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Why Israel has ended travel restrictions for Palestinian Americans

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

For decades, some American citizens have hours of security checks they face, intrusive questioning and demeaning treatment at Israeli airports and checkpoints.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

And those Americans are Americans of Palestinian or Arab descent. But now Israel is lifting travel restrictions for Palestinians and Arabs who are U.S. citizens. It's all part of a bid to get Washington to lift visa requirements for Israelis traveling to the U.S.

ESTRIN: Now, to be clear, Israel is still restricting travel for the vast majority of Palestinians because they don't have U.S. citizenship. But there are already big changes for tens of thousands of Palestinian Americans. If you have a Palestinian ID and a U.S. passport, you can now use Israel's international airport, just like any other American traveler. You no longer have to cross by land through Jordan, which can take twice as long. Palestinian American Amar Husain is a therapist in Brooklyn. She recently came to visit family in the West Bank when an Israeli border guard told her the news.

AMAR HUSAIN: He was like, yeah, now you're like a tourist, and you can go wherever you want. And, you know, I was like, really? You know, I was shocked.

ESTRIN: Palestinians in the West Bank with U.S. passports can now simply pass through military checkpoints and go wherever they want as an American tourist. And I've heard some pretty wild stories from Palestinian Americans, like Mohammed Manasrah.

MOHAMMED MANASRAH: I drove through every single checkpoint between the West Bank and Israel I could within this week. Like, I would literally drive through the checkpoint, make a U-turn and come back. And it just feels like every time I go through a checkpoint, it's like I won.

ESTRIN: Catch that? He says, it's like I won. Now, what prompted all of this was the U.S. offering a deal. If you let in Palestinian Americans freely, we will let Israelis into the U.S. visa-free, and that is something Israelis have wanted for a long time, like the Israelis I saw waiting outside the U.S. Embassy branch in Tel Aviv.

Right under a sign that says consular services, there is quite a line of people lining up with folded papers in their hands. They're waiting for visas.

MOSHE COHEN: Miami, San Diego, California.

ESTRIN: One guy, Moshe Cohen, tells me, dude, every U.S. state is its own dream.

AILY ESHCHAL: Harry Potter's park?

SMADAR ESHCHAL: Yeah.

ESTRIN: The Harry Potter park in Orlando is why 12-year-old Smadar Eshchal and her mom Aily want to go to the U.S. Just to get a visa appointment can take months.

SCOTT LASENSKY: You talk to average Israelis, it's the first, second and third issue they bring up.

ESTRIN: Scott Lasensky, senior adviser to the U.S. ambassador to Israel during the Obama years, worked closely with Israeli officials.

LASENSKY: And occasionally, by the way, when the government official gets you outside the meeting room, they bend your ear about a family member or a travel problem that they're facing.

ESTRIN: There's a list of 40 countries, from Latvia to Croatia to France, where you don't need a visa to come to the U.S. as a tourist. Israel has been trying to get into the program for decades, but Israel never qualified. One reason was a high visa rejection rate - concerns that young Israelis, fresh out of the Army, would overstay their visas. And at one point, U.S. officials worried about Israeli spies getting into the country and, of course, Israel's treatment of Arab Americans at the border. But there was an opening two years ago. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was ousted in an election. After years of his sour relations with Democrats, suddenly there was a new Israeli government the Biden administration wanted to support.

LASENSKY: A sort of rainbow coalition of Israelis left, right, center, men, women, Jewish, Arab.

ESTRIN: And so the U.S. agreed to get working on the visa-free program for Israel. Netanyahu was actually accused of holding up the process in parliament to prevent his opponents from scoring the political win. Now Netanyahu is back in office, leading a far-right coalition. And on the one hand, the U.S. has not stopped deadly Israeli raids into the West Bank or settlement expansion on occupied territory. But the U.S. is using the visa issue to wade into one sensitive topic - Israel's border security and the profiling and interrogations used ever since hijackings 50 years ago. And suddenly, in late July, Israel lifted entry restrictions for Palestinian Americans.

EHUD EIRAN: If I had to guess, the security establishment would have preferred to keep things as they are. But the prime minister felt it's important.

ESTRIN: Ehud Eiran, former Israeli adviser to the prime minister.

EIRAN: To be cynical, I think he's in a very difficult time. And if a politician can tell Israelis, you can enter the U.S. without a visa - big political win.

ESTRIN: And it has had an immediate impact for Palestinian Americans who reside in the West Bank. Under the new program, Israel reports at least 9,000 entries from the West Bank, and this includes Americans living in the West Bank with their Palestinian spouses. They also have been restricted from entering Israel, like Morgan Cooper.

MORGAN COOPER: We're living in a science fiction film, except it's our reality. For 10 years, I have not seen the Mediterranean Sea.

ESTRIN: And this month, they got to rent a car inside Israel for the first time and travel to the Sea of Galilee to show her kids where, tradition holds, Jesus preached.

COOPER: So it was just kind of amazing to have this checkpoint kind of open sesame for me. And I think that that's really sad because we are so starved, we are denied our most basic human rights. And that means that when they throw us these tiny little crumbs, we're not only grateful, we want to hug them in gratitude.

ESTRIN: Mohammed Manasara, the one we heard from earlier, who took that joyride through Israeli checkpoints, he was driving through his home village in the West Bank when he suddenly encountered an Israeli checkpoint. And he did something he'd never have the confidence to do without U.S. citizenship.

MANASRAH: So the soldier looks at me, and he's like, can I have your ID? As soon as he looks at the New York state ID, he's like, oh, American. What are you doing here? I looked at the soldier and I was like, this is my town [expletive]. What are you doing here? So he gave the ID back and he's like, just go, go.

ESTRIN: He expects Israel to take away these travel freedoms when there's some security crisis. He calls the whole situation ridiculous.

MANASRAH: I don't know how to emphasize this more, but I am the same person. I am exactly the same person. I feel like Israel has been BS-ing us because all the security procedures they had in place for Arabs overnight, just because they want you to get into the visa waiver program.

ESTRIN: It's not a done deal. A U.S. official who was not authorized to speak publicly told me Israel still has a way to go in treating Palestinian Americans with equality. The U.S. says it will decide by the end of the month whether Israel has passed the test and Israelis get to travel to the U.S. visa free.

FADEL: Now, Daniel, there are other big changes that may be happening, namely a possible deal for diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. But are the Palestinians at the table here?

ESTRIN: Yeah, they are. Palestinian officials are holding talks with the Saudis today and U.S. officials tomorrow, and they have demands. They want control over more territory in the occupied West Bank. Palestinian officials think this Saudi-Israel deal could come together pretty soon. So a lot of diplomatic negotiations in the Middle East to follow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.

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