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American Arabs and the visa waiver programme

Tourists arrive to Israel's Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on May 23, 2021 [JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images]
Tourists at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on May 23, 2021 [JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images]

The Jerusalem Post has reported in the past few days that Palestinian Americans will be allowed to land at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport on their way to the West Bank, rather than being required to cross the Allenby Bridge from Jordan. Israel is offering to make this change in its treatment of Palestinian Americans in order to join the US Visa Waiver Programme.

If Israel succeeds, its citizens will be able to travel to the US without requiring a visa. This is a privileged position that Israel has sought since the establishment of the programme.

One of the main reasons this status has not been achieved, despite continued pressure from supporters of Israel in Washington, is that every country that joins the programme must ensure reciprocity; that is, ensuring that all Americans are treated without discrimination, since the US agrees to do the same with the citizens of the other country. There is clear evidence of Israel's decades-long mistreatment of US citizens of Arab descent who travel to the self-declared Jewish state.

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The Jerusalem Post story has mentioned that Israel is willing to meet at least some of the American requirements, but this Israeli move is questionable and totally insufficient. It is suspicious, because in 2014, the last time Israel pressed to join the programme, Haaretz published an article titled "Israel to US: We'll Ease Stance on Palestinian-Americans, if We Join Visa Waiver Programme".

At the time, the Israelis blamed the Oslo Accords for their refusal to allow Palestinian Americans to travel to Ben Gurion Airport, claiming that the condition of crossing the Allenby Bridge was based on respect for the agreements and the Palestinian Authority. However, there is no such clause in the Oslo Accords. Seven years later, they haven't made any adjustments and the promised Israeli step is not enough at all. It is true that Palestinian Americans' ability to travel to Israel is important, but this is only one of many important issues related to Israel's behaviour towards Palestinians and other Arab Americans. Even more disturbing is Israel's treatment of Arab Americans upon entry, whether at the airport or at the bridge.

Individuals suspected of being of Arab descent are often automatically subjected to particular scrutiny, which includes hours of harsh interrogation and the extraction of information from their phones and laptops. This applies not only to Palestinian Americans, but also to every person who holds a Palestinian identity card; they are all given such treatment, and not only upon entry. We have witnessed statements by hundreds of Arab Americans who reported poor treatment when entering Israel and leaving as well. The US State Department did not take any action despite being informed of such reports, and it contented itself with publishing "Travel Advisories" that inform Arab Americans to expect discriminatory treatment.

When the victims of these abuses called the US Consulate in Jerusalem for help they were told, "There is nothing we can do." It is true that a number of US foreign ministers have raised this issue with the Israeli government, but "raising the issue" is apparently not enough because the mistreatment continues. This is not just about visa waiver; it's also about the US government's failure to take its obligation seriously to protect the rights of its citizens. The US passport reads, "The Secretary of State of the United States of America hereby requests all whom it may concern to permit the citizen/national of the United States named herein to pass without delay or hindrance and in case of need to give all lawful aid and protection."

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The 1951 Friendship, Commerce and Navigation Treaty between the US and Israel allows US citizens bound for Israel to "travel therein freely, and to reside at places of their choice". The treaty also prohibits Israel from engaging in "unlawful molestations of every kind" and stipulates that citizens "receive the most constant protection and security, in no case less than that required by international law."

Regardless of the Visa Waiver Programme, protecting the rights of American citizens should not be up for discussion or negotiation between the US government and any other country. Hollow gestures such as allowing Palestinian Americans to land at Ben Gurion Airport do not absolve the US government or Israel of the requirement to fulfil their obligations.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Ittihad on 9 January 2021

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

ArticleAsia & AmericasIsraelMiddle EastOpinionPalestineUS
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