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Sep 27, 2023, 1:17pm EDT
securityMiddle East
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How Israel scored US visa-free entry for its citizens

Palestinian workers
REUTERS/Amir Cohen
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The News

Israel became the 41st country on Wednesday accepted into the U.S. Visa Waiver program, meaning ordinary Israeli passport holders no longer require a visa to visit the U.S.

Washington approved the update after a trial program that began in July. Israel was required to prove that it would reciprocate ease-of-entry for all U.S. citizens, notably Palestinian Americans who previously were not permitted entry into Palestinian territories via Israel and instead had to cross through Jordan.

The changes are expected to start in late November, U.S. officials said. Like citizens of other Visa Waiver countries, Israeli passport holders will still need to apply for electronic authorization into the U.S. prior to arrival. Still, some advocacy groups are suing the Biden administration over the matter, arguing that Israel’s admission is unlawful because Palestinian ID holders are ineligible for the visa waiver program.

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Israel’s far-right government loosening restrictions for Palestinian Americans “shows the power of U.S. leverage over the conduct of Israeli authorities,”1 writes Human Right Watch’s Sari Bashi for The Hill. She says the Biden administration should use that leverage to pressure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to reform discriminatory movement restrictions on non-American Palestinians, thousands of whom were displaced from their homes over the last century and are not allowed to leave occupied territories. “Giving visas to a tiny number of Palestinian refugees is outrageous, because they should not be treated as tourists in their own land,” Bashi argues.

The COVID-19 pandemic incidentally helped Israel qualify for the program,2 U.S. embassy officials in Jerusalem told The Times of Israel. To be eligible for visa waiver status, the U.S. visa rejection rate must be 3% or lower for citizens of the applicant country. Prior to COVID, Israel’s visa-denial rate was about 6%, but a reduction in travelers during the pandemic opened up a narrow timeframe where the denial rate dropped enough to qualify for the program.

The program admission does not change the “deep and ongoing crisis”3 between the U.S. and Israel, Bar Ilan University’s Eytan Gilboa told Al Monitor. U.S. officials remain largely concerned by Netanyahu’s overhaul of Israel’s judicial system, Gilboa said, which many have argued would lead to backsliding of Israel’s democratic norms. The admission also has not completely erased all discriminatory practices, Israel’s newspaper Haaretz reports. Palestinian Americans wishing to travel into Israel from occupied territories are still required to pre-register with the Israeli army. But many of them are wary of interacting with Israeli forces because of the country’s “long history of illegal surveillance and wrongful use of personal information,”4 one Palestinian American told Haaretz.

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