The program would allow Israeli citizens to travel to the United States for business or tourism without having to apply for a visa as they do now.
What would Israel’s admission to the program mean, especially for Palestinian Americans whom Israel regularly subjects to racial profiling and deportation at points of entry?
In June, 65 members of the US Senate sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, urging them to “include Israel in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) and to encourage both the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security to prioritize finalizing Israel’s accession this year.”
The effort to include Israel in the coveted travel scheme has ramped up.
Last month, the US signed a memorandum of understanding with Israel paving the way for admission to the visa waiver program.
One key condition that all countries have to satisfy to get into the US program is that American citizens traveling to their territories be treated equally. That has been a sticking point for Israel, given its regular abuses against Palestinian American and other Arab and Muslim American travelers.
Civil rights groups are warning that while Israel could initially make it easier for Palestinian, Arab and Muslim travelers to enter Palestine through Tel Aviv or Jordan in order to be accepted into the program, there is no guarantee that such discriminatory policies could not fall back into place once the deal is signed.
Notably, the memorandum does not specify any consequences for Israel if it does so.
According to the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the memorandum “and current Israeli policies do not guarantee fully equal and reciprocal treatment for all Americans.”
The ADC adds that the US would still tacitly approve Israel’s separate entry procedures for US citizens deemed residents of the West Bank or residents of Gaza – an endorsement of Israel’s apartheid policies for those Palestinian Americans.Chris Habiby, ADC’s government affairs and advocacy director, explains that the program contains loopholes that could allow Israel to continue its discriminatory practices.
He notes that it contains “carve-outs for security, for immigration concerns that Israel may have, which goes back to the very racist Israeli laws that are already on the books.”
Abed Ayoub, ADC’s executive director, tells The Electronic Intifada Podcast that the hurdles standing in the way of Israel being admitted “are its own policies and practices, and its own apartheid system that’s in place.”
Coupled with the US government’s willingness to help Israel navigate “and wiggle [its] way around things, creating different categories [of people] and even letting it get this far, is troubling and concerning,” he adds.
Ayoub says that while there are some positive stories about Palestinian Americans being able to enter through Israel’s crossings, “you have to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. How long will this last? Is Israel only doing this now so they get admitted into the program?”
He notes that no country has ever been removed from the Visa Waiver Program once it has been admitted, which means there may be little to prevent Israel from returning to its current, racist practices.
Ayoub says Israel is engaging in heavy public relations as the Visa Waiver Program nears the 30 September decision deadline, and encourages Palestinian Americans to refrain from helping the state with its propaganda.
“By allowing specific individuals through, by allowing people to record themselves going through and post selfies from the airport, we’re doing the work for them,” he warns.
“We can’t be caught up in Israeli propaganda and believe [that] just because some individuals have it good, this is a great program – we need to continue standing up for and advocating for all individuals and not set aside individuals from Gaza, because ‘we can deal with them later.’ No, this has to be dealt with now. It’s all or nothing,” he says.
Articles we discussed
- “Senators reward settlers,” Michael F. Brown
- “US & Israel visa waiver MOU does not guarantee equal treatment,” ADC
- “Fight heats up as Israeli efforts to enter US visa waiver program go down to the wire,” Haaretz
Video production by Tamara Nassar
Theme music by Sharif Zakout
Subscribe to The Electronic Intifada Podcast on Apple Podcasts (search for The Electronic Intifada) and on Spotify. Support our podcast by rating us, sharing and leaving a review, and you can also donate to fund our work.
Lightly edited for clarity.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Welcome back to The Electronic Intifada Podcast, I’m Nora Barrows-Friedman. We’ve got some exciting updates to the podcast coming up in the next few weeks, so please stay tuned. Today, we’re taking a look at the US visa waiver program and what the status of Israel’s admission to the program means especially for Palestinian Americans. As we reported, in June, 65 members of the US Senate sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas urging them to “include Israel in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) and to encourage both the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security to prioritize finalizing Israel’s accession this year.”
The senators hope that if Israel hits certain benchmarks, particularly with Palestinian American travelers, that the apartheid state can join the select program and some 450,000 annual Israeli travelers will no longer have to secure a visa to travel to the US. Visitors would then be able to make 90-day tourist and business visits without a visa. Palestinians fear that fulfillment of those benchmarks will be a temporary phenomenon and Palestinian American and Muslim American travelers will quickly face discrimination once again. There are profound doubts that quote “snapback” provisions would actually be applied to Israel. The senators’ letter overlapped with Palestinian Americans huddling in relatives’ homes as settlers – with complicit Israeli soldiers – put Palestinian property to the torch.
