Concerns raised over Israel joining US visa waiver programme
Several NGOs and US lawmakers are raising concerns over Israel becoming closer to entering the US visa waiver programme, which allows visitors to enter the country for 90 days without applying for a visa.
This ease of travel is normally granted to countries where there is a system of reciprocity, meaning citizens of each country can visit the other with around the same level of ease.
However, as many critics are pointing out, Israel does not accept all US visitors in the same way, particularly US citizens who are Arab, Muslim or who have spoken out against Israel.
"Israel shouldn't be admitted," Ayah Ziyadeh, director of advocacy for Americans for Justice in Palestine-Action. "They have a long history of discriminating not only against Palestinian Americans but against Americans in general who have expressed views against Israel. Any American who holds a pro-Palestinian view is affected."
Moreover, further scrutiny exists for those wishing to enter the occupied territories to visit Palestinians, while the same scrutiny does not exist for those visiting settlers in the West Bank. Israel's Coordinating Office for Government Affairs in the Territories (COGAT) has issued new regulations this year that will come into effect on Thursday, 20 October.
Israel's campaign to enter the visa waiver program continues to gain traction, with a security agreement signed between the two countries over the summer. As Israel works to show it is in compliance with the requirements, some NGOs and lawmakers are raising concerns that Israel is in fact not in compliance (citing the Department of Homeland Security, as reported by Haaretz) and should not enter the visa waiver programme.
One of the latest US Congress members to speak out on the issue is Don Beyer, who has been circulating a Dear Colleagues letter for other members to sign. Last year, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib also wrote a letter outlining her concerns about Israel entering the visa waiver programme, which was reported by Jewish Insider.
Beyer's letter urges US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to verify that all US citizens are being treated equally at Israeli ports of entry. It also notes the significance of the new COGAT regulations. Several NGOs are asking US citizens to contact their congressional representative to ask them to sign the letter by 12 pm Wednesday.
James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, has been advocating for reciprocity of treatment for Arab Americans entering Israel for the past 40 years. Based on his own experience of being held at the airport, he is aware of the disparate treatment of Arab Americans and non-Arab Americans.
"If they give Israel the visa waiver, they're throwing us under the bus," he told The New Arab. "Either Israel treats us as equal citizens, or they simply cannot get the visa waiver."