Israel to ease entry of Palestinian-Americans to country – here’s why

Israel agrees to launch pilot program making it easier for Palestinian-Americans to enter the country – a condition for joining America’s visa waiver program.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

Israel has agreed to launch a pilot program in July that will ease Palestinian Americans’ entry to the country, in order to comply with one of the rules of the U.S. Visa Waiver Program (VWP), The Times of Israel reported Thursday.

During the one-month trial, Arab Americans who claim Palestinian heritage can apply to the office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) for a 90-day travel permit. They will then be allowed to enter Israel through Ben Gurion airport and travel freely in the country, including Palestinian areas of Judea and Samaria.

White House officials expect the application process to be a quick one, with a response time of up to two days. They also want to see that the online application can handle “a critical mass” of requests, and that the travelers can use their permits without problems at Ben Gurion, the report said.

The idea, said the report, is for this authorization to eventually mimic the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) that travelers from VWP countries fill out to visit the U.S. This allows visitors to stay for up to three months as many times as they want over a two-year period, as long as they do not work illegally when in the country.

Estimates vary of how many Palestinian Americans there are, with numbers ranging as high as 400,000, and according to the Public Religion Research Institute there are some 3.7 million Muslim Americans. These two groups have complained for years of Israeli discrimination and rejection of entry requests, particularly to the Palestinian Authority.

Most use the Allenby Crossing from Jordan, which adds time and expense to their journey. U.S. Ambassador Tom Nides pressed Israel for over a year to open the crossing 24/7 in order to ease travel in both directions. In April, Israel went to a 24/5 format, closing the border point on Fridays and Saturdays at 3:30PM.

Israel is open about its use of profiling at its borders, saying its sole aim is to help prevent terror attacks. But one of the mainstays of the VWP is reciprocity – if Israelis can enter the U.S. no matter their religion, race, or ethnic heritage, then the same rule must be applied to Americans coming to Israel.

A group of 15 U.S. senators sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month urging that Israel be specifically held to this commitment in order for it to be approved for the VWP.

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Nides held a call Tuesday with a group of Arab American organizations about their concerns regarding the VWP, said the report. One of them said that there was little to distinguish the new program from the one currently in place, as COGAT is now the address for entry permit requests.

“[Nides] talked about ‘snapbacks,’ but we all know that once Israel is admitted [to the VWP], no US administration is going to remove Israel if it violates the conditions,” the representative said.

Arab American Institute President James Zogby was also not satisfied with the pilot, saying that limiting it to Ben Gurion airport will not help prove that Arab Americans will not face discrimination at other checkpoints when trying to visit Israel.

“The problem is every port of entry and exit. It doesn’t do you much good to get in if you then are humiliated at every step along the way once you’re in,” Zogby said. “I’m still not convinced that there’s a clear enough understanding on the part of everybody involved in this process.”