Palestinian Americans welcome US-Israel visa waiver plan, but concerned about compliance

So far, about 2,500 Palestinian Americans have been able to transit to the West Bank through Israel during a trial period

For the past two decades, Palestinians with US citizenship travelling to the occupied West Bank could not enter Israel or use Ben Gurion Airport, and had to enter through Jordan. AFP
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For the first time ever, travelling to Jerusalem did not feel like torment for Kamal Nawash, a Palestinian-American lawyer who lives in the US state of Virginia.

Instead of spending eight hours at Jordan’s Allenby Bridge, where he would normally be subjected to lengthy questioning, additional fees and long waits, late last month, he flew directly to Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport – and was even welcomed by authorities.

“The customs person didn't ask me my name or where I was going – he didn't do anything,” Mr Nawash, who is now back in Virginia, told The National.

“He just said, 'Welcome to Israel,' and the whole thing took less than 10 seconds – this was the first time ever I didn't feel tormented.”

On July 19, as a condition for its accession to the US Visa Waiver Programme, Israel amended its rules for how Palestinian Americans can enter and leave the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip under a trial period.

Citing an Israeli official, a Reuters report on Monday said about 2,500 Palestinian Americans have so far travelled through Israel's borders under the pilot programme.

For the past two decades, unlike all other American citizens, Israel has prevented Palestinian Americans who live in or were visiting relatives in the West Bank or Gaza from entering Israel and blocked them from using its main airport, citing security concerns.

They were instead forced to take a circuitous route by flying into neighbouring Jordan and crossing a land border into the West Bank – a costly and time-consuming detour.

Palestinians from Gaza have had to cross through Egypt, an even longer route.

But to be allowed into the coveted US programme – which would allow Israeli citizens to travel to the US for 90 days without having to apply ahead of time for a visa – Israel would have to treat all American travellers equally, regardless of where they were born or where they are headed.

The trial period, which ends on September 30, could be open to up to 220,000 Palestinian Americans, according to some estimates.

Gazan Americans were initially excluded from the plan, but on Monday, the US embassy put out a new advisory explaining that starting September 15, US citizens travelling to Gaza would be able to transit through Israel as part of the trial.

US officials said they would be monitoring Israel's compliance and have insisted that for the country to be admitted to the programme, it would have to show that “blue is blue” – a reference to the colour of the US passport.

But many Palestinian Americans are concerned that once admitted into the programme, Israel will revert to discriminating against them at borders.

“I do like to be a little optimistic but I am scared that could happen – I'm definitely apprehensive,” Mr Nawash said.

The new plan comes at a time when ties between the two long-time allies have soured over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s extreme right-wing government’s push to overhaul the country’s judiciary, a move that critics say will erode the nation's democracy.

The new law set off a massive nationwide protest movement that has raged for months.

In a break from tradition, Mr Biden, who is running for re-election next year, has yet to invite Mr Netanyahu to the White House.

On Wednesday, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said that the two leaders would meet later in the year, "somewhere in the United States," adding that details "are still being worked out."

“There's this effort to marginalise Netanyahu and try to put pressure on him to not take the kinds of actions that are leading Israel into greater authoritarianism and diminishing Israel as a democracy,” Zaha Hassan, a human rights lawyer and a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told The National.

“At the same time, the Biden administration also wants to make the point in an election year that this administration is very much pro-Israel.

“And so, there is this added interest in wanting to see Israel admitted into the programme, even though this is probably the worst time.”

Adding to the urgency is that thanks to reduced travel during the Covid pandemic, the rejection rate of visa applications for Israel for the first time this fiscal year dropped below 3 per cent – a key requirement for entry into the Visa Waiver Programme.

“Now they have a window in which they can qualify, if Israel is not approved this year by September 30, they're going to have to wait until 2026,” Khaled Elgindy, director of Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute, told The National.

Israel has for decades sought to be admitted to the programme, and if successful, it would be a major win for the Netanyahu government.

“It’s not that Biden wants to reward Netanyahu as such,” Mr Elgindy said.

“Biden is strongly pro-Israel and wants to see Israel normalised and integrated in the region as part of his legacy.

“It goes beyond Netanyahu.”

He points to recent US efforts to push for Saudi Arabia to join the Abraham Accords, which he says are critical to the Biden administration’s vision and agenda in the region.

For Mr Nawash, who has been flying into Jordan since 2005, Israel's accession to the programme would amount to a monumental improvement. For the first time, he says, he felt welcomed by Israeli authorities and that the US government “had his back”.

“I'm usually angry by the time I get through the experience and the whole process,” he says, “but this time, I felt that I was home for the first time in my life.”

Updated: August 09, 2023, 4:30 PM