As our colleague Michael Brown wrote, “The letter’s timing was shameless. Approval of the VWP by the 30 September deadline would have practical implications for Palestinian American travelers whose concerns about Israeli discrimination when they travel to the region are being downplayed by US senators in their haste to get Israel into the program.”
In late July, the United States signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Israel relating to Israel’s admission to the Visa Waiver Program. According to the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, ADC, “A major focus of the MOU is the treatment of Arab and Palestinian passengers by Israel at ports of entry. For decades Israel has subjected U.S. citizen travelers of Arab and Palestinian descent to humiliating searches, delays, and restrictions on movement, among many other degrading practices.”
Notably, the ADC adds that “the MOU and current Israeli policies do not guarantee fully equal and reciprocal treatment for all Americans. This is significant as entry into the Visa Waiver program requires that the cooperating nation treats all US citizens equally, and that a blue passport is a blue passport.”
We’re joined by two members of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Abed Ayoub, ADC’s National Executive Director and Chris Habiby, National Government Affairs and Advocacy Director. Abed and Chris, thanks so much for being here today on The Electronic Intifada Podcast.
Abed Ayoub: Thank you, we appreciate you having us.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: So let’s start by having you lay out the general issues that US citizens of Palestinian and Arab descent have had for decades trying to enter Palestine through either the Tel Aviv airport or the points of entry from Jordan and what the Visa Waiver Program is.
Abed Ayoub: Thank you again. The challenges facing Palestinians trying to enter Israel, particularly Palestinian Americans, and Arab Americans in general trying to enter Israel, to get to Palestine, to get to the West Bank or to get to Gaza have been well-documented. We know the long checkpoints, we know the detainment that happens at the airport, the intrusive questioning, the bans, this has all been well-documented by human rights groups, you know, both here in the US and in Palestine.
So the examples are out there, and what the Visa Waiver Program is intended to do, it’s intended to make travel of citizens between, you know, agreed country – countries that are part of the program easier. So if you have, for example, Croatia I believe was the last country entered into the program, nationals of Croatia could travel to the US without a visa and vice versa. But we know that, you know, Israel is not Croatia, it’s not any other country that’s part of the program, there’s 40 countries that are part of it, Israel’s the only one right now that has a system of apartheid and a system of treating people differently, according to their race, where they were born, their religion, as soon as they get to a checkpoint or a port of entry. And that’s the problem.
That’s the issue we’re seeing here, in a perfect world, the – you know, they would be admitted into the Visa Waiver Program. And as you mentioned, blue means blue. That means anybody with a blue US passport can go, you know, go through the program, enter, go where they need to go. That’s not the reality. And you know, we can get into what the memo laid out and the way this is going to be implemented, if they are approved, is basically creating different classes of US citizens and the US government signing off on that, and essentially signing off on Israel’s system of apartheid. And stating, and putting in policy that not all US citizens are the same.
And therein lies the problem – that in a perfect world, the Visa Waiver Program would be welcomed by everyone. And I do want to note that we are seeing some positive stories and folks posting on social media that they were able to get in and they were able to go through the process. But you have to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. How long will this last? Is Israel only doing this now so they get admitted into the program? Once they’re admitted into the program, you know, will they go back to their past practices?
Never have we seen somebody enter the Visa Waiver Program and then get removed from the Visa Waiver Program. I doubt Israel would be the first, you know, if they do get admitted. So there’s a lot of questions that remain, even though we are seeing some individuals benefit from the current changes of policy that, you know, that the Israelis have implemented.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: And, Chris, can you talk about the significance of the fact that Abed just mentioned – that if the memorandum fails to specify any consequences if Israel does not engage in reciprocity, what could that mean for Palestinian travelers?
Chris Habiby: It basically could mean that as soon as Israel gets in, let’s say it happens sometime in September, come October, once again, Palestinian Americans that are on the Palestinian population registry are no longer able to enter through Ben Gurion, which is what they should be able to do already. The policy that – policy change that Israel announced last – late last month did allow for some of these Palestinians to enter through the airport. But at the end of the day, we’re still creating separate procedures for Palestinians, depending on whether they’re on the registry, depending on where they are from. So.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: And some of the, you know, some of the questioning that happens routinely at Ben Gurion, for example, is like, you know, they pull people of Arab, Palestinian descent, aside, and they start questioning them about their family, who their father was, what village you know, they were from, where they’re traveling, would any of that very racist profiling system be mitigated at the borders? Or would that kind of be continued in some sort of fashion? Do you have any idea?
