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ISRAEL: Author waits--and waits--for permit to travel to Lebanon for literary award

March 30, 2010 | 11:07 pm

Literature is supposed to transcend borders, but sometimes it runs up against them. Ala Hlehel-1

Author Ala Hlehel is among the winners of the Beirut39 literary competition, which acknowledges fresh voices in Arab literature in a list of 39 writers under the age of 39. The writers are invited to a four-day festival  in Beirut in April.

Hlehel, a native of the Galilee village of Jish and today a resident of Acre, is an Arab citizen of Israel. Israel prohibits all its citizens and residents from visiting countries defined as "enemy states"-- including Lebanon--without a special permit. 

When he learned he was among the winners,  Hlehel asked authorities for permission to travel to Lebanon to receive his award. A few months went by. Authorities said they were waiting to learn the position of Israel's General Security Services.

The festival is now two weeks away.  Adalah-- the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel-- submitted a petition to the Supreme Court on the author's behalf. Attorneys Haneen Naamnih and Hassan Jabareen argued that the failure of the Minister of Interior and the prime minister to issue a decision on his request "violates his constitutional right to leave the country and his right for freedom of employment and expression, as well as his due process rights for a fair hearing," an Adalah press release said. 

Ala Hlehel is not prevented from leaving the country, even without the permit. As there is no real civilian crossing between Lebanon and Israel, he is--in theory--free to travel to Lebanon from any other location, but could suffer legal consequences in Israel upon his return. Israel does, in fact, allow permits to Syria, for example, mostly for what it considers humanitarian issues regarding religious affairs and urgent family matters.

 There shouldn't be any problem on the Lebanese side, he says, as he's been invited by the Lebanese Ministry of Culture, which sponsors the festival. "The authorities might turn the blind eye," he says. But he could also find himself under investigation and indictment back home. "I don't want to be forced to become a criminal; it's not my character," says Hlehel. He doesn't want to find himself in Said Naffa's position.

Said Naffa, a member of the Israeli parliament, is being indicted for traveling to Syria. In September 2007, Naffa had organized a trip of hundreds of Druze clerics from Israel whose permit requests were rejected. Naffa sought protection under his parliamentary immunity, saying it should shield him from indictment, as he was only doing his job as a public representative. Authorities might have been willing to go along, but Naffa, say Israeli authorities, also took the opportunity to seek meetings with Hamas and other militant leaders and is being charged with visiting an enemy state without permission as well as contact with foreign agents.

Adalah is asking Israel to disclose clear criteria for restrictions; as it is, it says, the ban is "sweeping and draconian."  The ban is part of the "emergency regulations," a legal move regulating various issues during a state of emergency  left over from the British Mandate and incorporated into Israeli law. The country has been in a state of emergency, legally, for decades. 

Beirut is on the wrong side of Israel's law and border, but Hlehel says it's an integral part of his cultural and creative past, present and future. He sees the ban, along with more recent Israeli legislation, as an ongoing attempt to sever Arab citizens' historical ties with their Arab heritage under the guise of security concerns. 

"I am a citizen of Israel. I respect its laws, I pay my taxes," says Hlehel. "But I don't have to love it." He would love to go to Beirut, but won't be devastated if he doesn't. He says he will be satisfied if his petition succeeds in forcing the state to address the larger issue. Identity, heritage and cultural belonging are not the business of the state that shouldn't dictate its citizens' cultural belonging, he says.

"Historically, Beirut is not my enemy", says Hlehel. And if there's a contradiction with the law, he says, "the state must solve this--not me."

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Top: Ala Hlehel. Credit: Website of Banipal- Magazine of Modern Arab Literature