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Israel to include Gaza in visa waiver pilot, rights advocates question claim

Palestinian American rights advocates express concerns over Israeli visa pilot programme, say Israel 'rushing to deadline'
A Palestinian man walks to the Israeli checkpoint between the West Bank town of Bethlehem and Jerusalem on 10 June 2016.
A Palestinian man walks to the Israeli checkpoint between the West Bank town of Bethlehem and Jerusalem, on 10 June 2016 (AFP)

Israel has said it plans to allow travel for Palestinian Americans from Gaza who meet security criteria starting next month, according to a Reuters report citing an Israeli official. 

Gil Bringer, Israel's visa waiver programme project manager, said that as part of a pilot programme, Palestinian Americans from Gaza, residing in Gaza, can travel by special shuttle bus to the occupied West Bank, cross into Jordan, and then from there go on to travel to other foreign destinations.

By 15 September, these Palestinian Americans residing in Gaza who satisfy Israel's security criteria will be able to enter Israel on "B2" tourist visas and fly out of its main airport, Ben Gurion, Bringer told Reuters.

Israel is also allowing Palestinian Americans from abroad to make once-yearly visits to Gaza, only if they have first-degree relatives living in the besieged enclave, according to Bringer.

"That will basically mean they're included in the pilot," Bringer said, adding that the target date had originally been 22 September and "if we can bring it forward further, we will".

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Since Israel began its pilot programme to allow the entry of all American citizens, including Palestinian Americans, to enter Israel in its bid to join the US visa waiver programme, around 2,500 Palestinian Americans have travelled through Israel's borders and a similar number have crossed in or out of the occupied West Bank, according to Bringer.

The news of Palestinian Americans from Gaza being allowed in the pilot programme was welcomed by some Palestinians, but Palestinian American advocacy groups have warned that Israel's consistent discriminatory entry treatment of Palestinians does not allow them to qualify for the US visa waiver programme.

"Gaza was never included in the [Memorandum of Understanding] between the US and Israel, so Israel is trying to make false promises to obtain their end goal," Ayah Ziyadeh, advocacy director for Americans for Justice in Palestine (AJP), told Middle East Eye.

"Within this process, the US is proving a point of blindly accepting Israel's claims and promises despite their track record of dishonesty and lack of implementation, which I'm sure will happen in this situation."

US, Israel 'rushing to meet deadline'

Israel has long strived for inclusion in Washington's visa waiver programme, which permits overseas visitors to remain in the US for up to 90 days without a visa, reciprocating the same privilege to American citizens in participant countries.

Last month, US ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides and Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who was on a visit to Washington, signed a “reciprocity agreement” to allow American citizens the ability to freely enter Israel.

The US also announced it would be monitoring the changes over a period of six weeks and then make a decision about whether or not to allow Israel's entry into the visa waiver programme by 30 September.

During that period, Washington will see whether Palestinian Americans and other Arab Americans are disproportionately scrutinised by Israeli security, as has often been the case, with Palestinians and Arabs often finding themselves facing extra checks, tight restrictions and extensive delays.

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Part of the reciprocity agreement would be that Israel would allow Palestinian Americans living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza to enter Israel.

A number of Palestinian American experts and rights advocates have expressed concerns over Israel's pilot programme and the potential ascension of Israel into the US visa waiver programme.

Last week, during an online webinar hosted by AJP, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Zaha Hassan, said that one of these concerns is that it appears the entry "into this trial is being rushed to meet a deadline".

"It's based on getting to that deadline and getting Israel admitted into the programme by September 30th rather than on making sure this is a successful trial, and that Israel is complying with federal statute."

Ziyadeh said that the current US trial assessment period is not nearly long enough to address Israel's discriminatory practices against Palestinian Americans and that it is "irresponsible" of the US to continue along a trajectory that would allow for Israel's entry into the visa waiver programme.

"For many Palestinians in the US, it may seem intriguing and exciting because it's seen as an opportunity to return to our homeland and visit without any problems," Ziyadeh added.

"Still, realistically speaking, we don't believe that will be the case. The unofficial MOU signed by the US and Israel does not provide full reciprocal visa-free entry for all US citizens and nationals to Israel, which is the core requirement for admission into the programme."

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