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US to test Palestinian American freedom of movement for Israel visa waiver

The pilot programme will take place starting in July and will assess Palestinian American travel in Israel
A Palestinian woman shows her passport to a camera as she waits at the Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip, on 18 September 2013 (AFP)

The United States will assess the freedom of travel afforded to Palestinian Americans in Israel, in the run-up to the proposed US visa exemptions for Israelis next month. 

Israel hopes to be admitted to the US visa waiver programme (VWP) by October. But to complete the requirements, Israel needs to ensure that Palestinian Americans can freely access its ports of entry and the territories of the occupied West Bank.

In March, US State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said Israel "still has significant work to complete on a short timeline to meet all program requirements" by the end of the fiscal year on 30 September.

If the requirements are met, then Israel would be considered for the programme. 

"Participation in the VWP requires that Israel provide equal treatment and entry rights to all US citizens and nationals, at Israel’s ports of entries and checkpoints, just as the US would grant such visa-free travel privileges to Israeli citizens," Patel said.

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"This includes Palestinian Americans, including those on the Palestinian Authority population registry."

On Sunday, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said on Ynet TV that a pilot programme would be launched in mid-July to keep Israel’s VWP candidacy on track. 

According to an official, the pilot programme will span 30 to 45 days, during which US delegates would monitor the travel of Palestinian Americans through the Ben-Gurion Airport as well as at checkpoints across the West Bank. 

"If you're a Palestinian American living in Ramallah, this means you can spend up to 90 days in Tel Aviv (on an Israeli entry visa)," the official told Reuters.

'Unequal treatment'

Israel has been striving for inclusion in the visa programme for a long time. The programme permits overseas visitors to remain in the US for up to 90 days without a visa, reciprocating the same privilege to US citizens in participant countries. 

As it stands, the US maintains this type of agreement with 40 nations.

US State Department: Israel has not yet met requirements for US visa waiver programme
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Israel currently prevents individuals registered in the Palestinian Authority population registry, including those without a Palestinian ID card, from entering Israel without advance permission, regardless of their US citizenship.

Instead, they are required to enter and depart the occupied West Bank through the Allenby Bridge crossing with Jordan.

Some US lawmakers have raised concerns about Israel being allowed into the visa waiver programme while it engages in what they deem discriminatory practices against US citizens.

“The issue is American visitors and whether an American visitor would be discriminated against based on their ethnicity or race,” Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen said in September.

“It is pretty clear to me that if you are a Palestinian American, you will have different treatment if you want to travel to the West Bank than if you are another American who wants to go visit a settlement on the West Bank … That is not reciprocity. That is unequal treatment of American citizens based on their ethnicity.”

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