‘Discriminatory’: Democrats urge Israel to end West Bank travel restrictions

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken with Israeli President Isaac Herzog last week in Washington (Stephani Reynolds - AFP)

 Chris McGreal

The Guardian  /  November 1, 2022

Israel should not join visa waiver scheme until it stops targeting Arab and Muslim US citizens ‘based on their ethnicity’, letter says.

Twenty members of Congress have asked the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, to demand Israel end “discriminatory” travel restrictions against Palestinian Americans visiting their families in the occupied territories and US citizens critical of Israeli government policies.

The letter comes as Israel is attempting to negotiate entry to the US visa waiver program, which would allow its citizens to join those of 40 other countries in traveling to the US with only online approval and without requiring an interview.

But American politicians have said Israel should not be admitted to the program until it stops targeting Arab and Muslim US citizens “based on their ethnicity”.

The letter, initiated by congressman Don Beyer, a Virginia Democrat, said that new regulations imposed by Israel’s defense ministry department overseeing occupied Palestinian land, which came into effect in October, “codify onerous and discriminatory restrictions”.

The 90-page ordinance further complicates the lives of Palestinian families with dual nationality, including Americans, who already faced a complex travel permit system. Among other things, it bars people born in Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Bahrain and South Sudan from traveling to the occupied West Bank other than under exceptional circumstances, even if they are using US or other foreign passports. About 60% of the Jordanian population is of Palestinian origin.

The letter also noted that Palestinian Americans who wish to visit the areas under Israeli military governance “may be forced to provide the names and ID numbers of family and friends”, a requirement that can open them to intrusive Israeli scrutiny.

The letter said the regulations also subject Americans “to an arbitrary and restrictive screening process that would deny entry to those who have political positions deemed unacceptable by Israeli authorities”. These include US citizens campaigning for sanctions against Israel over its 55-year occupation of the Palestinian territories.

“These restrictions impact the ability of Americans to travel to and reside in the occupied West Bank, and lead to many Americans being denied entry at Israel-controlled borders,” the letter said.

“Unfortunately, Israel has consistently refused to extend fair treatment to US visitors attempting to travel through Israeli-controlled entry points. The state department itself acknowledges in its travel advisory that US citizens traveling to Israel have been unfairly denied entry.”

The state department warns that “some US citizens of Arab or Muslim heritage (including Palestinian Americans) have experienced significant difficulties and unequal and occasionally hostile treatment at Israel’s borders and checkpoints”.

Congresswoman Marie Newman was among those who signed the letter.

“Israel has imposed discriminatory restrictions on people traveling to the Palestinian West Bank, a move that impacts families in my district, especially Palestinian Americans who will find it harder to see family. This is wrong and must end,” she tweeted.

In September, Senator Chris Van Hollen told the foreign relations committee that Israel treats Palestinian Americans differently from those US citizens visiting illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied territories who face no restrictions.

“The issue is American visitors and whether an American visitor would be discriminated against based on their ethnicity or race,” he said. “It is pretty clear to me that if you are a Palestinian American, you will have different treatment if you want to travel to the West Bank than if you are another American who wants to go visit a settlement on the West Bank … That is not reciprocity. That is unequal treatment of American citizens based on their ethnicity.”

In 2019, Israel barred two Muslim members of congress, Rashida Tlaib, who is Palestinian American, and Ilhan Omar, from visiting the occupied territories after then President Trump tweeted that allowing them entry would “show great weakness” because the pair “hate Israel & all Jewish people”. Both have been critical of the occupation and Israeli policies.

Israel later said Tlaib would be permitted to make a “humanitarian visit” to her ageing grandmother in the West Bank if she committed to certain conditions. Tlaib said these included restrictions on political speech including “not to promote a boycott of Israel” and refused to agree to them.

The new regulations also place significant restrictions on foreigners who wish to volunteer, work or study in the West Bank.

The congressional letter noted that Israel is a “close ally and a recipient of generous aid” from the US, and said that strengthening the bilateral relationship between the two countries, including by facilitating travel, “is an admirable goal”.

“The strengthening of this critical relationship cannot be at the expense of American grandparents who simply wish to visit their children, or at the expense of those Americans who conduct business, attend school, teach, or conduct any other lawful activity in territories controlled by Israel,” the letter said.

The members of Congress noted that the US Department of Homeland Security has said that Israel does not meet the requirements for inclusion in the visa waiver program (VWP) because of its discriminatory practices against some American citizens.

“In light of that position, it is clear that Israel cannot and should not be admitted to the VWP under the status quo,” the letter said.

Chris McGreal writes for Guardian US and is a former Guardian correspondent in Washington, Johannesburg and Jerusalem