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Baffling and insulting

Jul 03,2023 - Last updated at Jul 03,2023

It is baffling and insulting that some Biden administration officials are rushing to admit Israel into the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which allows for mutual, short-term entry between participating countries and the US.

Baffling because both the Departments of State (DOS) and Homeland Security know that Israel does not meet one essential condition for entry into the program: the guarantee of full reciprocity, “equal treatment and freedom of travel for all US citizens regardless of national origin, religion, or ethnicity”. Israel has continually failed to meet that standard by blatantly discriminating against Arab Americans at its border.

Civil rights groups have collected hundreds of stories from Arab Americans, especially Palestinian Americans, who’ve been harassed for hours by Israeli border control or outright denied entry and forced to return home to the US The DOS has even issued a travel advisory noting that “US citizens of Arab or Muslim heritage [including Palestinian Americans] have experienced significant difficulties and unequal and occasionally hostile treatment at Israel’s borders and checkpoints”. In 2014, DOS rejected Israel’s application for VWP admission precisely because of this discriminatory treatment.

The situation remains unchanged, and, with Israel’s issuance of new rules specifically targeting Palestinian Americans, entry has become even more restrictive. So why is the Biden administration rushing through Israel’s admission into the VWP?

An Israeli newspaper recently described US. officials’ helping Israel overcome the reciprocity issue. Beginning in July, Israel will begin a 30-day trial  for an entry screening process. “Palestinian Americans will be able to apply for a 90-day travel authorization… [during which] the US wants Israel to demonstrate that a critical mass of Palestinian Americans are able to apply online... [receive a visa] and successfully use it to enter” Ben Gurion Airport.

Applying online and entering through the Tel Aviv airport are improvements for some Palestinians, but the trial is, at best, inadequate and, at worst, deeply insulting.

It only applies to the roughly 70,000 Palestinian Americans who currently possess Palestinian IDs, excluding hundreds of thousands who do not have Palestinian documents or do not want them, wishing to travel using US passports. And the trial only requires Israel to admit an undefined “critical mass” of Palestinian-ID-holding applicants.

The trial excludes other Arab Americans or American Muslims, especially those who have travelled to Arab or Muslim countries, who have also reported serious discrimination. And it does not address the problem of harassment at checkpoints or on departure. Finally, the trial does not speak to the actual operation of the VWP, which should allow entry without application or pre-authorisation. If admitted, Israelis will be able to enter the US without a visa. Reciprocity would dictate that all Americans, including Arab Americans, would enter Israel in the same way, without a visa.

Rather than meeting the reciprocity terms of the VWP, Israel has a “work-around” through this trial to allow access to a limited number of Palestinians. “Dumbing down” compliance to gain VWP entry violates the statutory requirement of full reciprocity and insults the citizenship rights of Arab Americans subjected to discriminatory treatment at entry and exit.

Israel argues that its border policies are dictated by security concerns. But not accepting the US passports of Palestinian Americans and poor treatment of Arab Americans who have travelled to Lebanon or Egypt speak more to harassment than security. If Israel insists on continuing its behaviour, the US should not and cannot honour Israel with the privilege of the VWP. 

I have shared affidavits from those who have encountered harassment or denial of entry with the Secretaries of State with whom I have dealt over the past 30 years; all made it clear that Israel’s conduct was unacceptable. Secretary Condoleezza Rice expressed outrage and issued a statement noting that “An American is an American”.

We expect from our government to affirmation our citizenship rights. Allowing Israel to designate certain Americans as second-class citizens is insupportable. We cannot allow Arab Americans to be “thrown under the bus” so the administration can do an election-year favor for Israel.

Arab Americans are not alone in our insistence that our rights be protected. A group of 16 US Senators, 19 members of Congress, and six prominent liberal American Jewish organisations have called on the Biden administration to halt Israel’s VWP admission until Israel demonstrates the capacity and willingness to honor the reciprocity requirement.

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