Report: US threatens visa waiver plan over planned entry restrictions to West Bank

Israel has announced new entry curbs on foreigners, including professors and students headed to Palestinian institutions

Tobias (Toby) Siegal is a breaking news editor and contributor to The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (left) and US President Joe Biden. (composite image: AP, Flash90)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (left) and US President Joe Biden. (composite image: AP, Flash90)

American officials have strongly protested a planned new Israeli policy restricting foreigners’ entry into the West Bank, Channel 12 news reported Wednesday.

The network said sources within the administration have intimated that a failure to reevaluate the wide-reaching restrictions, set to come into effect in July, could lead to a punitive postponement or even suspension of the process to add the Jewish state to the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP).

According to the report, Biden officials have expressed their disapproval of the imminent new arrangement, under which overseas citizens, including US citizens, will be required to go through a rigorous questioning procedure to enter the West Bank, arguing that it severely compromises their freedom of movement and occupation.

The TV report quoted the US embassy saying it has been discussing the impending new regulations with the Israeli authorities and encouraging further discussion before they are implemented; it did not confirm any linkage to the issue of the US Visa Waiver Program.

Over the years, Israel has imposed different restrictions on non-Israeli citizens who wish to enter the West Bank, depending on the security situation and the traveler’s stated reasons for entering the area.

In February, COGAT, the military body serving as the liaison to the Palestinians, released a 62-page long document (97 pages in its English version) detailing the latest policies for allowing foreigners to enter the West Bank

The document, which replaces a brief, four-page version, significantly expands on entry protocol for foreigners, making the process they need to go through longer and more convoluted.

The new restrictions affect foreign citizens who come to teach, study, or work in Palestinian cities located in the West Bank, as well as foreigners who marry Palestinians and Palestinians with dual citizenship who visit family living within the West Bank.

A Palestinian Christian couple from the Gaza Strip leaves through the Israeli Erez crossing, Thursday, Dec. 24, 2009 (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)
Illustrative: Palestinian Christian couple from the Gaza Strip leaves through the Israeli Erez crossing, December 24, 2009. (Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90/File)

For example, the new rules limit the number of higher-education professors and researchers allowed to enter the West Bank to 100 at any given time, while the cap on foreign students will be 150.

Lecturers seeking to pass through Israel into the West Bank will need to prove that they “contribute significantly to academic learning, to the area’s economy, or to advancing regional cooperation and peace.”

Even then, they may be turned away, if the COGAT official they meet at the crossing is not convinced.

Palestinians holding a foreign passport will be required to list the names and ID numbers of the family members they intend to visit as well as specify whether they “own or are claiming inheritance in the area.”

Critics have argued that the new regulations challenge further the daily lives of the Palestinian population in the West Bank and are aimed at reducing the number of foreign travelers to the area by imposing more bureaucratic barriers.

“The new policy affects broad areas of Palestinian society and basically creates a situation in which Israel reaches into what should be independent decisions of the Palestinian authorities,” Jerusalem-based attorney Leora Bechor told the Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) NGO.

“The previous policy had been on the books for many years, governing which classes of foreigners could enter the West Bank and the periods for which they could stay. From about 2014, COGAT became extremely rigid in terms of enforcing the policy and started to essentially invent all-new criteria that don’t exist anywhere in the policy,” she added.

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)

The new rules were originally scheduled to come into effect on May 20, but COGAT postponed their implementation until July, in the face of several lawsuits filed by human rights groups, including by Bechor.

COGAT has stated that the program will be tested as a “pilot” for two years before being finalized, and noted that improvements and adjustments were already being made to certain parts of it.

Israeli efforts to become the 40th party to the US Visa Waiver Program have been underway for years. They got a boost last year when US President Joe Biden told Prime Minister Naftali Bennett that it was something he wanted to see through, and that he had instructed his staff to play its part in doing so.

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides told The Times of Israel in February that he hoped to have Israel added to the program by the end of 2022.

Currently, US law requires Israelis to apply for a visa in advance of their travels to the US — a process that often takes months, as it requires scheduling an appointment at the US embassy for a background interview, during which consular staff seeks to ensure that incoming travelers are not looking to remain in the US indefinitely or work illegally.

On Tuesday, the Knesset advanced legislation required for Israel’s entry into the VWP. The bill advanced through the first reading gives US authorities limited access to Israeli criminal records in order to adjudicate visa requests. It is one of several pieces of legislation countries are required to pass in order to join the VWP.

But the development is a rather small step in the process, as the Knesset legislation still needs to pass through three more readings. Moreover, much larger hurdles of lowering the visa application rejection rate below three percent and guaranteeing reciprocal treatment for Palestinian Americans at Israeli border crossings remain.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report. 

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