ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 139

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Israeli entry into US Visa Waiver Program goes into effect

Citizens with biometric passport can travel to US by filling out online form up to 72 hours before trip, will be able to remain in US for up to 90 days for business or pleasure

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

Illustrative: Passengers head to the departure gates at Ben Gurion International Airport, June 6, 2022. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Illustrative: Passengers head to the departure gates at Ben Gurion International Airport, June 6, 2022. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Israelis became eligible to travel to the US without a visa on Thursday, the Israeli Embassy in Washington announced.

The US admitted Israel into its Visa Waiver Program on September 27. But it said that up to two months would be needed to have measures in place for Israelis to be able to begin taking advantage of the Electronic System for Travel Authorization that is used instead of a visa for citizens of the 41 countries that are members of the Visa Waiver Program.

In the event, American authorities managed to finish their preparations well ahead of time, allowing the announcement to be made on Thursday.

While the news had been long awaited by many Israelis, the rejoicing was muted as it came less than two weeks after the October 7 Hamas terrorist onslaught in southern Israel in which over 1,400 were killed. Israel sufficed with a late-night statement from its embassy in Washington.

Israeli citizens with a biometric passport will now be able to travel to the US by applying for an ESTA application up to 72 hours before their trip.

If approved, they will be able to stay for up to 90 days on tourist or business trips without first obtaining a US visa.

Israelis who still have valid visas may continue to use them until they expire. Those above the age of 18 without a biometric passport are not eligible for an ESTA application.

Those who are deemed ineligible for travel through ETA may still apply for a regular visa to enter the US.

Israel was formally admitted into the program last month after years of efforts from both governments, solidifying a major boost to bilateral ties.

Previously, Israelis were forced to wait many months, sometimes just to schedule an appointment in order to secure a visa.

Israel had sought entry into the VWP for several decades, but this past fiscal year was one of the first times it met a key requirement — a visa application refusal rate below three percent.

That feat came after an intensive campaign led by former US ambassador to Israel Tom Nides and the US Embassy in Jerusalem aimed at informing Israeli travelers how to properly fill out visa application forms, though it also received an assist from atypically low travel numbers due to the pandemic.

File: Passengers at Ben Gurion International Airport, June 6, 2022. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

However, it took until the last minute for the countries to iron out the details of another key component of the VWP — that Israel grants reciprocal travel rights to all US travelers akin to those provided by the US to citizens of countries participating in the program.

Biden Administration officials briefing reporters last month clarified that the US would continue to monitor Israel’s compliance with the VWP requirements and reserves the right to suspend or terminate Israel’s membership in the program if it violates the terms.

Palestinian-Americans and Americans of Arab and Muslim backgrounds have long faced discrimination by Israeli authorities while traveling to and from the Jewish state.

Palestinians are largely barred from using Ben Gurion Airport and are forced to fly in and out of neighboring Amman before crossing the Allenby Border Crossing between the West Bank and Jordan by foot, making the travel experience more lengthy and costly.

Israel generally justifies its use of racial profiling, intensive security checks, and restrictions on Palestinians as part of its efforts to thwart terror.

A Palestinian police officer shuts the main gate to Beit Hanun at the Erez crossing between Israel and the northern Gaza Strip, on August 4, 2022. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

But the Biden administration made clear that it would not admit Israel until it eased its travel restrictions, at least for those with US citizenship.

On July 19, Israel and the US signed a memorandum of understanding, detailing the terms of the reciprocity requirement, which are different from that of any other VWP member.

Israel committed to treating all US travelers equally, including those of Muslim and Arab backgrounds, while reserving the right to refuse entry to those it deems to be a significant security threat.

It also agreed to allow the roughly 70,000 Palestinian-Americans identified on the Palestinian Authority’s population registry as living in the West Bank to apply for an ESTA-like permit, allowing them to enter Israel for up to 90 days, including to fly out of Ben Gurion Airport.

Israel later agreed to grant similar privileges to the roughly 700 US citizens listed on the PA’s population registry as residents of the Gaza Strip. However, that subset will still face stricter conditions than US citizens from the West Bank, given that the US discourages its citizens from traveling to Gaza, which is run by Hamas — a US-designated terror organization. Since the Israel-Hamas war broke out, the US has advised its citizens not to travel to Gaza.

Israel has carried out a campaign of intense airstrikes since October 7, when some 2,500 terrorists blasted through the Israeli border fence, streamed into Israel via land, sea and air under a barrage of thousands of rockets, and killed some 1,400 people, the vast majority of them civilians. Terrorists also took at least 203 hostages of all ages and various nationalities into Gaza. Entire families were executed in their homes, and over 260 were slaughtered at an outdoor festival, many amid horrific acts of brutality by the terrorists, in what US President Joe Biden has highlighted as “the worst massacre of the Jewish people since the Holocaust.”

Israel says its offensive is aimed at destroying Hamas’s infrastructure, and has vowed to eliminate the entire terror group, which rules the Strip. Gaza health officials say around 3,700 people have been killed in Israeli bombings.

Israel began easing travel restrictions the day after the MOU was signed, and over 100,000 US citizens, including tens of thousands of Palestinian-Americans, have successfully entered Israel visa-free since, said an administration official briefing reporters last month, adding that results seen by the US during the trial period were “impressive.”

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