Israel revised its West Bank travel restrictions in hopes of obtaining a US visa waiver, but they still discriminate against Palestinians

Michael Arria

Mondoweiss  /  September 19, 2022

“Allowing Israel into the U.S. Visa Waiver program in spite of this mistreatment would amount to an endorsement by the Biden administration of this discrimination,” says Americans for Justice in Palestine Action Advocacy Director Ayah Ziyadeh.

Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) recently announced that it was revising its forthcoming guidelines for entry into the West Bank by foreign nationals. The country had faced backlash over a new series of travel rules that are scheduled to be implemented this fall, including a stipulation that foreigners had 30 days to report the start of romantic relationship with any Palestinian ID holder.

The Times of Israel declared that the country was “dropping” the relationship regulation. CNN said that Israel had taken a “U-turn” on the issue. “One of the most controversial rules would have required foreign passport holders entering a formal relationship with a Palestinian living in the West Bank to notify Israeli authorities within 30 days of their engagement, wedding, or moving-in together,” reads an article on the network’s website, “but those regulations have been removed from the official guidance published on Sunday.”

Except they haven’t really. COGAT did remove its stipulation that foreigners must declare a relationship with a Palestinian within 30 days of getting married, engaged, or moving in with them. However, the overall constraint remains. According to the revised rules an “appointed COGAT official must be informed as part of their request to renew or extend the existing visa.” In other words, individuals still have to report this information to COGAT and COGAT still determines whether they get a visa.

The revised rules also added categories of work permits for teachers and removed a cap of 100 visiting lecturers and 150 students at Palestinian universities. Again, the change is largely cosmetic. COGAT still has to approve the academic credentials of any lecturer appearing at a Palestinian university and it can still screen potential students if they believe a visa is being “misused.”

“There wasn’t much change,” human rights lawyer and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace fellow Zaha Hassan told Mondoweiss. “With the relationship rule, you still have to report that. It still exists, it’s just the timing has changed. There were only minor changes to the rules. COGAT is still the one in charge or determining who can enter and there’s a host of other restrictions that were added or weren’t changed.”

“Who can enter the West Bank is still going to be limited in the same way,” she continued. “So a lot of the revisions are completely irrelevant. Compare the process of visiting a Palestinian in the West Bank to someone visiting an Israel settler. If you’re visiting a settler, you wouldn’t have to apply with same application. There would be no questions asked, so there remains differential treatment depending on who you’re visiting.”

Visa waiver

The motivation behind COGAT’s minor revisions aren’t exactly a mystery. Since the mid-2000s Israel has been publicly campaigning to be added to the United States’ Visa Waiver Program (VWP). The VWP allows citizens of select countries to stay in the United States for up to 90 days without having to obtain a visa. In recent years there have been multiple congressional efforts to push Israel into the program and in September 2021 President Biden assured Israel that he would work towards that goal. A joint declaration put out by Biden and Prime Minister Yair Lapid after the president visited Israel in July declares that “the United States and Israel affirm their commitment to continue their shared and accelerated efforts to enable Israeli passport holders to be included in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program.”

It’s hard to believe that the administration’s public gestures on this issue are destined to amount to anything, as there are a number of clear impediments blocking Israel’s entry into the program. For starters, countries admitted into the program have very low visa rejection rates, while Israel rejects a high number of visas every year. According to a State Department cable published by Wikileaks in 2010 there also seems to be some concerns about potential immigration fraud. However, the biggest obstacle barring Israel might be the most obvious one.

The visa waiver program is based on a principle of reciprocity. If United States citizens are discriminated against while trying to enter a country, that place is prohibited from obtaining a waiver. Israel has maintained draconian rules on anyone with a Palestinian or Arab background entering the West Bank for years. It hasn’t mattered whether or not they are United States citizens. The new rules simply codify and strengthen existing restrictions. Even during the Trump administration the U.S. government expressed apprehension about Israel’s discriminatory travel policies.

“Specifically, the administration in Washington continues to be concerned about the unequal treatments given to US Muslims at entry points and checkpoints,” said a State Department spokesperson in 2017. “We regularly raise the issue of equal treatment of all US citizens at entry points to Israel with the authorities in Israel.”

“As our own State Department acknowledges, Israel has maintained a lengthy record of, and continues to, systematically mistreat, harass, and discriminate against American citizens of Palestinian, Arab or Muslim origin who travel to any area controlled by Israel. Allowing Israel into the U.S. Visa Waiver program in spite of this mistreatment would amount to an endorsement by the Biden administration of this discrimination,” Americans for Justice in Palestine Action Advocacy Director Ayah Ziyadeh told Mondoweiss. “Biden would effectively be saying that Americans of Arab and Muslim backgrounds are disposable and not deserving of the protection of their own government, which is an outrage we must all unite against.”

It’s clear that Israeli officials continue to have discussions with the Biden administration about the revised rules and the visa waiver. “Since February, the U.S. Embassy Jerusalem, the U.S. Office of Palestinian Affairs and I have aggressively engaged with the Israeli government on these draft rules—and we’ll continue to do so in the 45-day lead up to implementation and during the two-year pilot period,”  tweeted U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides on September 4. “I continue to have concerns with the published protocols, particularly regarding COGAT’s role in determining whether individuals invited by Palestinian academic institutions are qualified to enter the West Bank, and the potential negative impact on family unity.”

“It is important to ensure all of these regulations are developed in coordination with key stakeholders, including the Palestinian Authority,” he continued. “I fully expect the government of Israel to make necessary adjustments during the pilot period to ensure transparency, as well as the fair and equal treatment of all U.S. citizens and other foreign nationals traveling to the West Bank.”

“The COGAT rules are absolutely integral to whether Israel qualifies for the visa program,” says Hassan. “There’s a lot of interest at the top of political food chain over getting Israel admitted and the pressure is quite great, but if it’s going to happen there’s going to have to be an effort to overlook the ways in which citizens are discriminated against.”

Michael Arria is the U.S. correspondent for Mondoweiss