Chris Habiby: So the MOU doesn’t actually address the delays that happen, because we know that, you know, quite often even Palestinians that aren’t on the registry – Palestinian Americans who aren’t on the registry get detained for hours, and whether they, whether or not they get in, that is still a deeply humiliating experience to have to go through. Now, the MOU, it addresses specifically getting entering and exiting, receiving the visa approved, essentially, but it doesn’t address the specifics of the detainments, and it does create these carve-outs for security, for immigration concerns that Israel may have, which goes back to the very racist Israeli laws that are already on the books.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Yeah, go ahead Abed.
Abed Ayoub: Right. No, I was gonna add that I don’t anticipate that those practices will go away. The Israeli government will continue using, you know, the excuse of national security to justify their actions. That’s something this government did in the, you know, immediate aftermath of 9/11 and continues to do in targeting, you know, Arab, Muslim travelers in the US, including US citizens. So I doubt that they’re not going to allow Israel to do and continue what they’re doing. And that is a cause of concern. That’s something that was not mentioned in the memo.
Again, those stories are out there, we’ve been dealing with them and hearing about them for decades, the humiliation that they put individuals through, and they do that intentionally so individuals say, you know, I don’t want to travel here, I’m gonna go back. That is their intention in putting them in the rooms, detaining them, holding them for hours, the humiliation. That’s part of their MO. That’s what they want to do. And I doubt that they’ll stop doing that, even if admitted into the waiver program.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Right. Let’s talk a little bit about the separate procedures for US citizens deemed residents of the West Bank or residents of Gaza and how the US is continuing to endorse Israel’s apartheid policies for those Palestinian Americans.
As your group says, under the system established by the MOU, Palestinian Americans from Gaza are treated as second-class citizens and are subject to a completely different set of rules. Only Palestinian Americans with first-degree family ties are allowed to apply for permission to enter Gaza, and they must travel through the West Bank. The only exceptions made are for children under the age of 12, meaning that those older would be prevented from visiting grandparents, those eligible must apply 45 days prior to traveling and are only allowed to apply once a year. So again, these just monumental restrictions. What does – what could this program change? You know, if there is reciprocity for those Palestinian Americans with residency papers from the West Bank, or Gaza, if anything?
Chris Habiby: So I wanted to just take a step back to both of those terms that are used in the MOU, resident of the West Bank, resident of Gaza, neither have a definition. So as of right now, we don’t know what Israel will consider a resident of the West Bank, a resident of Gaza, it could be as bad as anybody on the population registry is considered a resident.
So now they are subject to specific rules, entry requirements, we’re already seeing that those that are – that have quote unquote residency in the West Bank are being told you can’t enter through this checkpoint, you have to go to a different checkpoint, oh, you can’t cross over a checkpoint in a car, whether as a driver or a passenger, you have to get out of the car, go on foot.
So it’s a – these rules are creating separate classes of Americans. Now in a perfect world, if the Visa Waiver Program and all its requirements are met, Palestinian Americans can go visit family in Gaza, they can go to the West Bank, there is no restrictions, they can travel, they can rent cars, they can do basically anything that a normal tourist would be able to do when visiting Israel.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: And this program, when is it expected to begin and what obstacles could be in the way leading up to it in the next couple of months?
Abed Ayoub: The trial period is over on September 30. And the – if a decision is not made by the 30th of September, the end of the fiscal year, the US government’s fiscal year, then this will – the process will have to start over on October 1, they’ll have to aim for next year. So the immediate deadline in front of us is September 30. And the hurdles standing in the way of Israel being admitted are its own policies and practices, and its own system, apartheid system that’s in place. And their unwillingness to really abide by the Visa Waiver Program coupled with the US government’s willingness to, you know, be complicit and help them navigate and wiggle their way around things and creating different categories and even letting it get this far is troubling and concerning.
And, you know, one thing to keep in mind is even if this administration does not admit Israel into the Visa Waiver Program, you may get a future administration that will look and say, You know what, they’ve done enough. We put them through the wringer. This is good enough for me. So hypothetically, you could have a Trump administration or a DeSantis administration come in and say, Thank you, Biden, you all did good. I mean, you know, let’s just pick it up where we left it off and admit them.
