Jerusalem (Reuters) – The United States will test Palestinian-Americans’ freedom of travel in Israel next month as part of preparations for proposed U.S. visa exemptions for Israelis, an official briefed on the preparations said on Monday.
Israel has satisfied some conditions for the U.S. Visa Waiver Program (VWP), to which it hopes to be admitted by October. It must now demonstrate unfettered access for Palestinian-Americans at Israel’s border and to the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
“Israel still has significant work to complete on a short timeline,” a U.S. Embassy spokesperson said, adding that this should entail “extending reciprocal privileges … including allowing Palestinian-Americans to travel to and through Israel.”
Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen told Ynet TV on Sunday that a “pilot programme” to keep the country’s VWP candidacy on track would be launched in mid-July. He did not elaborate.
An official briefed on the preparations said the pilot will entail a 30- to 45-day period during which U.S. delegates will keep tabs on Palestinian-American travel through Ben-Gurion Airport and across West Bank checkpoints.
That could put fresh strains on Israeli forces amid violence in the West Bank, among the territories where Palestinians hopes to establish an independent state have faltered amid an almost decade-old impasse in U.S.-sponsored peace talks.
The Biden administration has also locked horns with Israel’s government over Jewish settlement policies in the West Bank.
The pilot will test access not only for U.S.-domiciled Palestinian-Americans but also for those based in 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, who declined to be identified by name or nationality, told Reuters.
Asked how it would accommodate the pilot, the Israeli military referred Reuters to Israel’s Interior Ministry, which did not immediately respond.
In an estimate that it says is based in part on U.S. census data, the Arab American Institute Foundation puts the number of Palestinian-descended Americans at between 122,500 and 220,000.
Between 45,000 and 60,000 of them are in the West Bank, the official briefed on the VWP preparations said, adding that the pilot will not apply to the Islamist Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, where a few hundred Palestinian-Americans live.