Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Israel Includes Gaza Americans in US Visa-Waiver Pilot as Deadline Approaches


Israel Eases Travel Restrictions for Palestinian Americans from Gaza

Israel has announced that it will ease travel restrictions for Palestinian Americans from the Gaza Strip, as part of its preparations to enable Israelis to enter the United States without visas. This move comes as a condition for Israel’s accession to the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP). Since July 20, Israel has been loosening access through its borders, as well as in and out of the occupied West Bank, for Palestinian Americans in a pilot period. The deadline for Israel to show compliance with the US conditions is September 30, with hopes of being incorporated into the VWP by November.

Gaza, which is ruled by Hamas Islamists and faces blockades from Israel and Egypt, had initially been excluded from the pilot program. This exclusion sparked protests by Palestinian Americans and calls from the US for a change in policy. However, as of Monday, Palestinian Americans living in Gaza who are not considered security threats are now able to enter Israel on “B2” tourist visas, which also allows them the option to fly out of Israeli airports. The US Embassy in Jerusalem has confirmed this new policy.

It is important to note that Palestinian Americans from abroad are still largely unable to visit Gaza. As a temporary solution, Israel has stated that it will allow those with first-degree relatives in Gaza to apply for permission to make once-yearly visits of up to 90 days. However, some Palestinian Americans feel that this improvement does not add much value, as they are still unable to see their families who are just minutes away.

Since the start of the pilot program, over 5,400 Palestinian Americans have entered Israel or crossed its boundary with the West Bank, according to figures from the Interior Ministry. Out of these, 51 individuals were refused entry, with 49 suspected of planning to overstay their visas and two considered potential security threats. The US Embassy has also received complaints from Palestinian Americans who have been barred from traveling between Israel and the West Bank by car. In response, a joint US-Israeli team has begun talks to develop solutions in the coming months.

Estimates suggest that between 45,000 and 60,000 Palestinian Americans currently reside in the West Bank. However, Israeli officials have provided lower figures, stating that out of the 70,000 to 90,000 Palestinian Americans worldwide, only 15,000 to 20,000 are residents of the West Bank. Israel had initially planned to include Palestinian Americans living in Gaza in the pilot program on September 15 but decided to bring the date forward.

There seems to be a discrepancy in the figures regarding the number of dual US nationals in Gaza. Palestinian and US officials believe that there may be several hundred, while Israeli officials claim that most of them are not full-time residents of Gaza.

Overall, this easing of travel restrictions for Palestinian Americans from Gaza is seen as a positive step towards improving relations between Israel and the US. It provides an opportunity for Palestinian Americans to visit Israel and potentially reunite with their families in the West Bank. However, there is still work to be done to ensure smoother travel between Israel and the West Bank, as well as addressing the concerns of those who have been denied entry or faced travel restrictions. The joint US-Israeli team’s discussions will be crucial in finding solutions to these issues in the coming months.

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