Waiving US visas for Israelis would be a mistake

The US should not give up protecting its own citizens just to present another political gift to the Israeli government.

Passengers sit in a waiting room on the Jordanian side of the King Hussein Bridge (also known as Allenby Bridge) crossing between the West Bank and Jordan on July 19, 2022. - The border crossing, which serves as a border crossing between Israel and Jordan mainly for the Palestinians and foreign tourists, has witnessed an issue with crowding with passengers stuck on the Jordanian side. (Photo by Khalil MAZRAAWI / AFP)
Passengers sit in a waiting room on the Jordanian side of the King Hussein Bridge crossing between the West Bank and Jordan on July 19, 2022 [File: AFP/Khalil Mazraawi]

My American-Palestinian cousins, the Awad family, have a routine for whenever they come to visit us in Jerusalem. They try to avoid flying into Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv because if the Israelis refuse them entry – as happens to many Americans because of their national origin, religion, or public criticism of Israel – they would have to fly back all the way to the US.

Instead, they usually enter Palestine from Jordan through the King Hussein Bridge Border Crossing. As an occupying power, Israel still operates the Palestinian side of this crossing. So when entering the occupied West Bank through that crossing, the Awads still face the Israeli discriminatory practices, but at least if they get denied, it would mean just a return to Jordan.

My cousins also choose to travel via Jordan because they can leave their phones with relatives in Amman and not have to hand them over to the Israelis at the border. Electronics get searched for – among other things – any criticism of Israel or support for the boycott movement, which immediately results in refusal of entry.

The Awads always bring an extra book or two to read and a spare deck of cards. Once they arrive at the Israeli passport control and flash their US passport, they are almost always asked to wait a long time. So they take out the books and the cards and enjoy their time until a random Israeli security officer decides whether they can enter their homeland or not.

Once the Awads cross the border, they know they are still not safe. Discrimination against American citizens continues inside Palestine, where the Israeli occupation runs a vast network of checkpoints.

They know, for example, that as Americans visiting Palestinian family members or friends, they may not be allowed to drive across a checkpoint together in the same car, as some of them may be ordered to disembark and not allowed to proceed.

They also know they are lucky not to have Palestinian documents.

If Americans who hold Palestinian IDs attempt to go to occupied Jerusalem to visit the Al-Aqsa Mosque or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, they are stopped at one of the many checkpoints along the way and turned away.

These Americans also do not have the option to fly into Tel Aviv, as Palestinian ID holders are not allowed to use it.

There are myriad ways in which Americans can be denied entry or restricted in their travel while in occupied Palestine. And they don’t have to be of Palestinian descent to face such mistreatment at the hands of the Israeli authorities.

Because of all these restrictions, when the Awads do make it to Jerusalem to visit us, it is a special joy for us because we know what they have had to go through to reach us. I and my children, who are American citizens, know all too well Israel’s discriminatory policies.

Meanwhile, illegal Israeli settlers – regardless of whether they are American or not – are allowed to live on occupied land in Palestine, in violation of international law. And, of course, they are free to go wherever they want in occupied Palestine.

Despite Israel’s egregious record in discriminating against Americans, the Biden administration is about to admit it into the US Visa Waiver Program, which would allow Israelis to travel to the US without applying for a visa at a US embassy or consulate.

The visa waiver programme is a privilege reserved only for countries meeting federal statutory requirements including one known as “reciprocity”. Reciprocity means that a US national should be treated the same way an Israeli national is treated when travelling to the US.

How Israel can possibly meet the reciprocity requirement when the US Department of State has long advised American travellers that they can expect to be discriminated against when travelling to Israel is hard to understand.

However, the current US ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, who is leaving his post in August, seems eager to gift Israel admission into the Visa Waiver Program. He is set to oversee a one-month “trial period” starting July 1 during which Israeli authorities are supposed to allow Palestinian Americans to enter Israel and allow them to use the Tel Aviv airport.

How compliance during this one month will ensure that Israel will stop its discrimination against all Americans is unclear. The Israeli government can simply restrain the border authorities for 30 days, pretend that they are changing their ways and once the visa waiver is granted, resume its odious policies.

The Israelis are well aware that the US government would rarely take away a benefit it has given to Israel because of the political costs it may incur. So, the return of discrimination against American citizens at border crossings controlled by Israel is unlikely to result in its suspension from the Visa Waiver Program.

Israel should not be given special treatment and granted an exception from full compliance with federal law. The US ambassador to Israel should not have the authority to negotiate the rights of American citizens away with such ease. It would not only allow Israel to solidify its discriminatory practices but may also encourage others to start mistreating Americans in the same way.

If the US government admits Israel to the Visa Waiver Program without its explicit formal agreement to end all discriminatory practices against all Americans (including Palestinians, Muslims, Arabs and defenders of the Palestinian cause), it would put its stamp of approval on the extension of Israeli apartheid-like policies onto American citizens.

Israel would never accept that its citizens be treated with anything less than equal dignity and neither should the United States.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.