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A Visa Program Exception for Israel

Welcome to the Tuesday News Bulletin! Every Tuesday, we publish original reporting on Israel/Palestine by our staff and contributors, which goes directly to our newsletter subscribers. The Tuesday News Bulletin also serves as a forum for aggregating stories Jewish Currents staffers are tracking, with plenty of links to other publications so you can keep up with everything happening on our beats.

A Visa Program Exception for Israel
The US has admitted Israel into the Visa Waiver Program even though the country continues to discriminate against Palestinian American travelers.
Alex Kane

On September 27th, Israel saw a decade-long quest come to fruition when the United States Department of Homeland Security and State Department announced that Israel would soon become part of the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), permitting Israelis to travel to the US without first securing a visa. The decision, which will take effect in two months, was cheered by Israeli and US officials, who say it will enhance economic ties and security cooperation between the two countries—but sharply criticized by Palestinian Americans, who believe the move condones Israel’s continuing discrimination against Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim American travelers, as well as those active in the Palestine solidarity movement. Palestinian rights advocates say that in addition to allowing Israel to treat some American visitors differently than others, admitting Israel into the VWP also functions as a gift to the current far-right Israeli government. “My community is being sacrificed to give [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu a perk,” James Zogby, the head of the advocacy group Arab American Institute, told Jewish Currents.

Israel has worked to gain entry to the VWP since 2013. AIPAC and Jewish American establishment groups have lobbied for the move, as have many members of Congress. According to Hadar Susskind, head of the Jewish anti-occupation group Americans for Peace Now, Israel wanted to join the program not only to ease Israeli citizens’ travel to the US, but also for symbolic reasons. “It’s a benefit only 40 other nations get, and Israel wants to see itself as one of the most favored nations,” Susskind said. However, Israel previously found itself blocked from the program for two reasons. The first was the visa refusal rate: A country can only qualify for the VWP if the US annually rejects less than 3% of visa applications by that country’s citizens. Israeli citizens’ visa rejection rate routinely exceeded that threshold due to incomplete applications and US embassy officials’ fear that Israelis would overstay their visas. It was only in the last fiscal year, after a period of low travel following the pandemic, that the US visa rejection rate for Israeli citizens fell below 3%, giving Israel a unique window of opportunity.

The other, much more contentious, reason that Israel has struggled to enter the VWP is the program’s requirement of “reciprocity.” While the exact definition of “reciprocity” is not laid out in the law creating the VWP, US officials have defined it to mean “equal treatment and freedom of travel for all US citizens.” In other words, under the VWP, American security officers won’t discriminate against Israeli travelers entering the US without visas if Israeli border officers likewise allow Americans visa-free entry into Israel regardless of their race, religion, or national origin. However, Israeli border officials have routinely violated this expectation by frequently detaining, interrogating, and deporting Palestinian Americans as well as other Arab and Muslim US citizens. Israel has also prevented many Palestinian Americans from using Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, requiring them to first travel to Jordan before allowing them to cross into the occupied West Bank. Palestinian Americans with Gaza IDs have likewise faced discrimination since they are often only allowed to enter the coastal enclave through Egypt. For years, these discriminatory policies drew US censure, with the State Department warning travelers that Arab and Muslim US citizens may experience “significant difficulties and unequal and occasionally hostile treatment at Israel’s borders and checkpoints.” And as recently as July, a Biden administration official noted that Israel “does not currently meet all of the statutory and policy requirements” of the VWP because of a lack of full reciprocity towards Palestinian Americans.

Israel has long resisted making the changes necessary to enter the VWP due to worries that easing restrictions on Palestinian Americans could pose security concerns. But after the US visa refusal rate for Israeli citizens came down in the last fiscal year, the Israeli political establishment decided to push past its security concerns and ease travel for Palestinian Americans so it could finally enter the VWP. On July 19th, Israel signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the US in which it committed to “equal treatment” for all US citizens. Starting July 20th, Israel has allowed Palestinian Americans to use Ben-Gurion Airport, making their trips to Israel and the West Bank much easier. On September 11th, Israel also published new travel regulations permitting Palestinian Americans with Gaza IDs visa-free travel to Israel, though Gazans still face more restrictions on travel than those with West Bank IDs.