So the groundwork for admission, at least in my opinion, is there. It’s just a matter of whether or not we can push it past the 30th and keep applying pressure to the current administration not to allow it to happen. And the one thing I will add with this current administration in place, with DHS, they have been receptive in meeting and hearing out the community’s concerns. So it’s not as if – you know, ADC and Chris and other, you know, Arab organizations, Palestinian community members, they’ve been around the table really giving their insight and having an opportunity to present for the first time, the impacts of these Israeli policies. So that’s a positive, but that may not exist if this administration changes in the future, and that, in my opinion, will just breeze Israel right into the program.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Right, especially if there’s no consequences if, you know, the program is implemented, and then Israel reverts back to its apartheid, discriminatory policies at the border. Chris, how should Palestinian Americans and Palestine solidarity activists be organizing right now in order to push lawmakers to guarantee the reciprocity and and even impose consequences if the reciprocity is broken? And what is the role that civil rights organizations such as the ADC is taking on?
Chris Habiby: Great question. So I think that the most important thing that folks can do right now is reach out to their member of Congress, let them know that, you know, at first, this MOU, we have not seen an official signed copy. Now there are drafts that have been circulating around, but the US government is refusing to release the MOU. So, you know, first and foremost, they let their members of Congress know, hey, this is not okay, this can’t negotiate away our rights in secret.
Two is to have them join with their fellow members of Congress to send a letter to DHS to the State Department saying, from what we have seen, this is not okay, from the policy changes that Israel has announced. This is not anywhere close to reciprocity. And then the final thing that I think is important for lawmakers to do is hold a hearing. You know, especially on the Senate side, Senator Gary Peters is the senator from Michigan, where there’s a giant Arab American population, his constituents are going to be affected by this.
And as the chairman of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee in the Senate, he has the authority and the remit to bring in folks from the State Department from DHS and ask them point blank, what went into this MOU? How are you approaching reciprocity?
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Abed, did you want to add anything?
Abed Ayoub: The one thing I would add in addition to pushing your members of Congress and pushing this out there, is don’t fall into the trap of the stealth PR campaign, Israel is engaging in, just as they engage in others. And by them allowing specific individuals through, by allowing people to tape themselves or record themselves going through and post selfies from the airport, we’re doing the work for them. And this could be temporary.
And again, we understand how good it is and how positive it is, and has been for a lot of travelers, we just want to see that extended to all travelers, we want to see that extended to anybody with an American passport. At the same time, we can’t be caught up in Israeli propaganda and believe, you know, just because some individuals have it good, this is a great program, we need to continue standing up for and advocating for all individuals, everybody and not set aside individuals from Gaza, because you know, we can deal with them later. No, no, this has to be dealt with now. It’s all or nothing.
And continuing to push that and continuing to push against the narrative that this is, we’re not gonna – we’re not gonna have a perfect program, but this is good enough, no – that it could be better. And it has to abide by the standards that the law and the regulations the visa waiver set forth. At ADC, we’re going to continue pushing this I know there’s a – there’s looking into legal strategies as well in the event they are admitted, what we could do on that front is always an option. And there’s always the understanding that the only way to really paint this picture is to collect stories and to collect examples of things happening.
So we encourage people that if they do travel overseas, if they are at the airport or the border crossing, at the bridge and they’re not permitted to go in or they’re not allowed to go in, they’re turned away, they need to file with the US State Department and let them know here’s what happened. Then at the same time, ADC has a link which is on our website, which we can share the link with you to pass out – we need to collect those stories. We need to be able to show the State Department that, hey, you know, this many individuals were turned away, here’s why they were turned away, then set the pattern and give them the data so they can understand how this is not necessarily working the way it should. So that’s a very important component, to educate the travelers, to educate those going over there and let them know, if you are turned away, we need to hear your story. We need to collect that information.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: That’s really important. And for people wanting to learn more about your work, explaining and, you know, documenting what’s happening with the Visa Waiver Program, where can they go?
Abed Ayoub: ADC.org.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Excellent. Well, thank you so much. We’ll of course have updates as this program moves through the legislature and the State Department and DHS and all of that. So we’ll have you back on probably at the end of September when we know more. That is Abed Ayoub and Chris Habiby from the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, ADC. Abed and Chris, thank you so much for all of your work and for being with us on The Electronic Intifada Podcast.
Chris Habiby: Thank you so much.
Abed Ayoub: Appreciate it. Thank you.