Despite US pledge of equal treatment, Gazan Americans left out of Visa Waiver Program

Israel says eased travel will apply to US citizens in coastal enclave, but agreement seen by Times of Israel reveals only Palestinians in West Bank eligible for 90-day entry permits

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Palestinians at the Erez crossing with Israel near Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip on  August 27, 2018. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)
Palestinians at the Erez crossing with Israel near Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip on August 27, 2018. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)

WASHINGTON — The US and Israel announced on Wednesday that they had reached an agreement for Jerusalem to ease travel restrictions for Palestinian-Americans, paving the way for Israel’s entry into the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP), but the text of the deal obtained by The Times of Israel revealed that US citizens in Gaza will not be granted the significant benefits that their American peers living in the West Bank and around the world will be able to enjoy.

Unlike all other US citizens, Americans based in Gaza will be ineligible for 90-day permits to enter Israel, according to the agreement signed Wednesday by Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Herzog and US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides. This is the key benefit that the Biden administration secured for US citizens in the West Bank, who will be also be able to use Ben Gurion Airport — Israel’s primary international airport — for the first time beginning on Thursday.

The limitations for US citizens based in Gaza appear to violate the Biden administration’s pledge to ensure “equal treatment” for all US citizens traveling to a country that is a member of the VWP “regardless of national origin, religion, or ethnicity” — a commitment that was also included in Wednesday’s bilateral agreement, titled “Memorandum of Understanding between the government of the state of Israel and the government of the United States of America on extension of reciprocal privileges and the Visa Waiver Program.”

The MOU explains that the current security situation does not allow for “routine travel” between Gaza and Israel, which is a necessary condition for US citizens in the Strip to be able to travel freely to and through Israel as part of the VWP. The document states that once routine travel resumes, US citizens residing in Gaza will be allowed to travel into Israel under the same VWP guidelines applicable to Americans in the West Bank. The MOU does not elaborate as to when that might be and who will make that determination.

Gaza is ruled by the Islamist Hamas group, which both Israel and the US have categorized as a terror organization. Just 500 or so American citizens live in the coastal enclave, compared to the estimated 35,000 who live in the West Bank.

US citizens who would like to travel out of Gaza will be able to apply for a permit to use the Erez Crossing into Israel, in a process similar to the one completed by non-American Gazans who work in Israel, the MOU said, while not specifying which airport they can use once they arrive in the Jewish state. A source familiar with the matter said those Gazans would not have access to Ben Gurion, but rather would then have to commute through the Allenby Crossing between the West Bank and Jordan after which they would be able to fly out of Amman.

This would still be a shorter commute than traveling from Gaza to Cairo, which is the current path Palestinians from the enclave must take if they want to fly out of an international airport — a sometimes dangerous six-hour drive through the Sinai Peninsula.

The MOU recognizes that not all Gazans will be approved by Israel to enter through its Erez Crossing but offers a somewhat convoluted backup plan. In cases when a US citizen is denied a permit to use Erez, they are to submit an application to the Palestinian Authority in order “to travel to a third state and return to Gaza.” The PA is to then forward the application to Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians (COGAT), though it must be done 45 days before the traveler’s departure date, the MOU states.

These restrictions do not apply to US citizens originally from Gaza who do not now reside in the enclave. Those Palestinians will be able to enter Israel with an automatic 90-day permit under the terms of the VWP.

Apparently recognizing the still-difficult travel conditions for US citizens residing in Gaza, the Biden administration coaxed Israel into including a clause in the MOU stating that US citizens with a first-degree relative in Gaza will be allowed to apply through COGAT for a permit to enter the enclave for up to 90 days.

Still, the overall limited nature of improvements to travel for US citizens based in Gaza exposes the Biden administration to criticism from progressive Democrats, who have pushed back on granting Israelis the major privilege of visa-free travel to the US due to Israel’s treatment of Arab and Muslim American travelers, who often face intense scrutiny at the airport and sometimes complain of discriminatory treatment.

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides (L) and Israel Airports Authority chair Jerry Gershon at the Allenby crossing on April 2, 2023. (Jeries Mansour, U.S. Office of Palestinian Affairs)

It may explain why Biden officials had for weeks sought to avoid answering whether VWP benefits would apply to US citizens in Gaza.

During a briefing with reporters Wednesday, a senior US State Department official sufficed by saying, “We have made provisions to allow American citizens to come in from Gaza to apply for permits.”

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller similarly avoided directly answering the question during his own press briefing hours later.

In its own public announcement, Israel similarly used vague language regarding what it had agreed to. “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,” said a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office, using Israel’s name for the West Bank.

The new guidelines for US citizens in the West Bank and Gaza will come into place on Thursday. The US will then monitor Israel’s compliance with the guidelines over the following six weeks and make a determination as to whether to admit Israel into the VWP by September 30.

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