Creating new perspectives since 2009

Israel includes Gaza Americans in US Visa Waiver pilot as deadline nears

September 11, 2023 at 5:31 pm

A number of trucks loaded with various goods leave the Gaza Strip via the Karm Abu Salem commercial crossing, heading to the West Bank and Israel, in Gaza City, Gaza on September 10, 2023 [Mustafa Hassona – Anadolu Agency]

Israel eased travel for Palestinian-Americans from the Gaza Strip, on Monday, as part of final preparations for a deal enabling Israelis to enter the United States without visas, Israeli and US officials said.

As a condition for its accession to the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP), Israel has, since July 20, loosened access through its borders, and in and out of the Occupied West Bank, for Palestinian-Americans in a pilot period, Reuters reports.

The deadline for Israel to show compliance with the US conditions is 30 September. If successful, it expects to be incorporated in the VWP by November – a respite for relations strained by disputes over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial reforms and policies on the Palestinians.

Gaza, whose ruling Hamas is on Israeli and US terrorism blacklists and whose borders are blockaded by Israel and Egypt, had been excluded from the pilot. That stirred protests by Palestinian-Americans and US calls for a change in policy.

Israel’s Interior Ministry said that, as of Monday, Palestinian-Americans living in Gaza and who are not deemed security threats are able to enter Israel on “B2” tourist visas, which also gives them the option of flying out of its airports.

READ: 15 Democratic senators urge Biden not to accept Israel in the US Visa Waiver Programme

The US Embassy in Jerusalem confirmed the new policy.

Palestinian-Americans from abroad are still largely precluded from visiting Gaza. As a stop-gap, Israel has said it would allow those who have first-degree relatives there to apply for permission to make once-yearly visits of up to 90 days.

“This is an improvement that doesn’t really add any value,” Hani Almadhoun, a Palestinian-American from the Washington, DC area, told Reuters. He said he felt like he was being told: “You may come and have a picnic in Israel, but you might not be able to go see your family which is really just minutes (away).”

Under the pilot, more than 5,400 Palestinian-Americans have entered Israel or crossed its boundary with the West Bank, according to Interior Ministry figures. It said 51 Palestinian-Americans have been refused entry, 49 on suspicion of planning to overstay their visas and two as potential security threats.

Israel previously said it intended to include Palestinian-Americans living in Gaza – whose number it puts at between 100 and 130 – on 15 September, but would try to bring the date forward.

Palestinian and US officials have assessed that the number of dual US nationals in Gaza may be several hundred. Asked about the apparent discrepancy in the figures, an Israeli official said most of those are not full-time Gaza residents.

WATCH: Palestinian-American: I was denied boarding Israeli El Al flight