Palestinian Americans are now tourists in their own land

Sari Bashi

The Hill  /  September 25, 2023

The Israeli government, motivated by the plum prize of joining a coveted U.S. visa waiver program and desperate for a public relations win in light of mass protests, launched a pilot program in July. The program makes it easier for Palestinians holding U.S. citizenship to travel in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory, thus giving a tiny number of Palestinians a small fraction of their right to freedom of movement.

As an Israeli and American Jew married to a Palestinian refugee and living in the occupied West Bank, I responded to this strange development with a mix of joy and outrage.

First, the joy. Three weeks ago, we loaded our car with towels and toys for a day at the beach in Jaffa.  To get there, we had to pass a checkpoint two miles inside the West Bank, at a gate in the barrier that keeps Palestinians out of Israel and the parts of the West Bank restricted to Israelis.

I dropped my husband off near a break in the dusty roadside fence that leads to the Palestinian crossing point and drove through the Israeli side of the checkpoint with our two children. The security guard racially profiled me with a smiley “good morning,” designed to check my Hebrew accent, and waved us through. Amazingly, they let my husband cross on foot — thanks to his newly acquired U.S. passport.

For most of the last 11 years, we have lived together in the occupied West Bank. In that time, my husband has been allowed to enter Israel on only a few occasions, even though his parents were born on Israel’s southern coast and fled as children in 1948 as the Israeli army neared their village. His parents have not been allowed to return home, as part of an Israeli policy to maintain Jewish demographic superiority.

My husband grew up in a refugee camp in Gaza, where his family still lives. He managed to move to the West Bank, but has not been allowed to join me in Israel — not even when our new-born daughter was hospitalized for a month in Tel Aviv. Nor has he been allowed to travel between Gaza and the West Bank, due to severe restrictions. Our children have never met their grandmother, who lives 60 miles away.

As part of the visa waiver deal, the Israeli government has said it will allow US citizens to visit first-degree relatives in Gaza once a year. As a result, my husband might be allowed to see his elderly mother for the first time in 11 years.

Now, the outrage I feel. Despite concessions to the relatively few Palestinians who hold U.S. citizenship, another 5 million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank are still denied their right to freedom of movement throughout the occupied Palestinian territory. And 5.9 million registered Palestinian refugees and their descendants, who live outside the areas where they or their families lived until 1948, are still denied their right to return to what is now Israel. Giving visas to a tiny number of Palestinian refugees is outrageous, because they should not be treated as tourists in their own land.

Successive Israeli governments have pursued the U.S. visa waiver, but it was out of reach until now for two main reasons. First, U.S. law requires nationals of countries in the program to have a visa rejection rate of no more than 3 percent, but the U.S. has on average denied 6 percent of Israeli applications. The denial rate dropped because of reduced travel during the pandemic, creating a unique eligibility window.

Second, the visa waiver program requires member countries to admit U.S. nationals without discrimination. But the Israeli authorities impose severe movement restrictions on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, including Palestinian Americans, while permitting visitor travel there for other U.S. nationals.

They have also routinely discriminated against U.S. citizens of Arab or Muslim origin seeking entry to Israel or Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza and those who are outspoken about Palestinian human rights. Anticipating U.S. approval for the visa waiver as soon as next week, the Israeli government is rolling back a small part of those restrictions. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly thanked President Joe Biden for the coveted gesture in their meeting Wednesday in New York, as opponents of Netanyahu’s policies demonstrated outside their hotel.

That Israel’s current far-right government is willing to bend on heretofore intransigent policies in return for visa-free travel for Israeli citizens shows the power of U.S. leverage over the conduct of Israeli authorities. So I feel hope, too.

Imagine what positive changes could be possible if the U.S. government were to heed calls to suspend its $3.8 billion annual military support to Israel, so long as the Israeli authorities continue discriminatory policies and practices that human rights organizations, legal experts and even some mainstream Israeli scholars have concluded amount to apartheid.

The U.S. has all this leverage. It should use that leverage to pressure Israeli authorities to respect the right of Palestinians like my children’s grandmother to travel freely between Gaza and the West Bank, and to enter Israel not as tourists, but as refugees returning home.

Sari Bashi, Program Director at Human Rights Watch; prior to joining Human Rights Watch, Sari co-founded and ran Gisha, the leading Israeli human rights group promoting the right to freedom of movement for Palestinians in Gaza