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Why the US must not add Israel to its visa waiver programme

Once Israel gets what it wants, the routine mistreatment of Palestinian-American travellers and others deemed hostile to the occupation will resume with a vengeance
A man walks past a screen announcing arrivals at Israel's Ben Gurion airport on 4 March 2020 (AFP)
A man walks past a screen announcing arrivals at Israel's Ben Gurion airport on 4 March 2020 (AFP)

For years, Israel has coveted admission to the US visa waiver programme, which offers visa-free entry to the US for 40 countries

One of the conditions for admission is reciprocity: each country must offer visa-free entry to US citizens and treat them the same way as their citizens would be treated by US immigration officials. Until last month, Israel had failed on most counts.

The most serious deficiency concerned Israel's treatment of Palestinian-American travellers seeking to enter Israel from the US and return to the US from Israel. In addition, Palestinian-Americans in the West Bank and Gaza were completely prohibited from entering Israel to travel abroad.

The visa waiver is especially helpful politically to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as he faces a massive pro-democracy movement opposing his judicial coup.

If he succeeds in securing Israeli participation, then the 450,000 Israelis who fly to the US yearly for tourism and business purposes would find travel much more convenient. It would also permit Netanyahu to trumpet this as yet another political victory to offset the troubles he’s facing. 

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In order to meet US conditions, he directed the Shin Bet to relax its airport procedures. The internal intelligence agency provides airport security for the flights of all air carriers to and from Israel.

A well-informed Israeli security source told me that Netanyahu had told agency chief, Ronen Bar, that the visa waiver programme was a top priority. As a result, according to the source, Bar promised to end the decades-old policy known, unofficially, as: “At the airport, every Arab is a terrorist."

This reflects the Shin Bet’s notorious mistreatment of Palestinian-American travellers. 

Flagrant violations

A recent Israeli law prohibits entry to anyone supporting the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. Shin Bet agents scour social media and online content for pro-Palestinian and pro-BDS statements, which they cross-reference to passenger lists.

Anyone, especially Palestinians and pro-Palestinian activists, who has expressed support for BDS or Palestine is likely to be denied entry, and then deported. 

Staff of human rights NGOs are often banned outright. European Union politicians and US House Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar have been refused entry for their support of Palestinian rights.

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In some cases, African Americans also face similar treatment. When the Alvin Ailey dance company travelled to Israel, the security agent refused to believe a male member was part of the troupe and made him dance to prove it. Yes, he made a Black man dance. I suppose we should call it Dancing While Black. If that doesn't evoke traditional racist stereotypes, nothing will.

Such security checks can take hours and involve ransacking luggage, demanding electronic device passwords, reviewing and cloning computer hard drives and even stripping travellers naked for full-body searches. Women are strip-searched with male agents in the room. They face hours of repeated questions, some of which demand highly personal information. 

These agents often refuse to permit such individuals to board planes or forbid them from taking their luggage and devices. They may detain them so long that they miss their flights. All airlines flying to or from Israel must agree to similar treatment of such passengers.

In July, Israel signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) in which it declared that US citizens who enter Israel will no longer be treated this way. It even promised that those who travel through Israel to and from Gaza will be freely permitted entry at Ben Gurion airport and at border crossings from Gaza into Israel. 

Nevertheless, US human rights groups, members of Congress and Palestinians have protested against the prospect of Israeli participation, because of its flagrant mistreatment of Palestinian and Muslim-American travellers. In fact, the US has warned Israel that the increasing violence it perpetrates against Palestinians could endanger its candidacy for the programme.

Israel’s charm offensive

As part of its “charm offensive” with US officials, Israel announced that in the past month, 12,000 American citizens in Gaza had been approved for entry to Israel in order to fly to the US or other foreign destinations. This was double the number from this time last year. A thousand Palestinian-Americans enter Israel from the US each week. 

Ronen Bar has now instructed Shin Bet's air security personnel in Israel and abroad to change the old policy to this “new” unofficial definition: “At the airport, every Arab is a terrorist… except those who are American citizens."

Shin Bet has now instructed its air security personnel in Israel and abroad to change the old policy to this 'new' unofficial definition: 'At the airport, every Arab is a terrorist… except those who are US citizens'

Such slogans clearly display the cynicism of the Israeli security apparatus. 

They should also send up red flags about its sincerity in adhering to the new standards. Given Israel’s backtracking on numerous agreements regarding Palestinians, I suspect it will drop the permissive protocols as soon as it gets the visa waiver from the US. It views even written agreements that constrain its interests as documents of convenience.

As long as a deal with an adversary or ally offers it a favourable outcome, it honours it. As soon as it can, it resumes its old ways. I suspect this would be the approach in this case. Easing of the travel of Palestinian-Americans will likely be temporary and should be viewed with scepticism.

If Israel does backslide, the US will have little recourse. Theoretically, it could remove Israel from the programme, but the Biden administration has shown itself loath to punish Israel for any offence. It’s unlikely it would expend any political capital on such a move, since it would anger the US-Israel lobby. With a presidential election looming, the president will need American Jewish votes and campaign donations.

But even if Israel continues to respect the provisions of the MOU, it contains an “exception” which largely eviscerates it:

“Israel may investigate the security background of these Americans [Palestinian-Americans and other 'undesirables'] and reject entry for those who participated or participate in terror. However, their treatment will not depart from that of other American citizens."

Given Israel’s expansive definition of “terror,” which includes the BDS movement as a terror campaign and Palestinian human rights NGOs, this passage in the agreement offers Israel a virtual carte blanche to deny almost anyone entry. Further, it permits Israel alone to make such a designation, from which there is no appeal.


In mid-July, a few days before Israel implemented its new security protocol, Palestinian-American journalist Noor Wazwaz arrived at a US airport for an El Al flight. After endless hours of security interviews, searches and intrusive questions about her personal life, not to mention lies from her interrogators, she was ultimately denied as a "security risk". She chronicles her ordeal in this X (formerly Twitter) thread.

Presumably, the domestic intelligence agency would have stopped mistreating Palestinian travellers once the new protocol began last month. But apparently, that's not the case. Despite signing the MOU mentioned above, some in the Shin Bet appear not to have gotten the memo. 

Take American Muslim @wayoflifesq, who travelled to Palestine to make a pilgrimage to Al-Aqsa Mosque and other sites. On his return earlier this month, Shin Bet security agents at Ben Gurion engaged in the same behaviour that had supposedly ended with last month's agreement.

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He alleges that he was strip-searched and the security procedures lasted so long that he was late for boarding.

In a video posted to his Instagram account, a United Airlines Israeli gate attendant berates him for delaying the flight "for 300 passengers". He responds indignantly that the security authorities caused the problem.

In the video, as he enters the plane he apologises to the passengers for the delay, describing the humiliation and personal violation of undergoing a strip search.

Given such behaviour, the Biden administration should refuse to permit Israel to join the visa waiver programme. The incident above shows that the Shin Bet will ignore agreements its government makes.

For its officials, security trumps agreements with foreign governments. If the US admits Israel to the programme, we will gain little, especially if Palestinian-Americans continue to be mistreated.

Israel and Netanyahu, on the other hand, will have gained a great deal.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog, devoted to exposing the excesses of the Israeli national security state. His work has appeared in Haaretz, the Forward, the Seattle Times and the Los Angeles Times. He contributed to the essay collection devoted to the 2006 Lebanon war, A Time to Speak Out (Verso) and has another essay in the collection, Israel and Palestine: Alternate Perspectives on Statehood (Rowman & Littlefield) Photo of RS by: (Erika Schultz/Seattle Times)
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