Israel Blocks Some Palestinian Americans From Entering From West Bank

Israel is preventing some Palestinian Americans from entering the country from the West Bank, an apparent violation of a recent agreement in which citizens from the United States and Israel can travel to the other nation without a visa.

The Homeland Security and State Departments, which manage the program, said American officials were trying to resolve the issue.

“U.S. government officials are working with the government of Israel to address reports of Americans facing issues in traveling to and flying out of Ben-Gurion Airport,” said Erin Heeter, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security.

The arrangement, announced in late September, before the war began, was part of a larger effort toward improving relations between the two countries. At the time, President Biden was making a push to broker a diplomatic deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Under the visa waiver program, Israel would lift restrictions on Palestinian Americans and other Americans of Arab or Muslim descent, easing the way for them to travel to and from Palestinian territories.

For decades, Palestinian Americans have faced difficulties traveling to the Israeli-occupied West Bank to see family and friends or to do humanitarian work. They have been forced to first travel to Jordan, which shares a border with the territory. They typically fly in and out of the Queen Alia International Airport in Amman, the capital of Jordan, rather than entering or leaving from Tel Aviv.

American officials insisted that the agreement would change that. But shortly after Israel’s inclusion in the program was announced, Hamas carried out a deadly attack on Israel that killed 1,200 people and ignited an Israeli invasion of Gaza as well as a surge of violence in the West Bank.

Israel, citing security reasons, further restricted the movements of Palestinians in the West Bank, whether they hold an American passport or not. Palestinian Americans found themselves unable to cross in or out of Israel at that border.

It was an early test to an agreement that some had doubted Israel would uphold.

“Of course, everybody got excited about this new regulation, allowing us to go through Ben-Gurion because of our citizenship,” said Fidah Mousa, a Palestinian American who lives in the West Bank.

During a pilot period over the summer, more than 100,000 U.S. citizens, including tens of thousands of Palestinian Americans, were able to travel to Israel without a visa. At the time, Ms. Mousa purchased a ticket to fly out of Tel Aviv to return to the United States in October to attend her daughter’s wedding.

“Deep down, I didn’t think it was going to last,” she said of the equal treatment.

Days after the Oct. 7 attack, Ms. Mousa said her employer, an international nongovernment organization, sent her updates about Israel’s closure of checkpoints to Palestinian Americans seeking to enter from the West Bank.

Inam Mansor, a Palestinian American lawyer who lives in the West Bank, said she had been told by an Israeli border official on Sunday that the visa privilege for Palestinian Americans was no longer available.

It was precisely the situation some feared.

“Here we are in the middle of an actual crisis — being told to go” to Amman, to fly from Queen Alia International Airport, said Maya Berry, the executive director of the Arab American Institute, an advocacy organization. “It’s yet another example of why Israel does not belong in this program.”

Civil rights groups like the Arab American Institute raised concerns about Israel’s entry into the visa waiver program. Some Democratic lawmakers, including Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, also expressed skepticism.

“While he understands the difficult security climate in Israel, all American citizens are guaranteed reciprocity under the visa waiver program, and he has serious concerns about this development,” said Francesca Amodeo, a spokeswoman for Mr. Van Hollen.

After the Oct. 7 attacks, the Biden administration moved up the start date of the program so Israelis fleeing the war could have an easier time entering the United States.

Asked about Palestinian Americans who were unable to leave the West Bank for Israel, State Department officials said they had been trying to help them go overland to Jordan.

“To expand the departure options for U.S. citizens in the West Bank, the State Department has begun chartering overland transportation for U.S. citizens and their immediate family members from the West Bank to Jordan,” the department said.

Separately, the department arranged charter flights from Oct. 13 to 31 to ferry American passengers out of Israel, even though commercial flights were still running. Dozens of flights destined for Washington and a few European capitals left Tel Aviv mostly empty — or in some cases, entirely empty, an American official said.

Palestinian Americans in the West Bank or in Gaza were unable to get to those flights.

Asked about the lack of passengers, the State Department acknowledged the flights “consistently departed at half capacity or less.”

Cogat, a department of Israel’s defense ministry that administers aspects of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, cited the outbreak of the war to explain why crossings in the West Bank had been closed to Palestinian residents of the territory.

“In regards to Israel’s international crossings, nothing has changed. Palestinians with U.S. citizenship continue to enter Israel with a tourist visa,” Cogat said in a statement.

“Once Hamas commenced war on Israel, the crossings from Judea and Samaria into Israel were fully closed — for security reasons,” the agency said, using the Israeli term for the West Bank. “Israel will allow the entry of Palestinians holding U.S. passports for tourism purposes through the crossings in Judea and Samaria at the end of the closure, in accordance with the agreement signed between Israel and the U.S.A.”

Raja Abdulrahim contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

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