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‘I felt at home’: Palestinian Americans note improved treatment at Ben Gurion Airport

Palestinian Americans have noted a marked improvement in their treatment at Ben Gurion Airport since Israel eased some of its travel restrictions last month in order to enter the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP).

“I was really scared because I didn’t know if I would have to wait eight hours like I did in the past. But I handed my passport to the customs guy, he asked me where I was coming from and going to before handing it back and saying ‘Welcome to Israel.’ The whole thing lasted ten seconds,” said 52-year-old Kamal Nawash on Tuesday.

“It was the first time in my life that I entered Israel and had positive feelings about the country — the first time I didn’t feel tormented,” added Nawash, a Washington-based lawyer originally from Jerusalem.

On July 19, Israel signed a memorandum of understanding with the US in which they agreed that “all US citizens are to receive equal treatment regardless of national origin, religion, or ethnicity while seeking to enter, exit, or transit through Israel.”

The so-called reciprocity issue has been a sticking point for US President Joe Biden’s administration, which has expressed its desire for Israel to become the 41st member in the VWP but has insisted its entry would be conditioned on improved treatment of travelers at its crossings since Palestinian, Arab and Muslim Americans have long complained of harassment.

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On July 20, Israel updated its travel procedures to allow US citizens on the Palestinian Authority’s population registry to travel to and through Israel — including through Ben Gurion International Airport — for up to 90 days. Until then, Ben Gurion was off limits to those Palestinians, and they were forced to travel to Jordan and fly out of Amman, with all the additional fees and travel time that entails. Israel bars the Palestinians from having their own airport.

I was privileged today to represent the government of Israel in signing a U.S.-Israel memorandum of understanding on the extension of reciprocal privileges in the visa waiver program. This is a significant milestone towards Israel joining the program. Thank you to everybody on…

— Ambassador Michael Herzog (@AmbHerzog) July 19, 2023

Since the rollout of the new guidelines, US citizens in the West Bank have been able to apply for the 90-day travel permit through the military liaison to the Palestinians — the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) — and use it to travel in and out of Israel.

The new procedures are easier for the US to monitor, as Israel committed in last month’s MOU to notify American authorities every time COGAT denies a travel permit application.

The actual treatment of US citizens at Israeli crossings is much more difficult to screen because there is a degree of subjectivity involved and every country has the discretion to enforce certain security protocols.

Nonetheless, the US wants to make sure those procedures are within the bounds of reason and ensure that the spirit of the MOU is being upheld. Accordingly, it has dispatched teams of inspectors from the State Department and the Homeland Security Department to quietly monitor Israel’s treatment of US citizens at Israeli crossings, an Israeli official said, confirming reporting from the Reuters news agency.

The inspectors met with Israeli immigration officials on Sunday, visited Ben Gurion Airport on Monday and made stops at several Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank on Tuesday, Reuters reported. The delegation would return to the US at the end of the week and file reports on their findings but the US Embassy in Jerusalem would continue monitoring Israel’s compliance with VWP requirements.

Two officials familiar told Reuters that the trial period was “going smoothly” for Palestinian Americans.

Passengers sit in a waiting room on the Jordanian side of the Allenby Bridge crossing between the West Bank and Jordan on July 19, 2022. (Khalil Mazraawi/AFP)

Nawash said he met 12 other Palestinian-American friends for breakfast on Monday and that each of them had the same experience at Ben Gurion Airport that he did.

One of his friends shared how his mother was so quickly ushered through customs that she stopped in disbelief and had to be reassured by a relative that there was no additional screening.

“Even though I was born there, I’ve never felt like I was home when I’d go through that airport. But this time, I genuinely felt that I was home,” Nawash said. “All of a sudden, I didn’t see [the custom’s agent] as the enemy. I saw him as a brother for the first time. He treated me like he treated Jews, which never happened in the past.”

He lamented that it took applying for the VWP for Israel to improve its treatment of Palestinian Americans.

Nawash also shared that every one of his friends was skeptical that the improved treatment would remain if Israel is formally accepted into the VWP.

“I kind of brushed it aside because I don’t want to believe that Israel would be so shortsighted as to go back to the old system,” he said.

Travelers seen exiting Ben Gurion International Airport, as Israel opens its borders and allows tourists to enter the country after months of being shut due to the COVID-19 pandemic, November 1, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

There is precedent for removing a country from the VWP for failing to comply with its terms, but US officials have privately acknowledged that kicking Israel out of the program would be politically challenging.

Nawash surmised that the lesson for Israel should be: “If we treat these people kindly and with respect, they’ll reciprocate” and expressed hope that Israel would apply it to Palestinians more broadly and not just those who are US citizens.

Other Palestinian-Americans described similar experiences to that of Nawash, though some did have to wait more time before being cleared through security.

“It was smooth. When [airport security] finds out you are Palestinian, they search thoroughly, but the procedures are smooth and easier for us. You can be home in half an hour,” Abdul Jalil Juda told Reuters. The 26-year-old resident of the West Bank had been forced to fly through Jordan until last month.

Another man who called himself the first Palestinian American to enter Israel under the new protocols said in a video he filmed from Ben Gurion that the screening process lasted just a few minutes. “I entered using the US passport only. They did not ask me anything regarding a Palestinian passport.”

Palestinian-Americans from the West Bank have begun using Ben Gurion Airport following the easing of travel restrictions by Israel in order to enter the US Visa Waiver Program

— Jacob Magid (@JacobMagid) July 21, 2023

Nerdeen Kiswani, a Palestinian American law student living in New York who has called for boycotting Israel posted on Facebook that she managed to enter Israel for the first time since being denied in 2015.

Kiswani told Reuters: “It was not entirely smooth sailing, however, as I was made to wait nearly four hours and I reached out to the US Embassy before being allowed in.” Most of her family “received their visas and passports back almost immediately,” she said.

While the new procedures open Ben Gurion Airport up to US citizens in the West Bank, a copy of the MOU leaked to The Times of Israel reveals that the roughly 500 Gazan Americans will not be afforded the same right. The number of Palestinian-Americans in the West Bank is much larger though, reaching about 35,000.