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House Democrats urge Biden to exclude Israel from visa waiver programme

A letter from 20 lawmakers highlight Israel's 'discriminatory restrictions' on travel in the occupied West Bank
A Palestinian hands his documents to an Israeli soldier manning a checkpoint in the occupied West Bank on 26 October 2022.
A Palestinian hands his documents to an Israeli soldier manning a checkpoint in the occupied West Bank, on 26 October 2022 (AFP)
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Washington

A group of 20 House Democrats have called on the Biden administration to keep Israel out of a visa waiver programme, in the latest efforts by lawmakers to halt Israel's inclusion in the exemption scheme over a number of restrictions the country imposes on US citizens while travelling to and from the occupied West Bank.

A visa waiver programme enables most citizens or nationals of participating countries to travel to the United States for tourism or business for stays of 90 days or less without obtaining a visa.

The letter, led by Congressman Don Beyer, states that the lawmakers' main concern is the "principle of reciprocity", and in order to allow Israel into the visa waiver programme, Israel must first address a number of issues that US citizens face at the hands of Israeli authorities.

"Unfortunately, Israel has consistently refused to extend fair treatment to US visitors attempting to travel through Israeli-controlled entry points," said the letter, seen by Jewish Insider on Monday. It was sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken last Thursday.

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The letter noted that the State Department's own travel advisory, which states 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".

Under Israel's current regulations, US citizens with "dual citizenship from five countries" are not allowed to visit the occupied West Bank, and Americans are allowed to be rejected entry on the basis that they have "political positions deemed unacceptable by Israeli authorities", according to the letter.

The letter notes that "it is clear that Israel cannot and should not be admitted into the visa waiver program under the status quo", based on the new "discriminatory restrictions" imposed by the Israeli military for entry into the West Bank.

Despite enjoying a close strategic partnership and bilateral relationship with the US, Israel has long sought entry into the United States Visa Waiver Program (VWP) with limited success. The membership would shorten the length of time needed to obtain a visa, allowing for 90-day visits for tourism or business.

For months, Democrats in Congress have raised serious concerns regarding the inclusion of Israel over the restrictions it imposes on travel in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Earlier this year, the Israeli government published a 97-page document introducing a number of severe restrictions on travelling to the West Bank, including being required to go through a rigorous questioning procedure.

The new restrictions were met with stiff opposition from American officials, who told the Channel 12 news network in May that a failure to reevaluate the restrictions could lead to a punitive postponement or even suspend Israel's inclusion in the visa waiver programme.

In June, a series of letters were sent to the Biden administration pushing to halt Israel's inclusion into the programme.

In one of those letters, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, who also signed last week's letter, posed a few questions to the Biden administration regarding Israel's eligibility, including: Has the US addressed with Israel its discriminatory entry policies towards American citizens? Does Israel provide the US with information on the number of Americans it denies visas each year?

Tlaib, herself a Palestinian American, was previously barred from entering Israel in 2019 and forced to cancel a trip she had planned to the West Bank and Jerusalem.

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