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Israel eases travel restrictions for Palestinian-Americans in hope to qualify for US Visa Waiver Program

Jerusalem kickstarts pilot program, visa-free entry into Israel for all Palestinian-Americans

Illustrative - Passengers at the departure hall of Ben-Gurion International Airport, April 4, 2023. (Photo: Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The State of Israel is launching a new visa-free pilot program that will allow Palestinian-Americans to travel to and across Israel for up to 90 days, including via Ben-Gurion International Airport, the main international hub in Tel Aviv.

Beginning on Thursday, U.S. citizens who are listed on the population registry of the Palestinian Authority (PA) will be allowed to apply for permits to enter Jewish state without a visa, like all other American citizens who have been granted permission to visit and stay in Israel up to 3 months for purposes of business or pleasure.

The easing of travel restrictions for Palestinian-Americans from the West Bank represents an important milestone for Israel being accepted into the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP) later this year, according to a U.S. State Department announcement on Wednesday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office confirmed Jerusalem’s new visa-free policy toward U.S. citizens living in the West Bank.

“This procedure will allow any US citizen to enter Israel (without a visa), and subsequently, with the acceptance of Israel as a member of the Visa Waiver Program, will allow any Israeli to enter the US without the need for a visa,” according to the statement.

Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Herzog welcomed the latest U.S.-Israeli development on social media.

“I was privileged today to represent the government of Israel in signing a U.S.-Israeli memorandum of understanding on the extension of reciprocal privileges in the visa waiver program. This is a significant milestone towards Israel joining the program,” Herzog tweeted.

The U.S. State Department welcomed the initiative.

While the United States and Israel are strong allies, issues regarding the implementation of two-way visa-free travel has prevented the two nations from coming to an agreement.

Because of tense relations between Israel and the PA, until now Palestinian-Americans with West Bank family ties were not been allowed to pass through Ben-Gurion airport. Instead, they were required to first fly to the nearby Kingdom of Jordan and fly out of the Queen Alia International Airport in Amman, a policy that Washington defined as discriminatory. In addition, the West Bank has not been given permission by Israel to have its own airport. Both of these policies were deemed as necessary security measures for Israel due to ongoing terror threats.

Israel has failed to qualify for the U.S. Visa Waiver Program until now allegedly because of the relatively high percentage of visa application rejections, and due to complaints of how Arab and Muslim travelers were treated at the airport and Israeli border crossings.

However, the situation has seen some improvement in the last year.

In January, the United States Embassy in Israel announced that the annual rejection rate of Israeli visa applications is “below the 3% non-immigrant visa refusal rate,” a key requirement for being accepted into the U.S. Visa Waiver Program.

The pilot will potentially impact about 70,000 Palestinian-Americans, half of whom live in the West Bank. There are reportedly some 400,000 Palestinian-Americans based in the U.S. who do not appear on the PA's registry.

Once the pilot is implemented, U.S. officials say they hope the Israeli approval process for Palestinian travelers should take up to no more than 48 hours.

There is so far no definitive plan to include U.S. citizens living in Gaza in the new pilot, "given current security threats,” despite the Prime Minister Office statement that the new travel guidelines will also apply to Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip.

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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