Israel to allow Palestinian Americans entry in bid for US visa-free access | Inquirer News

Israel to allow Palestinian Americans entry in bid for US visa-free access

/ 09:16 AM July 20, 2023

FILE PHOTO: Israeli and American flags flutter during preparations for U.S. President Joe Biden's visit to Israel

FILE PHOTO: Israeli and American flags stand during the final rehearsal for the ceremony to welcome U.S. President Joe Biden ahead of his visit to Israel, at Ben Gurion International airport, in Lod near Tel Aviv, Israel July 12, 2022. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo

JERUSALEM/WASHINGTON — Israel said it will begin on Thursday allowing entry to all U.S. citizens, including Palestinian Americans living in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip, in a policy change it hopes will secure visa-free access for Israelis to the United States.

Washington has blocked Israel’s longstanding bid to join the U.S. Visa Waiver Program (VWP) over differential treatment for some U.S. citizens, and officials said the U.S. will monitor the implementation of the changes over a six-week period.


An Israeli statement late on Wednesday quoted its national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi as saying U.S. Ambassador Thomas Nides and Israeli Ambassador Michael Herzog signed what the statement called a “reciprocity agreement.”


“The full implementation of the program will apply to any U.S. citizen, including those with dual citizenship, American residents of Judea and Samaria (the occupied West Bank) and American residents of the Gaza Strip,” the statement said.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said Washington expects the changes to “ensure equal treatment for all U.S. citizen travelers without regard to national origin, religion or ethnicity.”

The U.S. government would make a decision on whether Israel should be admitted to the VWP by Sept. 30, Miller said.

U.S. ties with its closest Middle East ally have been strained over policies towards the Palestinians of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right government and its plan to overhaul the judiciary, which critics see as anti-democratic.

The VWP issue was raised when U.S. President Joe Biden hosted Israeli President Isaac Herzog in the White House on Tuesday, a source briefed on the meeting said.

Reuters first reported on the planned commitment early on Wednesday.


Ease of travel

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said last month that the trial, which he called a pilot program, was planned for mid-July. Sources who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue also described it as a trial.

Under the trial, Palestinian Americans from the West Bank would be able to fly in and out of Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv. Previously they would generally fly to neighboring Jordan, cross into the West Bank by land and face restrictions if seeking to enter Israel.

They would also be able to begin using new online Israeli forms to apply for entry to Israel at West Bank crossing points as U.S. tourists, the sources said.

A Biden administration official who briefed reporters said Palestinian Americans residing in the West Bank or Gaza crossing into Israel would receive entry permits that allowed them to enter for up to 90 days.

“We want to make sure that they are in compliance with our standards and our processes,” the official said of Israel, adding that Israelis would not have visa-free access to the United States during the six-week monitoring period.

“We’re not there yet,” the administration official said.

The official declined to detail how Washington would monitor implementation, but sources said a State Department and Homeland Security Department delegation was due to observe operations during the trial, with visits to Ben Gurion and to crossings between the West Bank and Israel.

“For entry into the Visa Waiver Program, all of the Program’s mandatory requirements must be satisfied,” the Department of Homeland Security said in a statement welcoming the steps announced by Israel.

U.S. officials assessing the trial will also focus on whether Palestinian Americans or other Arab Americans are subjected to selective grilling by Israeli security personnel, sources said.

One source said that, while Israel would bar anyone deemed a security threat, it did not plan as a matter of policy to restrict entry to any American “BDS-ers” – a reference to pro-Palestinian calls to boycott, divest from or sanction Israel.

The Arab American Institute Foundation puts the number of Americans of Palestinian descent at between 122,500 and 220,000. A U.S. official estimated that, of that number, between 45,000 and 60,000 were residents of the West Bank.

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An Israeli official gave lower figures, saying that out of 70,000 to 90,000 Palestinian Americans worldwide, about 15,000 to 20,000 were West Bank residents.


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TAGS: Israel, Palestinians, US citizens, world news

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