Israel will ease travel restrictions for Palestinian-Americans from Gaza following outcry over their exclusion from the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP), a senior Israeli official said Monday.
Gil Bringer, who serves as deputy director of the Population Immigration and Border Authority (PIBA), told the Reuters news agency that Palestinian Americans living in Gaza who pass security examinations will be able to enter Israel on a B2 tourist visa and fly out of Ben Gurion Airport.
The decision goes further than the Memorandum of Understanding that Israel and the US signed last month, in which Israel agreed to ease travel curbs for Palestinian Americans from the West Bank, while not going nearly as far for Palestinian Americans from Gaza.
Unlike all other US citizens, Americans based in Gaza will be ineligible for 90-day permits to enter Israel, according to the MOU obtained by The Times of Israel. This was the key benefit that the Biden administration secured for US citizens in the West Bank who have been able to use Ben Gurion Airport — Israel’s primary international airport — for the first time.
Instead, 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 states, while not specifying which airport they can use once they arrive in the Jewish state. An official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel last month that those Gazans would not have access to Ben Gurion, but would 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 the one required to travel from Gaza to Cairo — which is the current route 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.
Bringer confirmed Monday that Palestinian Americans would be able to travel by shuttle from the Erez Crossing to the Allenby Crossing and added that those who pass security checks will also be able to fly out of Ben Gurion Airport starting September 15.
As stipulated in the MOU, US citizens with a first-degree relative in Gaza will be allowed to apply for a permit to enter the enclave for up to 90 days, Bringer said.
The Biden administration has said Israel has to have the new procedures in place with enough time before the September 30 deadline for Washington to be able to adjudicate whether Jerusalem’s treatment of American travelers goes far enough in meeting the criteria for entry into the VWP.
US law requires VWP members to grant reciprocal travel rights to all US citizens. However, the MOU established an apparent bypass for this stipulation since only US citizens from the West Bank and Gaza will be required to apply for permits to enter Israel through Israel’s military liaison until Israel implements a new system called Marom, which all US citizens will use, no later than May 1, 2024. Moreover, Israel’s travel guidelines for Americans from Gaza are far stricter than those for other US citizens, including those from the West Bank.
“You’ve got discrimination written into the MOU, which is inconsistent with the requirements of US law,” Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen told The Times of Israel in an interview last week.
And while the MOU indicated that the effective ban on using Ben Gurion only applies to Gazan Americans seeking to exit Gaza, Van Hollen said Israel has also been barring Gazan Americans currently outside the enclave from using the airport.
Indeed, one Palestinian American who requested anonymity told The Times of Israel on Monday that he had been denied entry at both Ben Gurion Airport and the Allenby Crossing on the grounds that he was born in Gaza. K., who left Gaza in 1997 and has been living in Virginia for over two decades, said he flew to Ben Gurion Airport with his wife and four daughters after Israel eased its travel restrictions last month.
He said he was told by Israeli authorities that he could not enter through Ben Gurion because he was born in Gaza and that he should instead fly to Amman and enter through Allenby. The man told his wife and children to enter Israel without him, anticipating that he would join them the next day, but when he arrived at Allenby, he was again told that he would not be able to enter because he is from Gaza.
“As a Palestinian with a Gaza ID, I was disappointed it discriminates against people like me. We are specifically excluded from benefiting from this program,” another Palestinian American, Hani Almadhoun, told Reuters last week while visiting his family in Gaza.
Madhoun said Israeli authorities rejected his request to fly back to the US through Ben Gurion. “As an American, I think we should have those benefits because Israelis now, even those Israelis who live in illegal settlements, are able to come to America without harassment.”
“It’s very clear that as of today, the government of Israel has not achieved the ‘Blue-is-Blue’ requirement, and there’s a very long distance still to go,” Van Hollen said, referring to the phrase US officials use to describe the stipulation that VWP member countries treat all US citizens equally.
He lamented a “two-tier system” envisioned in the MOU and said he and other Democratic colleagues are in touch with the administration in order to receive answers, but it was not clear whether there is still time for major intervention since the agreement has already been signed.
Gaza is ruled by Hamas, which both Israel and the US have categorized as a terror organization, and the US discourages its citizens from traveling to the enclave.
In separate comments to Army Radio on Monday, Bringer said he believed that Israel would meet the criteria for entry into the VWP by the deadline at the end of September. “The project is charging ahead and the expectation is that it will be completed in seven weeks.”
Bringer put the number of Gazan Americans at between 100 and 130; however, US estimates have placed it between 500 and 700. The number of Palestinian Americans in the West Bank is much larger, reaching about 35,000, with a similar number of people on the Palestinian Authority’s population registry living abroad.
The so-called reciprocity issue has been a sticking point for US President Joe Biden’s administration, which has expressed its desire for Israel to become the 41st member in the VWP but has insisted its entry would be conditioned on improved treatment of travelers at its crossings since Palestinian, Arab and Muslim Americans have long complained of harassment.
The MOU signed on July 19 aimed to address those concerns, and Israel began easing travel restrictions for Palestinian Americans the next day, with many noting an improvement and an ability to fly to Ben Gurion Airport and receive a 90-day permit to enter Israel for the first time in their lives.
The airport has long been off-limits to those Palestinians — and will remain so for non-American Palestinians who must travel to Jordan and fly out of Amman, with entailed additional fees and travel time. Israel also bars the Palestinians from having their own airport.
On Monday, Kan news reported that Israel has been marking the tourist permits it has been granting to Palestinian Americans over the last several weeks with specific initials that differentiate them from other Americans, deeply angering the United States, since Jerusalem promised it would treat all American travelers equally. Following pushback from Washington, Israel agreed to cease using the special label for Palestinians.
Israel has sought to join the VWP, which enables citizens to travel to the United States without a visa, for decades.
Currently, Israelis who do not hold citizenship in any of the 40 countries in the waiver program must apply for permission to travel to the United States, a process that typically results in a visa, but can be extensive and time-consuming.
The new procedures are easier for the US to monitor, as Israel committed in the MOU to notify American authorities every time COGAT denies a travel permit application.
The actual treatment of US citizens at Israeli crossings is much more difficult to screen because there is a degree of subjectivity involved and every country has the discretion to enforce certain security protocols.
Nonetheless, the US wants to make sure those procedures are within the bounds of reason and ensure that the spirit of the MOU is being upheld. Accordingly, it dispatched teams of inspectors from the State Department and the Homeland Security Department last week to monitor Israel’s treatment of US citizens at crossings, an Israeli official said.
The US has until September 30 to determine whether Israel qualifies for the VWP, and if it does, Israelis will be able to begin traveling to the US without a pre-arranged visa as early as October 1.