Israel eases entry for Gazan-Americans, meeting US Visa Waiver Program benchmark

COGAT publishes new guidelines that extend to US citizens from Strip after outcry over their exclusion; US, Israel will form panel to address outstanding discrimination issues

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

Palestinian workers are seen at the Erez crossing in the northern Gaza Strip, as they wait to enter Israel for work, on March 13, 2022. (Attia Muhammed/Flash90)
Palestinian workers are seen at the Erez crossing in the northern Gaza Strip, as they wait to enter Israel for work, on March 13, 2022. (Attia Muhammed/Flash90)

Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians on Monday published new travel guidelines for US citizens from the Gaza Strip who will henceforth be able to enter Israel for short-term stays, to visit the West Bank or to travel abroad.

The move by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories was the latest in a series that Israel has taken in order to qualify for the US Visa Waiver Program, or VWP. A key condition for entry into the VWP is a commitment by applying countries to grant equal travel rights to all US citizens. This has been a sticking point for the Biden administration in light of longstanding allegations of discrimination of Arab and Muslim Americans at Israeli ports.

On July 19, Israel and the US signed a memorandum of understanding outlining Israel’s commitment to grant reciprocal travel rights to all US travelers. The next day, it announced new travel guidelines, which eased restrictions for Palestinian-Americans from the West Bank who thenceforth were allowed to apply for authorization to enter Israel for stays of up to 90 days, or in order to travel abroad.

While the announcement was a significant boost for the 35,000 Palestinian-Americans in the West Bank, the exclusion of the roughly 700 Palestinian-Americans in Gaza led to an outcry from their advocates in the US.

Accordingly, the Biden administration began pressuring Israel to ensure the eligibility of US citizens from Gaza in the VWP’s benefits.

In August, a senior Israeli official announced that Gazan Americans would indeed be able to enter Israel on a B2 tourist visa, while clarifying that authorities needed another month to prepare.

An ambulance bringing Palestinians wounded in border clashes to Jordan for medical treatment is seen exiting the Gaza Strip through the Erez Border Crossing on May 18, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israel kept its word, rolling out the eased travel restrictions for Gazan Americans on Monday.

The new guidelines from the Defense Ministry coordinator, known as COGAT, state that “a Palestinian residing in the Gaza Strip, who holds a US citizenship, may submit an application for a US Tourist Approval to Israel whether in order to travel abroad through any international border crossing, to cross into the Judea and Samaria area [West Bank], or to travel inside Israel (including Eilat).”

The guidelines state that Israeli authorities will respond to applications within 45 days — a waiting period much longer than the one to be endured by all other US travelers, who are expected to receive responses to their request for visa-free entry into Israel within 48 hours.

Palestinian-Americans abroad looking to visit Gaza will still be largely barred from visiting the enclave. The Strip is run by Hamas, which both Israel and the US have categorized as a terror organization, and the US also discourages its citizens from traveling there.

However, updated guidelines allow US citizens with first-degree relatives in Gaza to visit the enclave for up to 90 days.

The US has until September 30 to determine whether Israel can enter the VWP — something Jerusalem has sought for years in order to ensure visa-free travel for up to 90 visits in the US for its citizens. Current guidelines require Israelis to secure a visa before making the trip — an often arduous process that can take months if not over a year.

Travelers seen exiting Ben Gurion International Airport, as Israel opens its borders and allows tourists to enter the country after months of being shut due to the COVID-19 pandemic, November 1, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90)

Outstanding issues regarding Israel’s treatment of Palestinian-Americans remain, including US complaints over maintained Israeli guidelines that bar Palestinian-Americans from driving through West Bank checkpoints. A spokesperson for the US embassy in Jerusalem said the countries had agreed to establish a working group, which will begin meeting this week to discuss this and other VWP-related issues.

Since July 20, when Israel began easing travel restrictions, allowing Palestinian-Americans to travel through Ben Gurion Airport for the first time, without a hard-to-achieve so-called VIP permit, 5,400 Palestinian-Americans have entered Israel, the Interior Ministry said. Fifty-one Palestinian-Americans were denied entry — 49 of whom were due to fears that they would overstay their 90-day travel authorization and two of whom were due to fears that they represented security threats, Israel said.

If Israel is accepted into the VWP, the US will likely need another couple of months to prepare its travel authorization systems. Israelis could therefore expect to be eligible for visa-free travel by November or December.

Last week, a group of 15 Democratic senators penned a letter to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, urging him not to admit Israel into the VWP, charging Israel has continued to discriminate against Palestinian-Americans, despite assurances that it would start treating all US travelers equally.

Both US and Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Times of Israel that the Biden administration is unlikely to heed the senators’ call and that Israel is all but set to be accepted into the VWP by the September 30 deadline.

The group of progressive lawmakers led by Sen. Chris Van Hollen decided it was important to voice their objections nonetheless.

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