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Exempting Israelis from US visas would be a mistake | Opinion

My American-Palestinian cousins, the Awad family, had a routine whenever they came to visit us in Jerusalem. They try to avoid flying into Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion airport because if the Israelis deny them entry — which many Americans do because of their ethnic origin, religion, or public criticism of Israel — they’ll have to fly all the way back to us.

Instead, they usually enter Palestine from Jordan via the King Hussein Bridge crossing. Israel, the occupying Power, still operates the Palestinian side of the crossing. So the Awads still face Israel’s discriminatory practices when entering the occupied West Bank through that crossing, but at least if they are turned away, it will mean returning to Jordan.

My cousins ​​also chose to travel via Jordan because they could leave their phones with relatives in Amman instead of handing them over to the Israelis at the border. Electronics are searched for – among other things – any criticism of Israel or support for the boycott, which immediately results in a denial of entry.

Awads always carry a book or two and a spare deck of cards to read. They are almost always asked to wait a long time once they arrive at the Israeli passport control point and present their US passport. So they pull out their books and cards and enjoy their time until a random Israeli security officer decides whether they can enter their homes.

Once the Awads cross the border, they know they are still not safe. Discrimination against United States citizens continues in Palestine, where the Israeli occupation maintains a vast network of checkpoints.

For example, they know that when Americans visit family or friends in Palestine, they may not be allowed to go through a checkpoint together in the same vehicle because some of them may be ordered to get out of the vehicle and not allowed to proceed.

They also know they are lucky not to have Palestinian papers.

If Americans with Palestinian IDs tried to travel to occupied Jerusalem to visit the Al-Aqsa Mosque or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, they were stopped at one of the many checkpoints along the way and turned away.

Those Americans also don’t have the option to fly to Tel Aviv because those with a Palestinian ID aren’t allowed to use it.

During occupied Palestine, Americans could be denied entry or travel restricted in a number of ways. They don’t have to be of Palestinian descent to face this kind of abuse by the Israeli authorities.

Because of all these constraints, when the Awads did come to visit us in Jerusalem, it was a special joy for us because we knew what they had to go through to get to us. My children and I are US citizens and they are very aware of Israel’s discriminatory policies.

At the same time, illegal Israeli settlers — American or not — are allowed to live in occupied Palestinian land, in violation of international law. Of course, they are free to go wherever they want in occupied Palestine.

Despite Israel’s egregious record of discriminating against Americans, the Biden administration is close to admitting it to the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, which would allow Israelis to travel to the U.S. without applying for a visa at a U.S. embassy or consulate.

The Visa Waiver Program is a privilege available only to countries that meet federal statutory requirements, including so-called “reciprocity.” Reciprocity means that U.S. nationals should be treated the same as Israeli nationals when traveling to the United States.

It’s hard to see how Israel could possibly meet the reciprocity requirement when the U.S. State Department has long advised that U.S. tourists might face discrimination when traveling to Israel.

However, current U.S. ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, who is leaving in August, appears eager to add Israel to the visa waiver program. He will oversee a month-long “trial period” beginning July 1, during which Israeli authorities are supposed to allow Palestinian-Americans to enter Israel and allow them to use Tel Aviv airport.

How compliance during the month will ensure Israel stops discriminating against all Americans is unclear. The Israeli government can simply restrict the border authorities for 30 days, pretend they are changing their ways, and revert to their odious policy once visa waivers are approved.

Israelis are well aware that the U.S. government seldom deprives Israel of its benefits because of the political costs it may incur. So renewed discrimination against U.S. citizens at Israeli-controlled border crossings is unlikely to lead to a suspension of its visa waiver program.

Israel should not be given special treatment, nor should it be given an exception to fully comply with federal law. The U.S. ambassador to Israel should not have the power to negotiate the rights of U.S. citizens so easily. Not only would it allow Israel to entrench its discriminatory practices, but it might encourage others to start abusing Americans in the same way.

If the U.S. government allows Israel to join the Visa Waiver Program without explicit formal agreement to end all discriminatory practices against all Americans, including Palestinians, Muslims, Arabs, and defenders of the Palestinian cause, it will approve an extension of Israel’s American citizens practiced a policy similar to racial segregation.

Israel will never accept that its citizens are treated with anything less than equal dignity, and neither should the United States.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

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