Palestinian-Americans living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip can enter Israel including through Ben-Gurion Airport as part of a policy change Israel announced on Wednesday night in a bid to secure visa-free access for Israelis to the United States.
Washington has blocked Israel’s longstanding bid to join the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP) over differential treatment for some US citizens, and officials said the US will monitor the implementation of the changes over a six-week period.
US Ambassador Thomas Nides and Israeli Ambassador Michael Herzog signed the “reciprocity agreement” in Washington on Wednesday, which set in motion a pilot program based on the new policy.
The program will apply to any and all US citizens
Nides is set to leave his post at the end of this week and has worked since his arrival in Israel in December 2021 to ensure that Israel can enter the VWP.
“The full implementation of the program will apply to any US citizen, including those with dual citizenship, American residents of Judea and Samaria and American residents of the Gaza Strip,” National Security Advisor Tzahi Hanegbi said.
But the initial pilot program to allow Palestinian-Americans entry into Israel is applicable only for West Bank Palestinians and is expected to apply to those living in Gaza only in the fall.
US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said Washington expects the policy change to “ensure equal treatment for all US citizen travelers without regard to national origin, religion or ethnicity.”
Israel's inclusion into visa waiver program
The launch of the travel program brings Israel closer to acceptance in VWP, a process that must be finalized by September 30.
The VWP issue was among the topics raised when US President Joe Biden hosted Israeli President Isaac Herzog in the White House on Tuesday, a source briefed on the meeting, said.
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 sovereign Israel at West Bank crossing points as US tourists, the sources said.
A Biden administration official who briefed reporters said Palestinian-Americans 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.
A State Department and Homeland Security Department will monitor operations during the trial
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 Airport and to crossings between the West Bank and sovereign 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.
US 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.
Not very many Palestinians will be impacted by the program, but it will positively affect Jews
The number of Palestinians impacted by the program is not very high. The Arab American Institute Foundation puts the number of Americans of Palestinian descent at between 122,500 and 220,000. A US official estimated that, of that number, between 45,000 and 60,000 were residents of the West Bank.
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.
The World Jewish Congress along with other groups lauded the move.
WJC President Ronald S. Lauder said that Israel’s entry into the program would have a positive impact on “Jewish communities across the United States” which “have large equities at stake.”
“Our schools, summer camps, sister city relationships, and myriad other cross-cultural programs will benefit immeasurably, as will so many families with relatives in both countries.
It would “also be a big boost for business and investment, including for critical sectors like cyber-security, healthcare, and defense,” he explained.
The program reinforces the strength of the US-Israel alliance, despite concerns
The announcement sends a “powerful signal about the strength of the US-Israel alliance and aligns with the Administration’s broader confidence-building efforts on the path toward Middle East peace and regional integration.”
But a number of Democratic senators expressed their concern about Israel’s commitment to preventing discrimination against Palestinian-Americans.
Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), and Peter Welch (D-Vt.) urged US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to ensure that Israel was not discriminating against US citizens on the basis of “race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, or membership in any other protected class recognized by United States law.”
They called on the State Department to “adopt mechanisms to monitor this compliance and ensure sufficient time for their review. All US citizens deserve equal treatment under the Visa Waiver Program – and we cannot move forward with Israel’s candidacy until that is guaranteed.”