US Visa Waiver Program: Why Arab Americans angered by Israel’s admission

Ali Harb

Al-Jazeera  /  September 28, 2023

Advocates say US government is turning blind eye to violations against its own citizens’ rights to give perk to Israel.

Washington, DC The Biden administration’s decision to allow Israelis to travel visa-free to the United States has drawn the ire of Arab Americans who say the move represents tacit approval of Israeli discrimination against US Palestinian and Arab travellers.

The US admitted Israel on Wednesday into the selective Visa Waiver Program (VWP), hailing the relationship between the two top allies.

The VWP requires admitted nations to abide by what’s known as “reciprocity”. This means that countries whose nationals are allowed to travel to the US without visas must, in turn, not discriminate or deny entry to American citizens without credible cause.

In this case, however, Palestinian rights supporters say the US will allow Israel’s citizens to enter the country without a visa while the Israeli government detains, questions and turns back American travelers.

Activists argued that by adding Israel to the VWP, the US was overlooking well-documented Israeli discrimination against Americans of Arab and Palestinian descent, as well as supporters of Palestinian human rights more broadly.

For example, Israel did not allow US Congress-women Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib to visit the country and the occupied Palestinian territories in 2019, citing “their boycott activities against Israel”.

James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, a Washington, DC-based think tank, said the US is deprioritizing the rights of its own citizens.

“This was about us. It was about Arab Americans and our rights,” said Zogby. “I feel betrayed by my government because they knowingly threw us under the bus.”

What has the US said ?

US officials have often stressed that “blue is blue”, referring to the colour of the American passport and the privileges it entails.

Reciprocity is a key element of US travel policies; Washington even imposes visa fees on citizens of countries that charge American citizens for visas.

In a statement on Wednesday, Washington said Israel had met the reciprocity requirement.

“Israel made updates to its entry policies to meet the VWP requirement to extend reciprocal privileges to all US citizens without regard to national origin, religion, or ethnicity,” US government agencies said.

But activists say Israel was handed the perks of the VWP in disregard of its mistreatment of American citizens and in violation of US laws.

For example, Americans residing in Gaza will still need a special permit from the Israeli authorities to leave the besieged territory – an arrangement that does not exist for any other country in the program.

Pressed on the issue on Wednesday, Department of State spokesperson Matthew Miller acknowledged that there “are different procedures” for Gaza, saying that the territory is controlled by a “foreign terrorist organization”, referring to the Palestinian movement Hamas.

But he insisted that Israel still meets the reciprocity requirement.

‘No respect for us’

Further angering many Arab Americans is the fact that Biden administration officials did not merely accept Israel into the program.

They actively and publicly pushed for its inclusion in a campaign largely led by Thomas Nides, Washington’s former envoy to Israel, who frequently posted about the effort on social media over the past two years.

Moreover, activists said that the VWP inclusion handed a political victory to one of the most right-wing governments in Israeli history under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Zogby said US President Joe Biden’s push to heap rewards on Israel is difficult to understand. “I’m insulted, and I’m angry,” he added.

He told Al-Jazeera that he has himself been held and questioned for hours at Israeli checkpoints, even when accompanying American officials in the region.

 “They have no respect for us,” Zogby said of Israel. “And now our own government says in effect they don’t respect us. That’s the problem.”

Israel’s entry into the VWP also came amid growing concerns about the safety of US citizens in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories and the muted response from Washington to abuses against them.

Israeli forces killed two US citizens last year: renowned Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh and an elderly Palestinian-American man, Omar Assad.

Here’s how other Arab Americans, Palestinian rights advocates and US lawmakers responded to the decision to add Israel to the VWP this week:

Democratic Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib

“This decision enables further racist practices and violence towards Americans including the murder of Shireen Abu Akleh. The United States has yet to hold the Israeli government accountable.

“The Visa Waiver Program requires that all US citizens are treated equally. I have received consistent reports of discrimination of Americans attempting to enter Israel.”

Mohammed Khader, US Campaign for Palestinian Rights advocacy group

“The Biden Administration’s designation of Israel to be admitted into the Visa Waiver Program is a heinous lapse of oversight that relegates US law below Israeli law and exchanges the rights of US citizens for closer ties with an apartheid state that arms authoritarian governments abroad.”

IfNotNow, progressive Jewish-American group

“By admitting Israel to the Visa Waiver Program, the United States is essentially condoning Israel’s apartheid regime over Palestinians by signing off on Israel’s discrimination against Palestinian American citizens.”

Adam Shapiro, Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN)

“Separate can never be equal, as was determined decades ago in the fight for civil rights in this country.

“Forty countries participate in the VWP, and none have formal arrangements to discriminate against American citizens; only Israel has demanded and been granted this unconscionable favor by the US government.”

Democratic Senators Chris Van Hollen, Brian Schatz, Jeff Merkley and Peter Welch

“To date, Israel has failed to meet the ‘Blue is Blue’ requirement.

“Adherence to this important American tenet of reciprocity and equal treatment of all US citizens is critical to the integrity of the Visa Waiver Program, and we are deeply concerned with the Administration’s decision to move forward in violation of that principle.”

Stefanie Fox, Jewish Voice for Peace Action advocacy group

“Once again, the US is singling out Israel for special and exceptionalized treatment at the expense of the rights of Palestinian Americans.”

Sandra Tamari, Palestinian American-led Adalah Justice Project

“Israel’s discrimination is especially egregious against Palestinian Americans with ties to Gaza, making reunification of families torn apart by Israel’s siege and blockade of Gaza near impossible. Apartheid is not only Israeli policy, it is US policy too.”

Ali Harb is a writer based in Washington, DC