It is more than ironic that at the very moment when the US is pressing Arab States to take steps toward normalizing relations with Israel (including measures like: opening airspace to Israeli overflights, exchange of commercial offices, and issuing visas for business and cultural exchange), the government of Israel has taken new measures to further restrict the rights of American citizens visiting Israel and the Occupied Palestinian lands.
According to an August, 14 2009 Department of State Travel Warning, "In June 2009, the Israeli government began selectively limiting certain travelers to either the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza, or to Israel and Jerusalem."
As described by an advocacy group working on these issues, here's how the new policy works.
Israeli border officials have begun using a new entry permit stamped with the words "Palestinian Authority only." In addition, some foreign nationals have been issued 'Israel only' permits or have been required to sign a statement which commits them not to enter the Palestinian Authority (PA) controlled areas of the West Bank under penalty of legal action.
In response to questioning about these Israeli practices at State Department briefings, official spokespersons have responded that "we have let the Government of Israel know that these restrictions unfairly impact Palestinian and Arab American travelers and are not acceptable", and have added, on other occasions, that the US "regrets" and "disagrees" with these measures.
Having worked on issues relating to Israel's treatment of Arab Americans for over three decades now, I must say "not good enough."
I have received harrowing accounts of the impact of these Israeli policies.
- an American family with four children trapped in Gaza and unable to leave;
- other Americans who are in the West Bank, having entered through the Allenby Bridge, but because they hold non-refundable airline tickets departing from Ben Gurion Airport (purchased before this Israeli practice was put into place), are, therefore, unable to make their flights;
- a group of American women (not of Arab descent), whose husbands were attending a business conference in Amman, were detained, by Israeli border officials, for seven hours and subjected to rude and humiliating questioning when they attempted to cross the Allenby Bridge to see the Holy Sites in Bethlehem and Jerusalem;
- American-born Palestinians have been forced to surrender their US passports, on entry, and receive, against their will, a Palestinian ID document;
- numerous reports from American-born US citizens of Palestinian and other Arab descent are being singled out for prolonged questioning on entry and departure; and
- onerous and discriminatory visa requirements imposed upon Palestinian Americans which have severely impacted their families and businesses.
As I have long noted in my complaints to US officials, by engaging in such 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 know identification with Palestinians, who are respected and protected; and then, finally, Arab Americans whose rights as US citizens Israel does not fully recognize.
In behaving thusly, and given the US failure to act decisively to put an end to this behavior, both Israel and the US are in violation of their obligations.
The U.S. passport, the prized possession of any U.S. traveler, says quite clearly on the opening page: "The Secretary of State of the United States of America hereby requests all whom it may concern to permit the citizen/national of the United States named herein to pass without delay or hindrance and in case of need to give all lawful aid and protection."
There is also the 1951 Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation, signed by the U.S. and Israel, in which Israel agrees that U.S. citizens traveling there be permitted "to travel therein freely, to reside at places of their choice; to enjoy liberty of conscience...and to bury their dead according to their customs." The Treaty also prohibits "unlawful molestations of every kind," and guarantees U.S. citizens "the most constant protection and security."
Now don't get me wrong, I'm all for the US Administration calling for a settlement freeze and encouraging Arab States to elaborate on their peace initiative in an effort to advance the peace process. I've made the case advocating such steps (and been criticized, by some, for doing so). But, I believe the first obligation of any government is to defend the rights of its citizens.
Put aside for a moment, if you can, both the fact that these Israeli measures only further contribute to the cantonization of Palestinian lands and also the ongoing humiliation, and worse, endured by Palestinians under occupation--this matter of Israel's discriminatory treatment of US citizens stands out for special consideration. I can only imagine what the US reaction would be if any other government in the world targeted any other group of American citizens with the same contempt Israel consistently displays toward Arab Americans.
That's why I say, "regrets are not enough." It is time for the US to act decisively and make clear that the rights of its citizens come first and must be guaranteed. Enough is enough.