In 2021, President Joe Biden hosted Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the White House amidst a public protest outside organized by American Muslims for Palestine and others. One of the most alarming items on the agenda discussed in a side meeting between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Bennett was the proposition to include Israel in America’s Visa Waiver Program. This would mean that US and Israeli citizens traveling between the US and Israel wouldn’t need visas to enter either country. Now, outgoing Israeli Ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan claims that Israel will join the US Visa Waiver Program by mid-2022.
While this move might seem benign or inconsequential, it would actually solidify Israel’s discriminatory and racist entry policies toward US citizens.
It is worth noting that the concept of “citizenship” in the US, Israel, and globally is weaponized and access to it is used to exclude and demonize groups of people usually from the Global South. We must scrutinize the notion of citizenship and reflect on what defines an immigrant, refugee, or citizen, as well as how all these categories are themselves highly politicized categories.
While most countries on the visa waiver list maintain a reciprocity requirement, meaning that both countries must allow in nearly all citizens of the other, Israel and its US supporters have previously lobbied for an exception that would allow it to deny US citizens entry to Israel under the auspices of “national security.” This exception would subject US citizens to Israel’s existing apartheid policies at the border— and serve as a blank check for the government to blacklist, profile, and ban entry to US citizens of Palestinian, Arab, or Muslim descent. It would also lend even more backing to the denial of entry to those outspoken on Palestinian rights, which happens routinely at Israel’s borders. Just last December, Israel has responded to (and in the process, validated) these concerns of their apartheid system discriminating and harming Palestinians at their border by notifying their US counterparts that “Israel will ease restrictions on the entry of American citizens of Palestinian descent at Ben Gurion airport, addressing a key stumbling block in Israel’s effort to be included in the US Visa Waiver Program.”
These words carry no weight coming from an occupying force whose basic premise and current structure is racism and segregation. From the existence of apartheid laws, Jewish-only schools, roads, and settlements, to enshrining self-determination for Jews only in 2018’s Nation-State Law, there is no reason to think that Israel will act in a way that is not racist and discriminatory toward Palestinans, Arabs, Muslims and their allies.
The US/Israel visa waiver program will further institutionalize Israel’s apartheid policies. As outlined by the BDS movement, Israel currently confers different, and always inferior, status and rights in the country to Palestinian populations. The Israeli Citizenship Law of 1952 deprives descendants of Palestinian refugees of citizenship and all rights in their country.
The Entry into Israeli Law (1952) and Entry into Israel Regulations (1974) defines Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem as “permanent residents” with no legal right to stay, return, or unite with family members, and the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law of 2003 prohibits the grant of residency through family unification in Israel and occupied East Jerusalem with spouses and children from the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and designated Arab countries. Most recently, the Admissions Committees Law of 2011 allows rural Jewish communities to reject Palestinians wishing to live in them, depriving Palestinians of the right to housing and access to state land.
It’s laughable to imagine that a state legally practicing apartheid, colonization, and ethnic cleansing against the Palestinian people as a whole will adjust those policies to protect the rights of Palestinian Americans at the border.
The Department of State’s international travel information page on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) describes Israel’s discriminatory treatment of US citizens based on ethnicity and/or religion as follows:
Some U.S. citizens of Arab or Muslim heritage (including Palestinian-Americans) have undergone significant difficulties and unequal and occasionally hostile treatment at Israel’s borders and checkpoints. U.S. citizens who have traveled to Muslim countries or who are of Arab, Middle Eastern, or Muslim origin may face additional questioning by immigration and border authorities.
Israel also routinely denies entry to US citizens based on their connections to Palestinians, sometimes restricting their travel to the West Bank. As noted by the State Department: “Individuals entering Israel and/or the West Bank with family, professional, or political connections inside the West Bank may receive an entry stamp that permits travel only in the West Bank. This stamp does not permit the bearer to enter Israel.” Furthermore, US citizens with Palestinian ID cards are prohibited from entering and exiting Israel or the OPT through Ben-Gurion Airport.
Israel maintains a policy that demands the inspection of some US citizens’ email and social media accounts as a condition of entry. This policy has been designed to screen individuals who support Palestinian rights in order to deny them entry, which constitutes a direct violation of US citizens’ rights to privacy and freedoms of expression and association.
In 2014, the United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2014 was passed by Congress, which states that Israel can only gain entry to the Visa Waiver Program when it “satisfies, and as long as Israel continues to satisfy, the requirements for inclusion in such a program specified in such section.” This law is designed to ensure that Israel does not gain special treatment and entry into the Visa Waiver Program while continuing its discriminatory and racist policies.
Israel’s discriminatory and racist entry policies not only make it ineligible for entrance into the Visa Waiver Program, but also constitute blatant violations of treaty obligations undertaken by Israel in Article II of the US-Israel Treaty of Friendship, Navigation and Commerce.
As Israel continues to enact discriminatory and racist entry policies toward US citizens based on their ethnicity, religion, and/or freedoms of expression and association, routinely deny entry to US citizens, and violate treaty obligations pertaining to the rights of US citizens, it should not be accepted into the Visa Waiver Program. Allowing it to do so will serve as an extension of the country’s racist apartheid system, which functions internally to suppress and subjugate Palestinians, and externally to maintain demographic control over occupied land. Israel’s explicit discriminatory entry policies toward US citizens based on their ethnicity and/or religion, and who are exercising their freedoms of expression and association to support Palestinian rights must not be rewarded by admitting Israel into the Visa Waiver Program. This would be yet another American endorsement of the Israeli apartheid system, and subject American citizens to the Islamophobic and racist scrutiny of Israel.
Israel’s apartheid system should be punished, not expanded, endorsed, and rewarded. Biden’s inclusion of Israel in the US Visa Waiver Program does just the opposite.