Jerusalem is expected to grant Palestinian-Americans freedom of travel in Israel next month, as a stage in the process of Israel joining the US Visa Waiver Program.
Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said in a briefing on Sunday that a “pilot,” launching some parts of the VWP, will begin next month. “We are convinced that we will meet our goals by the end of September,” he said.
Israel has satisfied some conditions for its citizens to be able to travel to the US for up to 90 days without a visa, but it still has to demonstrate reciprocal access for Palestinian-Americans at Israel’s borders and to the West Bank.
An American official involved in the preparations said the pilot will entail a 30- to 45-day period during which US Department of Homeland Security delegates will track Palestinian-American travel through Ben-Gurion Airport and across West Bank checkpoints.
A Foreign Ministry spokesperson confirmed the planned arrival of a Homeland Security delegation and said that most elements of the pilot are “technical,” such as sharing databases.
The pilot program includes West-Bank residents
The pilot will not only include Palestinian-Americans living in the US, but also those based in the West Bank.
"If you're a Palestinian-American living in Ramallah, this means you can spend up to 90 days in Tel Aviv,” on an Israeli entry visa), the official told Reuters.
Asked how it would accommodate the pilot, the Israeli military referred Reuters to Israel's Interior Ministry, which did not immediately respond.
In an estimate that it says is based in part on US census data, the Arab American Institute Foundation puts the number of Palestinian-descended Americans at between 122,500 and 220,000.
Between 45,000 and 60,000 of them are in the West Bank, the official briefed on the VWP preparations said, adding that the pilot will not apply to the Islamist Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, where a small number of Palestinian-Americans live.
“Israel has to prove that it can do this,” an official involved in the process said.
“Israel has to prove that it can do this.”US official
The political situation in Israel, with a government that has clashed with the Biden administration over its planned judicial reforms and settlement construction, as well as a wave of Palestinian terrorist attacks and IDF action in Judea and Samaria, has raised some political opposition in Washington, the official said.
Still, the official posited that if Israel gets through the July pilot period as planned, it should be on track to join the VWP in the fall.
However, 65 Senators signed a letter last urging the Biden administration to prioritize Israel’s inclusion in the VWP.
“Approximately 450,000 Israelis travel annually to the US, and that number has been increasing each year. With 93 weekly direct flights from Israel to US airports, there is already significant demand for travel. As such, Israel’s participation in VWP would significantly increase the potential for both tourism and business travel,” wrote the Senators, led by Jackie Rosen (D-NV) and Rick Scott (R-FL).
At the same time, some progressive Democrats in Congress have sought to keep Israel out of the program. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who is of Palestinian origin and has family in the West Bank, spearheaded a letter last October arguing that Israel should be disqualified because of "ethnic-based discrimination" and racial profiling.