According to Human Rights Watch’s Eric Goldstein, these changes are an example of the US successfully using its influence to “get Israel to treat its citizens somewhat better.” Scott Lasensky, who served as an Obama administration policy advisor on Israel, shared this assessment, telling Jewish Currents that “in the last two years, the United States leveraged the Visa Waiver Program to get Israel to do a whole range of things that it didn’t want to do in terms of Arab, Palestinian, and Muslim American travel.” The resulting shifts have been significant for Palestinian Americans, thousands of whom have been able to enter Israel since mid-July. “So many Palestinians have been waiting their whole lives to be able to go to Jerusalem,” said Alia El-Assar, the congressional outreach coordinator for the American Federation of Ramallah, Palestine. “This is huge for them.”

But although these changes are positive and “marginally ease entry for Palestinian Americans,” El-Assar said, “they are not enough.” Among US citizens, Palestinian Americans residing in the West Bank are still singled out in being required to apply for an Israeli entry permit using a separate online system run by the Israeli military. Furthermore, even if they have tourist visas, such citizens are still not permitted to drive through military checkpoints into Israel. The Biden administration has said that the separate online system for Palestinian Americans would be eliminated by May 1st, 2024. It has also promised to “solve” the car issue, but the existing MOU with Israel does not reference changes to car regulations, and in fact explicitly states that the memorandum’s “principles and commitments” do not apply to Israeli vehicle regulations. Palestinian Americans who live in Gaza are also excluded from the full benefits of the VWP: They are still required to wait as long as 45 days to get permission to enter Israel—a duration far longer than the 48 hours Israel takes to approve all other American travelers. Furthermore, El-Assar told Jewish Currents that, in instances she has documented since Israel made changes to its visa policies, Palestinian Americans have continued to face harassment at the hands of Israeli border officials, particularly as they are leaving the country. “When it’s time to leave, they have been harassed, they’ve been intimidated, they’ve been forced to strip down so they can be searched,” she said. “This is a strategy to discourage Palestinian Americans from returning.”

In addition to restricting Palestinian American visitors, Israel also continues to hold the power to prevent US citizens from traveling to certain parts of Palestine. Americans are still largely barred from visiting Gaza unless they have an immediate relative there. Moreover, according to the MOU, Israel still has the discretion to ban travelers it deems to be security risks. Zaha Hassan, a human rights lawyer and a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that such discretionary power could be used to exclude affiliates of Palestinian human rights organizations. “There’s nothing in the MOU to prevent denials of entry over speech, activism, or association with certain NGOs and human rights organizations,” Hassan said. According to the Times of Israel, even when the US recently warned Israel not to continue denying entry to Americans who express support for a boycott of the country, Israel did not agree to that request.

The Biden administration’s decision to grant Israel entry into the VWP despite these violations of reciprocity has drawn opposition from Palestinian Americans. “The Department of Homeland Security is supposed to implement the law,” Hassan said. “It’s not supposed to create an exception for Israel outside of the law.” Some members of Congress are joining Palestinian American advocates in criticizing the move. In a joint statement written on September 27th, Senators Chris Van Hollen, Brian Schatz, Jeff Merkley, and Peter Welch argued that “equal treatment of all U.S. citizens is critical to the integrity of the Visa Waiver Program, and we are deeply concerned with the Administration’s decision to move forward in violation of that principle.” And on September 26th, Israel’s entry into the VWP faced its first legal challenge as the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) filed a federal lawsuit seeking to stop the decision by arguing that the Department of Homeland Security was redefining the meaning of “reciprocity” and thus taking an “arbitrary and capricious action.” But two days later, a judge rejected ADC’s request for a preliminary injunction to prevent Israel’s entry, dashing hopes for immediate federal action against the Biden administration’s move.

US officials have tried to reassure critics by saying that they will continue to monitor Israel’s compliance with the VWP’s requirements; some have even talked about a “snapback” provision that would reverse the country’s entry into the program if it discriminates against Americans. However, human rights advocates worry that there is little prospect for reversing the Biden administration’s decision. “If they’re not going to apply human rights law on aid to Israel, how can I expect them to apply it now for American travelers who are going to be treated in a discriminatory manner?” said Zogby. “When have we ever snapped anything back with Israel?”

