New guidelines for entry into the West Bank by foreign nationals went into effect this week after Israel dropped a contentious clause that would have required visitors to notify Israel if they begin a relationship with a Palestinian. Israel revised the guidelines last month after coming under pressure from US President Joe Biden’s administration and from European governments.
The new rulebook was drafted by COGAT, the Defense Ministry body responsible for Palestinian civil affairs and initially included a requirement that a foreigner who enters into a relationship with a West Bank resident after being in the territory must notify Israeli authorities within 30 days of their engagement, wedding, or the start of cohabitation — “whichever occurs first.”
The rules included other measures that were called into question, such as the significant curbs on the ability of foreigners to study, volunteer or work in the West Bank — in a major blow to student exchange programs operated by the European Union among others — and proposed quotas for academic exchange programs that would have allowed just 150 foreign professors and 100 students to attend Palestinian universities each year.
The proposed quotas drew a strong rebuke from the European Union, whose Erasmus+ exchange program would have been particularly hit, and Israel removed them.
Israel kept guidelines that require foreign passport holders — including Palestinians living abroad — who are planning to visit the West Bank (with the exception of settlements), to apply for visas at least 45 days in advance, doing away with the previous policy where visitors were able to obtain visas upon arrival at Ben Gurion Airport.
The new rules also allow for the extension of foreigners’ visas from 90 days to 180 days.
Israel further agreed — reportedly under pressure from US officials — that there would be a two-year trial period in which further adjustments can be made to the regulations.
The rules were meant to go into effect in July but were delayed by court petitions until finally coming into effect Thursday.
Despite the changes, US Ambassador Tom Nides said last month that he remained concerned over the new rules, and vowed to continue to engage with the government during the two-year period.
“It is important to ensure all of these regulations are developed in coordination with key stakeholders, including the Palestinian Authority. I fully expect the Government of Israel to make necessary adjustments during the pilot period to ensure transparency as well as the fair and equal treatment of all US citizens and other foreign nationals traveling to the West Bank,” he said at the time.
A senior US official said last month that ongoing talks with Israel over a long-awaited visa waiver are “parallel but separate tracks” from the COGAT regulations.
Still, some of the COGAT rules will have to be changed further, in order for Israel to meet the reciprocity requirements for joining the Visa Waiver Program.
“These policies that COGAT will be issuing have an effect on American citizens, as they do on nationals of other countries,” the senior official said. “We will be looking at those closely and continuing the conversation with COGAT and other parts of the Israeli government as we move down the path toward visa reciprocity.”
The VWP allows citizens of participating countries to make short-term visits to the US without having to apply for a visa.
All members of the program are expected to grant “reciprocal” treatment to all US citizens at every border crossing. Granting automatic entry to US citizens from the West Bank and Gaza Strip is expected to be a tall ask of Israel, which regularly limits such passages over what it says are security reasons.
Lazar Berman contributed to this report.