Born in Lakeland; detained by Israel

A family is told seven of their children cannot leave via Tel Aviv.

By MEG LAUGHLIN, Times Staff Writer
Published September 5, 2007

LAKELAND -- A large Lakeland family has been split in two temporarily by complex Israeli travel restrictions that forced the mother to leave seven of her children behind when they attempted to fly home.

On Aug. 18, Wedad Yacoub and 10 of her children -- all U.S. citizens -- were returning from a family visit in the West Bank through Tel Aviv, the same airport through which they had arrived more than two months before.

Israeli officials initially tried to block the family from leaving, saying they had to go through Jordan, a travel restriction that applies to Palestinian residents of the West Bank. Officials finally permitted Wedad Yacoub and her three youngest children to fly home, but the other seven children are still in the West Bank, two weeks later with no resolution in sight.

"I can't believe that children who were born in Lakeland could have their American citizenship ignored by a country so friendly to the U.S," said Wedad.

Even Israeli officials couldn't readily explain it.

"American citizens born in America can't leave through Tel Aviv, where they came in?" asked Daniel Seaman, director of the Government Press Office in Israel. "This has to be inaccurate. This can't be."

Seaman says it will take some research to know what happened, which is what he, other Israeli officials, U.S. State Department officials and Florida congressmen are doing.

"We've called the State Department and we want to solve this, but we don't have answers yet," said Keith Rupp, a spokesman for Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow.

The journey began normally enough on June 4 when Wedad Yacoub and her 10 children entered Israel through Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, as they have done every summer for the past five years. After attending family weddings and visiting with family in the West Bank, she and the children returned on Aug. 18 to fly out of Tel Aviv.

But, to their surprise, they were stopped by Israeli security officers who said they had to exit through Jordan because of their father's Palestinian heritage. Steve Yacoub, 54, was born in the West Bank, but moved to the United States 30 years ago. He became a citizen shortly after.

"Our father's heritage can't erase that we're American citizens, born and raised in Lakeland, Fla.," 18-year old Ramy Yacoub says he told Israeli police.

But, he says, they disagreed.

Wedad, who began weeping, was allowed to leave with the three youngest children. But the other kids, ages 11 to 21, were told they had to return to the West Bank. They stayed six hours in the airport before family members arranged for a driver to get them.

"We entertained ourselves by humming theme songs from U.S. television shows," said Ibrahim Yacoub, 21. "Our favorite is the tune from Jeopardy."

A month before, the children's father, who owns a Lakeland convenience store, arrived in Tel Aviv to go to the West Bank with his U.S. passport, as he does every year. But he was told by Israeli police that he had to travel through Jordan because of an expired Palestinian ID from 28 years before.

Yacoub said that he had entered as a U.S citizen for many years but dutifully complied and embarked on a 72-hour marathon, flying back to the United States from Tel Aviv, then flying to Jordan to enter the West Bank in time for a wedding.

"But I didn't think Israeli officials would suddenly turn my American-born children into Palestinians because of it," he said.

But apparently they did, at least to some degree.

The children say they were told they must get Palestinian IDs and depart through Jordan because their Palestinian heritage trumped their American citizenship. If they are not permitted to fly from Tel Aviv, the children will forfeit their $9,100 in tickets and face the prospect of buying tickets from Jordan for $16,800.

"Coming up with about $26,000 is not easy," said Wedad, who was born in Kuwait but is a U.S. citizen.

While Israeli officials did not respond with an explanation Tuesday, a clue to their thinking came from the U.S. State Department. A spokesman provided what he called "observations" made in May by State Department officials concerning Israeli travel policies.

According to these observations: "It is possible that an American citizen born in the United States whose parents were born or lived in the West Bank or Gaza would be considered a resident by Israeli authorities."

But why this "possible" designation as a new resident of the West Bank suddenly fell upon the Yacoub children, no one seems to know, including the State Department spokesman, Steve Royster.

Royster could offer only this broad statement: "We are committed to ensuring that all American travelers receive fair and equal treatment. ... We are having a positive dialogue with the government of Israel on travel and security issues."

Meanwhile, the Yacoub kids, who are staying with family in Silwad, a hilly farm town outside of Ramallah, say they sleep most of the day, play cards at night and wait for a phone call telling them to get to the airport. Their luggage, which had been checked through to Tampa, is unopened in their Lakeland home.

Jeanine, 16, worries that her 4.0 average at Lake Gibson High School will drop. Enam, 13, misses her afternoon soccer games, and Deena, 11, misses her school pals.

"We're all totally stressed out," said Ibrahim, 21, in a phone call from Silwad.

It's the first time in many years that Lake Gibson Middle School hasn't had a Yacoub in school, principal John Barber said Tuesday. "They're smart, well-behaved kids and we want them back," he said.

Meg Laughlin can be reached at mlaughlin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8068. Times staff writers Susan Taylor Martin and Wes Allison contributed to this report.