Arab Americans 'apprehensive' about US admitting Israel to visa waiver programme

From November 30, Israeli citizens will be able to stay in the US for up to 90 days without a visa

Passengers check in at Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia. AFP
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US President Joe Biden's administration on Wednesday announced that it would admit Israel to its visa waiver programme, despite concerns from Arab-American groups over the country's treatment of Palestinian Americans at its borders.

In a joint statement, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said that starting on November 30, Israeli citizens can stay in the US for up to 90 days without a visa.

“Israel’s entry into the visa waiver programme represents a critical step forward in our strategic partnership with Israel that will further strengthen long-standing people-to-people engagement, economic co-operation and security co-ordination between our two countries,” Mr Blinken said in a statement.

“This important achievement will enhance freedom of movement for US citizens, including those living in the Palestinian territories or travelling to and from them.”

But the decision has been met with disappointment from many Arab Americans, who say that Israel has not met the legal requirements of reciprocity – the main rule for entry into the programme.

“This was a fix from the beginning,” said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute and columnist for The National.

“Israel was guaranteed under those terms to pass and, frankly, the administration drove a bus over Arab Americans to give Israel a perk they didn't deserve.”

Israel has for years sought access to the coveted programme, which only 40 other nations belong to.

But its entry was blocked primarily because it prevented Palestinian Americans from the occupied West Bank and Gaza from entering Israel or travelling in and out of Ben Gurion International Airport, citing security concerns. It instead forced them to take circuitous routes through neighbouring countries and did not allow them to move freely within Israel.

It also routinely profiled Arab and Muslim Americans for additional screening and questioning.

Under the rules of the visa waiver programme, countries must give equal treatment to all US travellers, regardless of where they are born, where they live or what other passports they hold.

In July, the US and Israel signed an agreement that set the conditions for Israel’s entry into the programme and announced a trial period during which it would allow Palestinian Americans entry through its international airport.

But Arab-American groups say poor treatment continued during the trial period and now that Israel has been admitted into the programme, there is little guarantee that it will abide by the rules.

Earlier this month, a group of 15 US senators wrote a letter to Mr Blinken to express serious concerns over Israel's compliance.

On Tuesday, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee said it had filed a federal lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department, saying their investigations have shown that Israel failed to meet all the legal requirements for admission to the programme.

“The decision to sue is almost an obvious one, as the process was moving along it became apparent that the US government was bending the rules for Israel,” Abed Ayoub, national executive director of the ADC, told The National.

“They haven't changed their behaviour, they're still targeting American citizens and they are still being treated differently.”

Mr Ayoub added that, over the course of the trial period, his organisation received dozens of reports of breaches of rules at Israel's borders.

The decision is a major win for the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose extreme right-wing government is pushing to overhaul the country’s judiciary and passing harsher measures on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, causing a strain in relations with Washington.

“I am surprised that the US wants in a sense to reward the current Israeli government with something that they have wanted for such a long time,” Daniel Kurtzer, former US ambassador to Israel and Egypt, said in response to a question from The National during a panel discussion in Washington.

“If the data shows that Israel qualifies, then the timing is awful.”

Kamal Nawash, a Palestinian-American lawyer who lives in the US state of Virginia, said he is currently looking at purchasing airline tickets to visit family Jerusalem.

This past summer, he was able to fly into the airport in Tel Aviv for the first time ever under the trial period. In the past, like most other Palestinian Americans, he flew into Jordan and drove to the land border with Israel.

“It's still a major choice for us because we're still fearful that if we go into Tel Aviv, they'll find any reason to return us,” Mr Nawash told the National.

“I can't deny that I am apprehensive about the whole situation, simply because once a country gets in, it may not be easy to get them out, even if they're in violation of the rules.”

Updated: September 28, 2023, 7:27 AM