Israeli Regime Seeks Visa Exemptions from Biden, Continues to Harass Palestinian-American Travelers
July 27 2023

On July 19th, the U.S. and Israel signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) for Israel’s potential inclusion in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which grants a country’s citizens freedom to travel to the U.S. for 90 days without needing to request a visa. While the Israeli ambassador hailed this step as “a significant milestone towards Israel joining the program,” Arab American groups rightfully criticized yet another Biden administration move that bolsters the far-right Netanyahu government.

“By admitting Israel into the VWP in violation of statutory requirements, the Biden administration will choose to abandon the rights of Arab American citizens to give Israel a political perk,” protested the Arab American Institute (AAI). “We have been tracking violations for years and [the Israeli’s regime’s] discrimination against our community is the norm – not the exception,” they added. 

According to AAI, Israel has denied entry to over 100,000 Arab Americans. Because of this history of discrimination, Israel’s entry into the VWP has long been opposed by Arab Americans. Under the terms of the VWP, a nation must grant reciprocal entrance to American citizens —– a condition met by the 40 other countries in the program. However, successive Israeli leaders have sought entry into the VWP while rejecting reciprocity. The lobbying effort by AIPAC received pushback from the Obama administration in 2014, which stated that an exemption would not be granted. Speaking anonymously, one Congressperson stated at the time: “It’s stunning that you would give a green light to another country to violate the civil liberties of Americans traveling abroad.” 

The current agreement does not officially provide Israel with such an exemption, but, in fact, the MOU is structured in such a way that Israeli authorities will maintain the ability to deny entry to any Americans deemed unwelcome. A four to six-week-long review period began on July 20, as State and Homeland Security officials oversee a pilot program to assess its treatment at Tel Aviv airport toward Palestinian, Iranian, and Arab Americans. These Americans will be granted a 90-day tourist visa. Palestinian Americans who reside in the West Bank, however, will need to rely on a specialized application to secure an entry permit. For Palestinian Americans residing in Gaza, Israel has refused to grant direct entry to Tel Aviv. Instead, the Palestinian Authority will operate a shuttle between Jordan and Gaza. 

A provision in the MOU grants the U.S. a "snap back" mechanism to cancel the agreement should the Israeli authorities fail to uphold their commitments. Jonathan Kuttab of the Arab Center in Washington, however, was skeptical that the agreement, once announced, could ever be revoked. “Removing a powerfully connected state like Israel from the VWP once it is admitted is difficult and could prove impossible,” he wrote in a critique of the waiver. “The proposed mechanism offered…is simply inadequate to meet the reciprocity requirements. [This] appears to be an effort to circumvent the intent of the law governing entry visas and [an attempt to] use political pressure to benefit Israel.”

The MOU only applies to Tel Aviv airport, but not to other border crossings, such as the Allenby bridge or the Port of Haifa, where no mechanism exists to monitor the actions of Israeli officials and soldiers. Additionally, while those who hold Israeli passports may travel freely throughout the US, Palestinian Americans will still encounter checkpoints, be harassed and face delays and denial of movement. “Those [Palestinians] visiting or residing in the Occupied Territories often report that soldiers take particular glee in dismissing or disrespecting US passports and telling Palestinian Americans that their passports are of no value,” Kuttab emphasized. 

There are countless cases documenting the long history of discrimination against Americans at the Tel Aviv airport and the Allenby bridge. Back in 2019, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) — the sole Palestinian American in Congress — and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) were denied entry after the two announced plans to visit the Occupied West Bank alongside human rights organizations. 

In 2018, Israel refused entry to Lara Alqasem, an American student admitted to an Israeli university, due to her alleged support for the BDS movement. Alqasem was detained for two weeks. And, just a day before the MOU announcement, a Palestinian American related on Twitter that she was denied boarding an Israeli airline. 

A handful of American senators voiced concern about the MOU. In a statement, they wrote, “All U.S. citizens deserve equal treatment under the Visa Waiver Program — and we cannot move forward with Israel’s candidacy until that is guaranteed.” More than half the Senate, however, added their names to a letter requesting that the secretaries of State and Defense “prioritize finalizing Israel’s accession [to the VWP] this year.” 

The MOU came out on a busy week for Palestine matters on the Hill.  Last week, the House passed a resolution that condemned the designation of Israel as a “racist state,” in response to Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WI) — chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus — telling a progressive conference, “I want you to know that we have been fighting to make it clear that Israel is a racist state.” Jayapal then backed down under pressure, saying that she was referring only to the current Israeli government. The following day, Israeli President Isaac Herzog addressed a joint session of Congress. Several progressive members of the House boycotted his speech. 

About The Author: 

Khelil Bouarrouj is a former content editor at the Institute for Palestine Studies. Prior to his experience at IPS, he lived and taught English in Nablus in the Occupied West Bank. He frequently writes about Palestinian affairs, queer issues, and gastronomy


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