Gaza Americans urge Washington to include them in Israel visa deal

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Gaza (Reuters) – U.S. passport holders with Palestinian papers and families in Gaza are urging Washington to ensure they are treated equally under a reciprocal deal with Israel intended to insure visa-free travel for American and Israeli citizens.

Israel, facing a Sept. 30 deadline to qualify its citizens for visa-free admission to the United States, said it has loosened access through its main airport and at the occupied West Bank’s boundary for Palestinian Americans, allowing more than 2,000 people to cross into or through Israel.

U.S. State Department officials have said the Visa Waiver Program must apply to all American citizens, including those in Gaza, but a number of Palestinian Americans with Gaza identity papers have said they have been prevented from entering Israel.

“As a Palestinian with a Gaza ID I was disappointed it discriminates against people like me. We are specifically excluded from benefiting from this program,” Hani Almadhoun, a Palestinian American visiting family in Gaza, told Reuters.

The severe restrictions imposed by Israel on Palestinians have made qualification for the visa waiver a test for prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, which must show it treats all U.S. passport holders exactly the same, regardless of any other nationality they may hold.

Sitting at his family house in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya, Madhoun said authorities rejected his request to return home through the Israeli Ben Gurion airport to Northern Virginia, where he lives with his wife and two American-born daughters.

“As an American I think we should have those benefits because Israelis now, even those Israelis who live in illegal settlements are able to come to America without harassment,” he said.

On Thursday, COGAT, the Israeli Defence Ministry agency for liaising with the Palestinians, said on its official website only U.S. citizens holding Palestinian identity card registered in the “Judea and Samaria area”, a term used by the Israeli administration to refer to the West Bank, may enter through any of the international border crossings.

The website said that, by Sept. 15, additional procedures relevant to Gaza strip residents would be published.

“In these very days, Israel is working on examining an outline for Americans who hold a Palestinian identity card, to enter and leave the Gaza Strip,” a source from COGAT told Reuters. “More details on the subject will be published in an orderly manner in September.”

Speaking to Reuters in Dubai, a Palestinian-American lawyer of Gaza origin said Israeli authorities denied him entry at Ben Gurion, forcing him to return to Dubai, though he had confirmed with the Israeli Embassy in Dubai that he was allowed to fly into Israel though he had a Gaza ID.

“This really shows unfortunately Israeli continuously persistent intentional discrimination and dehumanization of U.S citizens who are Palestinians,” he added.

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