More than 30 organizations meet with U.S. officials to discuss Israel’s Visa Waiver Program bid

Washington, D.C. | | June 5, 2023 – As the U.S. Government continues to assess Israel’s eligibility to join the U.S. Visa Waiver Program (VWP), a group of more than 30 community leaders representing thousands of Palestinian Americans, Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, and allies met senior officials from the Departments of State and Homeland Security (DHS) last week to discuss the community’s concerns with Israel’s potential admission into the program. During the meeting, questions and demands were raised on issues ranging from how reciprocity should be defined and enacted; the necessity of access to Gaza, the West Bank, and transit through all checkpoints under the VWP; the impact of COGAT rules and their incompatibility with the VWP; the need for mechanisms for testing compliance and reporting violations; concerns about the unreliability of Israel’s security information, and more.

Core to the U.S. Visa Waiver Program is the principle of reciprocity, which requires that participating countries treat every American citizen traveling with a U.S. passport – regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, creed, or secondary nationality – just as the U.S. would treat foreign nationals of the participating country at all U.S. points of entry and transit. However, Israel’s current policies and practices on entry, exit, and transit of American citizens are antithetical to the requirement of reciprocity.

Noting that Israel currently does not meet VWP reciprocity requirements, DHS and State Department officials reaffirmed their commitment to reciprocity under the guiding principle of “blue is blue,” meaning that anyone with a blue American passport seeking entry or transit through Israel must be treated equally by Israeli authorities. Officials also stated that they have made it clear to the Israeli government that it must demonstrate reciprocity in action prior to being admitted into the VWP.  Disappointingly, they remained ambiguous around what Israeli-controlled points of entry will be included and whether checkpoints will be covered under reciprocity. Specifically, there was no clarity whether the VWP-required reciprocity will extend to the crossings from Israel into the West Bank and Gaza, from the West Bank into Israel, and from Jordan into the West Bank – all of which Israel controls.

Regarding Gaza, State Department and DHS officials have consistently evaded the issue of access under the VWP, describing the situation with Gaza as complex without giving concrete positions or acknowledging Israel’s more than 15-year siege on the Strip that has blocked freedom of movement and transit for foreign travelers and millions of Palestinians. Palestinian advocates on the call emphasized that reciprocity is not meaningful for the community if Gaza is not included.

Ultimately, officials stated that they are continuing to discuss reciprocity issues with Israel, and therefore were limited in what they could share. However, they acknowledged that Israel’s problems with reciprocity are a novel issue they haven’t faced in the past with other countries seeking entry into the VWP. When discussing compliance and reporting, DHS officials stated that they are working to come up with a proposal for a robust program of compliance and verification, including an official mechanism where travelers can report violations – something the community has long advocated for.

Another issue addressed by community advocates on the call is Israel’s widespread use of travel bans without due process, citing a 2019 case when an AFRP delegation of approximately 20 young Palestinian Americans to the West Bank was arbitrarily denied entry without justification. The youth were issued 10-year entry bans, blocking them from visiting both the West Bank and Israel.

Chris Habiby, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee’s (ADC) National Government Affairs and Advocacy Director, said, “Accepting anything less than full and equal treatment of American citizens would be a betrayal of the foundational principles of the Visa Waiver Program. Compromising reciprocity introduces an infinitely increasing, chaotically complex series of conditions that only serves to reinforce Israel’s system of discrimination.”

George Salem, Co-Chair of the American Federation of Ramallah, Palestine’s (AFRP) Government Affairs Committee said, “Travel bans are yet another tool in Israel’s toolbox to fragment the Palestinian community and deny us our right to visit and maintain relationships with our ancestral homeland. Before even being considered for the VWP, all travel bans on entering and exiting issued by Israel without due process must end, and past visa denial decisions that were made without due process cannot be used as a basis for blanket denial of entry.”

Hanna Hanania, Co-Chair of AFRP’s Government Affairs Committee, said, “The Palestinian and Arab American community are united in our demand that no exceptions be made for Israel when assessing its eligibility for the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, and that the rules of the program are fully and equally applied. This process cannot be a negotiation and the statute is clear. There is no room for concessions or compromise.”

The meeting was a result of a joint letter signed by nearly 50 community organizations that was sent to Secretaries Blinken and Mayorkas this May outlining the community’s main concerns with Israel’s potential admission into the VWP, and comes after more than a year of community engagement with State, DHS, and Congressional offices on the issue. Organized by the American Federation of Ramallah, Palestine (AFRP), the meeting included representatives from American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), Americans for Justice in Palestine Action (AJP Action), Arab American Institute, Beit Sahour USA, Coalition of Palestinian American Organizations, Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), Emgage Action, MPAC, US Palestinian Council, Virginia Coalition for Human Rights, and others.

Some of the key demands regarding Israel’s consideration for the VWP shared with DHS and State Department officials by the coalition of community organizations include:All American citizens and nationals – including Palestinian Americans on the Palestinian Population Registry – must be able to travel to/through all Israeli–controlled entry points and checkpoints unimpeded, and must be treated equally regardless of ethnicity, religion, secondary nationality, etc. This includes the crossings from Israel into Gaza, from the West Bank into Israel, and from Jordan into the West Bank.

All travel bans on entering and exiting issued by Israel without due process must end. Past visa denial decisions that were made without due process cannot be used as a basis for blanket denial of entry.

In the event of an entry denial, Israel must provide a detailed written explanation of the reason for denial. This explanation must go beyond simply stating the reason for denial, as Israel has consistently abused the use of “national security” as a basis for denial of movement.

The use of extended detention and interrogation of American travelers must end on both entry and exit. Israel must cease taking personal property, including, but not limited to, personal computers, watches, game devices, tablets, phones, etc.

Israel must repeal the inherently discriminatory COGAT procedures, which are designed to exclude almost all Americans from visiting the Palestinian West Bank, and are in direct conflict with the reciprocity requirements of the VWP.

A robust testing period should last a minimum of 3 months and ensure non-discriminatory policies and actions. Prior to the initiation of the testing period, the State Department must develop and implement a reporting system to track denials and mistreatment of U.S. citizens at all Israeli-controlled points of entry and checkpoints in order to provide aid to U.S. citizens and determine if Israel is eligible for/abiding by the requirements of the VWP.

The State Department and Department of Homeland Security must implement a comprehensive oversight system to regularly assess Israel’s compliance with the requirements of the VWP, with clear consequences for lack of compliance, including removal from the VWP.

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