WASHINGTON: Arab Americans have reported difficulties in travel since Israel instituted a new entry visa policy early this spring that restricts them from entering Israel from the West Bank. The new passport stamp, issued by the Israelis at entry points, such as the Allenby Bridge border crossing between Jordan and the Israeli-controlled West Bank, says: "Palestinian Authority Only."
According to the new policy, those entering with the stated intention to visit the West Bank are being prohibited from crossing the "Green Line" into Israel.
Israeli authorities also are now enforcing an existing but seldom used law that blocks foreigners who want to visit the occupied West Bank from entering through Ben Gurion International Airport. Travelers who arrive there are now being made to take a long detour into the West Bank from Jordan, and are forced to use the Allenby Bridge border crossing.
While non-Arab Americans are allowed full access to Israel and the West Bank, Arab Americans coming to visit their families on the West Bank are now receiving the "Palestinian Authority Only" stamp on their passports. There have been reports of similar problems by Europeans of Arab descent. The Israelis have also drastically limited the length of stay on visas for those visiting the occupied territories.
The decision is also affecting the economic situation for Palestinians.
"Of direct concern to ANERA and other international NGOs is Israel's newly initiated quota of 1,700 permits for Palestinians traveling back and forth between the West Bank and Jerusalem, where most of the NGOs have their offices. Our experts and staff involved in West Bank projects are Palestinian living there. Further restrictions on their travel between our projects and headquarters will seriously affect program coordination and communication, especially with US government projects awarded to ANERA," said Bill Corcoran, president of American Near East Refugee Aid.
The Israeli decision has stirred up the Arab American community, who are insisting that the Obama administration challenge Israel over what they define as discrimination against American citizens of Arab descent.
In a letter sent to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last month, the Arab American Institute urged the administration to take action.
"Denial of entry is not a new issue, but rather, an escalation of an old problem that dates back 30 years," AAI president James Zogby told Arab News.
"As I have long noted in my complaints to US officials, by engaging in these discriminatory practices, Israel appears to have defined, for itself, three categories of US citizenship: American Jews, whom they see as having 'birthright advantages' most other US citizens, as long as they have no known identification with Palestinians, who are respected and protected; and then, finally, Arab Americans whose rights as US citizens Israel does not fully recognize," he said.
"In all of this, the Israeli government is in violation of the 1951 US-Israel Treaty on Commerce and Navigation, in which they pledge to fully protect the rights of US citizens traveling to areas under their control, and the US is, likewise, guilty of failing to protect the rights of its citizens, the first obligation of any government," said Zogby.
Washington has long been aware of the Israeli restrictions to their citizens. In August the State Department publicly criticized the practice by Israel of singling out and restricting Arab Americans when they entered Israel and demanded an official explanation from Israel.
"We have made it known to the Israeli government that we expect all American citizens to be treated the same regardless of their national origin, and these kinds of restrictions we consider unacceptable, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said during a briefing last August.
Despite the strong rebuff made by Obama administration, it has yet to succeed in affecting any change. The US Consulate in Jerusalem also says that it can do nothing to help American citizens. Their website does not mince words: "Please note that only Israeli liaison offices in the West Bank can assist — but they rarely will."