Israel’s entry into the US Visa Waiver Programme (VWP) will be decided in September 2023, following the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the USA and Israel last week. Access to the VWP would, in theory, permit Israeli citizens to travel visa-free to the US. Palestinian and Arab-Americans however are concerned about what the move means for them.
1. What is the VWP?
Citizens from 40 mainly European countries are covered by the VWP, which dates from 1986. The waiver allows them to stay in the USA a maximum of 90 days without requiring a visa. The programme is intended to be reciprocal, meaning countries who benefit in this way are expected to allow US business and leisure travellers similar visa-free access. Now the proposal is to extend the same privilege to Israeli citizens.
Palestinian and Arab-Americans, as well as activists and rights groups, note that the wording of the memorandum includes Israel’s right to act on “legitimate security concerns” to refuse entry to US citizens. It is feared this could compound the existing situation, reported by Al Jazeera, where “scores of US and other foreign nationals of Palestinian and Arab descent are routinely turned away by Israeli authorities, who control all access to the occupied Palestinian territories.”
This results in unpredictable and distressing journeys for US citizens who attempt to return to visit the West Bank and occupied territories but never know if they will be refused entry.
The Arab American Institute, based in Washington DC, issued a statement on social media last week. It accused the Biden administration of “admitting Israel into the VWP in violation of statutory requirements” and so choosing “to abandon the rights of Arab American citizens.”
3. Second-class citizens
The number of US citizens facing difficulties when returning to Israel and the West Bank is such that it amounts to a “second-class” of citizen, subject to seemingly arbitrary judgements about whether or not they can travel. Fears are also mounting that data gathered through the visa waiver programme could be abused.
Abed Ayoub, executive director of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), told Al Jazeera about the potential repercussions of the memorandum’s wording. “If Israel says a certain traveller has a security issue, will the US government start using that adversely against that person? This opens up so many concerns.” He added, “The US is essentially creating a second class of US citizens there. This is a sign-off on the apartheid policies,” he said.