Israel Is Discriminating Against Americans Attempting to Visit Palestine

The Israeli Ministry of Defense recently made its visa requirements for Americans seeking to visit Palestine even stricter. This will make it harder for Palestinians to visit their families and for US citizens to work in the country.

Israeli soldiers patrol near the Palestinian village of Bil'in in the West Bank. (Getty Images)

An American decides to study at a university in the West Bank. She applies directly to the university and gets accepted. Of course, she will need a visa from the Israeli authorities, which control all entry into the West Bank. But which authorities exactly? That depends. If she is planning to study at Ariel University, located in the Israeli settlement of Ariel, she will request a visa from the Israeli Ministry of Interior. This is a straightforward process, and she can receive renewable multi-entry visas for as long as her studies continue.

If the American student has decided to study at a Palestinian university, however, she will need to request a visa from the Israeli military. This is a much more invasive and restrictive process. A student visa cannot be extended beyond twenty-seven months. The application requires her to provide the cell phones and email address of any family members she has in the West Bank and detail any property she owns there or inheritance claims. She must submit to a consular interview. None of this guarantees her a visa; in fact, the Israeli military will only allow 150 foreign students to study at Palestinian universities.

All of this is laid out in the new Israeli Ministry of Defense’s Procedure for entry and residence of foreigners in the Judea and Samaria area (the biblical name that the Israeli government uses to refer to the West Bank). The procedure, set to come into force next month, does not only concern students. It sets similarly invasive and extraneous criteria on anyone seeking to work, teach, or volunteer in a Palestinian institution or visit the West Bank for any reason whatsoever, including on people who are married to Palestinians.

There is more. An American who also has a Jordanian passport will be ineligible to request a visa. Nationals of Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Bahrain, and South Sudan, although they have diplomatic relations with Israel, are completely excluded from this procedure — they can only enter the West Bank in “exceptional and humanitarian cases.” This applies to dual nationals as well. Americans with any one of these passports are completely barred from working, studying, or volunteering in the West Bank.

The US administration is currently discussing the inclusion of Israel in its Visa Waiver Program — Israelis are eager to be able to travel to the United States without needing to apply for a visa. But this program is predicated on reciprocity: Israel commits to treating Americans the same way that the United States treats Israelis. The blatant discrimination against American citizens in the new Defense Ministry procedure is incompatible with the terms of the Visa Waiver Program.

The Israeli legal aid office HaMoked has been fielding panicked phone calls and emails from people trying to understand the new procedure: a British music teacher wants to know if he will be able to continue teaching in his high school (no, the new procedure allows for visas for university lecturers but none for high school teachers). An American woman married to a Palestinian asks whether she will be allowed back if she leaves the West Bank to go visit her sick mother (she can get a three-month visa, but she will have to deposit $20,000 to make sure she does not stay longer). The prognosis for a Jordanian woman in a similar situation is heartbreaking: if she leaves the West Bank to see her elderly father before he dies, she will probably not be able to return to her husband and children.

As these examples show, it is not only foreigners who will be harmed but Palestinian society as a whole. The new procedure limits the ability of Palestinian society to benefit from contacts with the world. It dictates a micromanagement of Palestinian universities that is a serious blow to academic freedom. With academic visas limited to twenty-seven months, universities cannot offer tenure to foreign faculty. Alongside the quota of 150 foreign students, the Israeli Defense Ministry will enforce a new quota of 100 foreign lecturers. A Defense Ministry official will decide which academic fields warrant foreign lecturers and what their qualifications must be.

What is the reason for all of these restrictions? The Defense Ministry’s ninety-seven-page document provides no explanation. Under international humanitarian law, the Israeli military can act in the West Bank for one of two reasons: to ensure its own security or for the benefit of the local population. There is no possible way to justify these draconian restrictions on the entry of foreigners to the West Bank on the grounds of legitimate security concerns — and they certainly do not advance the welfare of the local population.

HaMoked is preparing a petition to Israel’s High Court of Justice demanding a complete overhaul of this procedure. The Israeli military must allow Palestinians to live with their spouses without fear of forced separation. It must respect the academic freedom of Palestinian universities. It is not for the Israeli military to set priorities for Palestinian institutions regarding foreign volunteers, students, faculty, and other workers. These are decisions Palestinian society must be free to make for itself.

The US administration must convey the same message to Israel — and insist that Israel treat all American nationals without discrimination. With President Joe Biden planning a visit to Israel, the concerns of the US administration may be more effective than a petition to Israel’s own court.