Palestinians’ Press for Modifications Before Israel’s Admission to the US Visa Waiver Program
By: Bishara A Bahbah / Arab America Featured Columnist
Palestinian Americans are raising concerns over Israel’s application to the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP), causing delays in granting US approval. If approved, the VWP would allow Israeli passport holders to visit the United States without securing a visa from the US embassy beforehand – a process that is arduous and often unpredictable and which empowers US consular officers to grant or refuse a visa application at their discretion.
A letter recently sent to US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas by the American Federation of Ramallah-Palestine with input from the US Palestine Council (USPC) and various Arab-American organizations, raised concerns over Israel’s continued discrimination against US citizens, primarily Palestinian Americans, entering Israel through Ben-Gurion airport and land crossings via the bridges with Jordan.
Countries participating in the US VWP must provide “reciprocal privileges to citizens and nationals of the United States.” Reciprocity is a central tenet of the waiver program. Every US citizen with a tourist visa to the 40 countries participating in the US waiver program must be treated equally – regardless of race, creed, ethnic background, or secondary nationality. Americans, particularly Palestinian Americans, entering or exiting Israel are habitually racially profiled based on their Arab-sounding names, birthplace, second nationality, and the extent and nature of their political activism. They are often subjected to dehumanizing treatment and hours-long detention.
The 55,000 Palestinian Americans who are residents in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) are currently not allowed to travel via Ben-Gurion Airport without a hard-to-secure special permit from the Israeli Civil Administration, which practically regulates most aspects of Palestinians’ lives in the West Bank and, to a lesser extent, in Gaza.
Knowledgeable sources have informed me that a draft agreement has already been completed, and both Israel and the US hope to sign the deal by the end of May. Nevertheless, the US State Department and Homeland Security continue encouraging all concerned to submit their comments and concerns before the agreement is finalized. If approved, it would become effective by September of this year.
Successive Israeli governments have made joining the VWP a priority policy goal. However, to be admitted to the program, the number of rejected applicants for a tourist visa to the United States may be at most three percent. Israel was able to get over that hump mainly due to the travel restrictions imposed following the corona pandemic forcing many Israelis to postpone applying for US tourist visas until a later date. Hence, a rare window exists now for Israel to qualify.
However, several other requirements must be met, and Israel has yet to commit to essential policy changes before any final approval by the United States. That has accorded Palestinian Americans leverage over Israel’s admission into the program.
Palestinian Americans have pointed out that no other country has been admitted into the US visa waiver program, having occupied other people for more than 50 years, and has placed millions under their military control. Israel is also the only country that does not have internationally recognized borders which brings up and complicates essential considerations.
Before being admitted into the VWP, the United States must certify that Israel has changed its discriminatory policies toward Palestinian Americans, especially those who hold Palestinian passports. Israel must, therefore, commit to the following:
- Recognize the primacy of US citizenship over any other citizenship Palestinians might hold, including the holding of a Palestinian passport.
- Israel must allow Palestinian Americans unrestricted visa-free freedom to travel to and from, and within, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
- US citizens should be allowed access to Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, even Palestinian Americans.
- Any agreement between the United States and Israel must include the Gaza Strip. Internationally, the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem are viewed by the world, except for a handful of countries, as one unit.
- Israel must include in its agreement all points of entry – the airport, the bridge crossings, and any port.
To complicate matters even further are the regulations enacted on October 20, 2022, by Israel’s Civil Administration, otherwise known as the Coordinator of Activities in the Territories (COGAT). At that time, COGAT codified and intensified previous restrictions on entering foreigners, including US citizens, into the West Bank. These regulations effectively bar most US citizens from entry into the West Bank. In contrast, no restrictions are placed on US citizens looking to visit Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank.
If these COGAT restrictions remain in place, Israel will not be honoring the principle of reciprocity and is, therefore, not eligible to participate in the US visa waiver program.
Palestinian Americans are asking the US State Department to develop and implement a reporting system to track denials and mistreatment of US citizens at all points of entry into Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. The US State Department must create a 24/7 hotline based at the State Department for US citizens to report Israeli violations of the terms of the US visa waiver program.
The United States should forewarn Israel that any serious breaches would entail its removal from the VWP in the way Argentina was kicked out of the VWP over its nationals overstaying their tourist visas some two decades ago when Argentina was experiencing a severe economic downturn.
The details of the draft agreement between Israel and the US about the visa waiver program remain a secret and have yet to be made public. Despite the looming deadline that faces Israel’s entry into the VWP, Israel should not take it for granted that it will be admitted into the program. Palestinian Americans are better organized and more politically involved and motivated than they were a few years ago.
Without meeting the guarantees required of Israel to enter the visa waiver program, the United States cannot weasel an agreement with Israel that circumvents what US law demands. Otherwise, the US government will end up in a legal battle with Palestinian Americans.
Dr. Bishara A Bahbah is vice president of the US Palestine Council (USPC), a US-based public advocacy group. He previously served as the editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem-based Al-Fajr Daily Newspaper. Prof. Bahbah taught at Harvard University, where he was also the associate director of its Middle East Institute.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab America.
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