Sometimes I try to imagine what it must be like to be a Palestinian without a secure home, without reliable travel documents and without the rights most of us take for granted. But as someone who has a passport that opens most doors and the freedom to come and go at will it is difficult to put myself fully in the shoes of people who never know when the place they call home will be barred to them.

Imagine waking up one day to be told you are no longer considered a citizen of your own country and have no automatic entitlement to see your parents or siblings ever again.

Zeina Ashrawi, the daughter of political activist and academic Hanan Ashrawi, doesn't need to imagine. A child of Jerusalem and a holder of a Jordanian passport stamped "Palestinian" as well as a Jerusalem identity card and an Israeli travel document, Zeina travelled to the US when she was 17 to attend school and college.

Her studies completed, she married and today, she lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and son. To date she has returned home annually to see family and friends as well as to renew her travel papers.

"My father and I would stand in line at the Israeli Ministry of Interior in [occupied] Jerusalem, along with many other Palestinians from 4.30 in the morning to ensure our identity was not stolen from us," she writes.

Then last August, Zeina visited the Israeli Embassy in Washington to try to extend her travel document and obtain a "Returning Resident" visa. But when the Israeli counter official behind the bullet proof glass saw her papers her smile turned sour.

For the first time Zeina was told her travel document could not be extended because she was now the holder of an American Green Card. She protested that the Green Card could not be used for travel and eventually the official told her she would look into the situation and get in touch.

Weeks later Zeina received a phone call from the embassy informing her that while her travel document could be extended she would no longer receive her "Returning Resident" visa; instead she would get a tourist visa. To be labelled a tourist in her homeland was bad enough but there was much worse to come.

In early June, Zeina visited the embassy again one month prior to a planned visit to her family in Palestine to submit the paperwork and pay the necessary fee. She was later to learn that her visa had been denied while her Jerusalem ID and travel document were now invalid. "The embassy official told the tearful young woman 'The decision came from Israel not from me'.

Zeina believes many Palestinians holding a Jerusalem ID card have suffered the same fate. "As it stands right now, I will be unable to go home. I am one of many," she said. She believes Israel is adhering to a covert policy of ethnic cleansing and contrasts her own plight to that of Jews around the world that are not only entitled to visit occupied Jerusalem but also to an Israeli passport even though they may never have set foot in the Middle East.

Joint recipient of the 2008 Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism, Mohammad Omar writes a monthly feature for the Washington Report titled Gaza on the Ground. He is also a correspondent for IPS and maintains the website Rafah Today from his home in southern Gaza.

Omar's trip to London to receive his prize at a ceremony held at the British Academy of Television Arts on June 16 and subsequent visits to other European capitals were sponsored by the Washington Report, while the Dutch embassy in Tel Aviv took responsibility for coordinating his travel plans and security permit.

But what should have been a proud and pleasurable experience for the talented young man became a nightmare during the journey home.


Security clearance

Following several days wait in Amman for the Israelis to issue a security clearance, Omar exited Jordan without incident but upon arrival at the Israeli side of the border he was interrogated by Shin Bet officials demanding the names of every European Parliamentarian he had met during his trip.

They ridiculed his status as a prize-winning journalist and ordered him to strip naked while a gun was pointed at his head. Omar was then forced to the floor with a boot on his neck and made to undergo a cavity search. His interrogators didn't believe he hadn't brought the Gellhorn cash prize with him.

Omar vomited before blacking out completely and when he did come to he was dragged across the ground to a waiting Palestinian ambulance. The Dutch Foreign Ministry has reportedly asked Israel for an explanation.

Zeina Ashrawi and Mohammad Omar aren't thugs, criminals or terrorists. These are two of Palestine's best and brightest, whose only "crime" was their wish to rejoin their loved ones in the place their minds and hearts recognise as home.

Shame on Israel for its callous and merciless treatment of these good people and others and shame on the international community for not holding it to account!

Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be contacted at