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US will allow Israeli travelers into the country without visas

President Joe Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the 78th United Nations General Assembly in New York City on Sept. 20, 2023. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

The United States has agreed to admit Israel into the elite category of countries whose citizens can travel to the U.S. without visas, despite questions over whether Israel meets a core U.S. requirement for the special status: that Israel allow Palestinian Americans to travel freely in its territory.

U.S. officials Wednesday are expected to announce the decision to grant Israel admission to the visa-waiver program, to which around 40 mostly European countries already belong.

The decision comes after a two-month test period in which Israel was to prove its eligibility by eliminating long-standing restrictions on Palestinian Americans who attempt to travel in Israel and the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

If traveling to the West Bank from abroad, they have generally not been allowed to transit through the only international airport in the area, near Tel Aviv, but must instead go overland from neighboring Jordan. And travel within Israel, the West Bank and Gaza is complicated for Palestinian Americans, as for most Palestinians, by Israeli military checkpoints that often block their passage.

But Biden administration officials said late Tuesday, as the deadline for Israel’s compliance approached with the end of the U.S. government fiscal year, that it believed the requirements for easing travel restrictions to the U.S. had been met.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas “is designating a key U.S. partner and ally in the visa-waiver program,” a spokesman for the agency said in a briefing with reporters, speaking anonymously ahead of the formal announcement.

The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security alleging that Israel had failed to meet the program’s visa-waiver requirements. Anecdotally, a number of Palestinian Americans have reported the same harassment and prolonged questioning at Israeli military checkpoints or border crossings that have gone on for years. Others, though, have said travel was easier.

The State Department, working with the DHS, said it set up a system to monitor how Palestinian Americans were being treated by Israel in their efforts to transit by inviting their comments.

“We launched a program … to monitor conditions, to ensure that Palestinian Americans are able to travel freely, to make sure that they are not discriminated against,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said. “That includes talking to people who have traveled in and out of Israel and understanding their experience. And we take all that data and look at it, and it’s part of the determination” by the two agencies to determine Israel’s eligibility.

Miller would not characterize the tone of the assessment.

The no-visa travel for Israelis will likely go into effect within eight weeks, U.S. officials said.


© 2023 Los Angeles Times

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