he couldn't help. In other words, his entry to an Israeli airport at such a time would be a grave danger to the security of the state of Israel and therefore the routine airport pass was denied.

Ayman stressed that he had reserved a seat and bought a ticket, but the Israeli security person said he was helpless.

The Israeli mayor, who had received a call from his embarrassed wife in Barcelona, was quickly able to make mountains move.

Shortly after the courtesy call from Ehud Olmert, another official called Ayman to get his details. Moments later another Israeli voice was on the phone politely assuring Ayman that his permit will soon be ready.

Sure enough, 20 minutes after the intervention of the Israeli official, his travel was no longer a security threat, the computers suddenly were working, vacationed staff suddenly reappeared and were able to type and approve the needed permit.

After receiving his permit, as he was packing his bags, Ayman received one more call from Ehud Olmert. "Is everything okay? Do you need help getting to the airport?" he was asked.

A taxi from Jerusalem was waiting and Ayman didn't need any more Israeli help. "Be sure to give my regards to Aliza," the Israeli mayor told his newfound Palestinian friend.

In Barcelona, the conference was upbeat. An Israeli television producer talked about dialogue. Addressing the Palestinians on the panel she called for cooperation and exchange of visits.

Ayman couldn't control himself. He had been feeling guilty about having this privilege to travel while the rest of Palestinians were under lock and key in a big prison.

He asked to speak and chided the Israeli speaker for being so oblivious to the situation in Palestine. He explained how he was able to come to the conference.

"How many Palestinians can count on the wife of an Israeli official to obtain their freedom to travel?" he asked. "Right now more than 2 million Palestinians are unable to travel from the West Bank to Gaza. They can't use the airport and entry to Jerusalem or Israel is strictly forbidden. If you are sincere about your call for dialogue, your effort should be focused on ensuring the freedom of movement for all Palestinians," he told the Israeli panelist.

As Yasser Arafat, Binyamin Netanyahu and Bill Clinton continued to talk about the stalled peace process, the day-today problems of Palestinians seemed as far from the discussion as Washington is from the region.

Whenever Ayman is invited to a conference that requires travel he gets agitated over expected problems, and I am always encouraging him to travel, because I know how badly he needs some fresh air.

After telling me his story, he asked me a simple question: "When will I be able to travel without permits, passes or the intervention of high powered politicians."

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