Israel plans to further ease travel for Palestinian Americans living in the Gaza Strip next month, an official told Reuters on Monday, marking the next step in the country’s bid to join the United States Visa Waiver Program.
By Sept. 15, Palestinian Americans from Gaza who satisfy certain security criteria will be able to enter the Jewish state on a tourist visa and fly out of Ben-Gurion International Airport, said Gil Bringer, who manages the Visa Waiver pilot at Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority.
Israel’s chances of joining the program, which would allow Israeli citizens to travel to the United States without applying for a visa, hinge on a six-week trial period during which Israeli authorities will offer free passage to most Palestinian Americans.
The pilot, launched on July 20, has already allowed some 2,500 Palestinian Americans to travel through Ben-Gurion instead of using land crossings with Jordan and flying in and out of Amman.
Over the past weeks, State Department and Homeland Security Department officials have visited Ben-Gurion Airport and crossings into the Judea and Samaria region to monitor whether Arab Americans are subjected to “selective grilling” by border control officers.
Reuters reported positive reactions to the pilot program so far.
However, Washington has reportedly insisted on full reciprocity, demanding that all its citizens entering Israel receive the same treatment as Israelis entering the United States. This would include Palestinian Americans living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as citizens of other countries— including dual nationals from enemy states like Iran and Lebanon.
Gaza, governed by the Hamas terrorist organization, had so far not been included in the pilot due to national security concerns. Local media said that the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) and Israel Defense Forces came out forcefully against including the coastal enclave in the program.
However, politicians in Jerusalem pushed for the stipulation’s acceptance, hoping to edge Israel closer to being accepted into the program, reports said.
“The project is charging ahead and the expectation is that it will be completed in seven weeks,” Bringer told Israel’s Army Radio this week.
If U.S. authorities deem the pilot program successful, then Israeli citizens will be able to visit the United States without a visa as of October. The deadline for a decision on Israel’s acceptance to the program is Sept. 30.