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Rights group sues US government to block Israel's entry to visa waiver programme

American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee says US allowing Israel to discriminate against Palestinian Americans entering the country
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 19 July 2022.
Passengers sit in a waiting room on the Jordanian side of the King Hussein Bridge (also known as Allenby Bridge) between the West Bank and Jordan, on 19 July 2022 (AFP)

A leading Arab American rights group is suing the US government and calling on a federal court to halt any further actions admitting Israel into the visa waiver programme (VWP), saying that Israel is not eligible for entry because it is discriminating against Palestinian Americans.

The lawsuit, filed by the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), accuses the US of failing to adhere to the law when it comes to the tenets of the VWP, namely by allowing Israel to discriminate against Americans entering Israel and the occupied West Bank.

The lawsuit, seen by Middle East Eye, states that the actions taken by the US to give Israel a pathway into the programme "have established discriminatory rules and procedures against United States citizens to participate in the program when traveling to Israel and thus violate the VWP rule of reciprocity and constitutional guarantees of equality".

"Defendants’ decision to enter into an agreement that allows the Government of Israel to create different classes of US citizens and treat them disparately in a way that is not reciprocal with how the US treats Israeli citizens."

The ADC has said, that based on credible reports and investigations, Israel is currently on the verge of being accepted into the VWP, despite failing to meet the legal requirements needed for entry.

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“This is all so unnecessary, all the US government had to do was maintain the standard it has with every other country in the Visa Waiver Programme. This lawsuit could have been avoided, but the DHS (Department of Homeland Security) and the State Department resurrected the debunked notion that separate is somehow equal. As these plaintiffs show, that notion is a farce,” Huwaida Arraf, a lawyer representing the ADC, told Middle East Eye.

The legal filing seeks an injunction against the US that would prevent the government from making a decision on whether to admit Israel into the VWP until Washington "receives from Israel guarantees of full and equal reciprocal privileges for all US citizens without distinction".

"The requirements of the Visa Waiver Program are clear and unambiguous. The US government is obligated to ensure that all Americans are treated equally," Abed Ayoub, the ADC's executive director, said in a statement.

"It is our intent to hold the US government accountable for any actions that create separate classes of US citizens. Admitting Israel into the Visa Waiver Program would be an endorsement of discrimination against Palestinian and Arab Americans."

Israel has long sought entry into the VWP, which permits overseas visitors to remain in the US for up to 90 days without a visa and reciprocates the same privilege to US citizens in participant countries.

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In July, the US and Israel signed a “reciprocity agreement” to allow American citizens the ability to freely enter Israel.

Washington also announced it would be monitoring Israel over a trial period of six weeks and then would make a decision about whether or not to allow the country into the VWP by 30 September.

However, experts, rights groups, lawmakers, and Palestinian Americans have raised concerns about Israel's trial period, saying that the country was creating a multi-tiered system of entry that treats different groups of US citizens unequally, particularly Palestinians and other Arab Americans.

Earlier this month, more than a dozen senators raised these concerns with the Biden administration, sending a letter that warned against moving forward with Israel's entry into the VWP.

"The contacts we have had from US citizens seeking to travel to Israel since the MOU went into effect, it is clear that Israel is not in compliance with this law as it relates to reciprocal treatment for all US citizens, and is not on track to come into compliance before the September 30, 2023 deadline," the senators said.

The ADC has said that the discrimination by Israel against American citizens even exists within the country's current policies, including restrictions on how Palestinian Americans can cross checkpoints into the occupied West Bank and the "inhumane treatment of Palestinian Americans when they try to return to the US".

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