Israeli activist Jonathan Pollak attends a hearing in the trial against him on September 28th. Pollak was arrested in January on charges of stone-throwing during a demonstration against a new Israeli settlement. After his arrest, the activist asked that his case be moved from a civilian court to a military court so that he would face the same treatment as Palestinians. However, the court denied Pollak’s request, leading him to reject the legitimacy of the court and refuse to cooperate with the proceedings.

Oren Ziv/Activestills

As part of the Tuesday News Bulletin, Jewish Currents is publishing a photograph taken by members of Activestills every week, archiving ongoing dispossession and resistance from the river to the sea. You can find more information on this collaboration here.

Here’s what else we’re tracking:
  • On September 26th, Israeli tourism minister Haim Katz traveled to Saudi Arabia for a United Nations tourism event, becoming the first Israeli minister to ever visit the country. Days later, a second visit followed when Israeli Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi attended the Universal Postal Union congress in Riyadh. The visits, which signal warming ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, came amidst the Biden administration’s efforts to broker a deal in which the two countries establish official diplomatic relations. As part of the negotiations, Saudi Arabia is requesting US assistance in establishing a nuclear energy program, something that Israel has historically opposed. However, according to a September 21st report in The Wall Street Journal, Israeli officials are now working with US negotiators to forge a deal that would give Saudi Arabia the capacity to enrich uranium.
  • On Thursday, Israel reopened its crossing points with Gaza after about two weeks of closure. Israel had instituted the closure after Palestinians protested near the fence separating Gaza from Israel, with some throwing stones and explosive devices to pressure Israel to ease its blockade and improve conditions for Palestinian prisoners. In response to the protests, Israeli troops opened fire, killing one Palestinian demonstrator. Soon afterwards, Israel imposed the closure, preventing Palestinian laborers from getting to job sites in Israel and further harming a Gazan economy already devastated by years of Israeli blockade.
  • A crowdfunding campaign for Amiram Ben-Uliel, the Israeli extremist convicted of murdering three Palestinians in a 2015 arson attack, raised over $260,000 in a single day this month, according to a September 21st report by Israeli news outlet YNet. The campaign is the initiative of an organization called “Justice for Amiram,” which contends that Ben-Uliel was falsely convicted based on a confession extracted under torture. The fundraising efforts have the support of Limor Son Ha-Melech, an Israeli Knesset member belonging to the right-wing Jewish Power party. During a Justice for Amiram fundraising event last month, Ha-Melech said Ben-Uliel is a “holy righteous man” who is “innocent” of murder.
  • Last week, Democratic Senators Jon Ossoff and Cory Booker joined their Republican counterparts Todd Young and James Lankford to introduce a bill that would strengthen the office of the US Security Coordinator in Israel/Palestine, which is tasked with bolstering intelligence sharing and cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank. The bill would provide $75 million in annual funding for the coordinator over the next five years. It would also prevent any administration from downgrading the coordinator’s military rank, a proposal that comes in reaction to a recently aborted Pentagon plan to demote the coordinator from a general to a colonel. If the bill passes, the new funding would ensure robust US support for “security coordination” between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, further enabling the two to crack down on Palestinian militant groups carrying out violent attacks against Israelis.
  • Earlier today, Secretary of State Antony Blinken reversed Republican Senator Jim Risch’s decision to block food aid to Palestinian refugees in Gaza, according to the United Nation Relief Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides services to Palestinian refugees. In July, Risch held up the disbursement of $75 million in food aid to the UNRWA and claimed that he would not release the aid until the State Department took steps to increase oversight over the agency, which he said employs Palestinian militants and promotes antisemitism. Civil society groups urged Blinken to ignore Risch’s hold and ensure the funds are distributed anyway. “If Senator Risch’s hold is not expeditiously lifted or overridden,” a letter to Blinken from the Jewish anti-occupation group Americans for Peace Now read, “Gaza faces an impending humanitarian catastrophe, with over 1.2 million Palestinian refugees, including hundreds of thousands of vulnerable children, left without food.”