Travellers walk toward the departures area of Ben Gurion Airport on March 9. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)BY STEVE HENDRIX
AIN YABROOD, WEST BANK (THE WASHINGTON POST) — Moeen al-Kateeb’s mother lives 21 miles from Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, about 45 minutes in light traffic. He has visited her dozens of times from his home in the United States but has never gone through that airport.
Instead, he flies to neighboring Jordan to reach the occupied West Bank, adding hundreds of dollars and a day to the trip. Unlike most U.S. citizens, Kateeb and thousands of Palestinian Americans have been barred for decades from flying into Ben Gurion.
“[Israeli officials] don’t see me as an American, just as a Palestinian,” said Kateeb, who grew up north of Atlanta in a family that has been in the United States for three generations. The last time he tried to fly into Tel Aviv, when he was 16, he was kept overnight in a basement holding room and put on a plane out the next morning.
But times are changing. The U.S. government announced Wednesday that Israel will be added to a list of 40 friendly countries whose citizens do not have to apply in advance for a visa to visit the United States.
In return, Israel will have to lift many of the restrictions on Palestinian Americans, potentially softening the profiling, intrusive questioning and delays that have characterized their trips since Israel began tightening rules in the 1970s amid a string of terrorist attacks.
The deal, fulfilling a longtime Israeli goal of easing travel to the United States, will benefit only a sliver of Palestinians: dual citizens who are U.S. passport holders and are also registered by Israel as having family connections to Jerusalem, the West Bank or Gaza.
Between 100,000 and 200,000 people could benefit from the program, including more than 10,000 who live permanently in the Palestinian territories, according to unofficial estimates in Israeli and Arab media.
The new rules are meant to apply to American Palestinians living abroad and to those in the Palestinian territories, potentially offering a new degree of freedom to full-time West Bank residents and more limited mobility to those in Gaza.
“It’s not a full two-state solution, no,” said former U.S. ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides, who negotiated much of the agreement with Israel. “But for the first time in decades, Palestinian Americans are going to be treated like any other American.”
The new rules leave conditions unchanged for most of the 5 million Arabs living in the Palestinian territories, highlighting the disparities of a system in which Palestinians are treated differently by Israel depending on where they live and where they were born.
During a weeks-long trial of the new program, tens of thousands of Palestinian Americans have landed at Ben Gurion, according to U.S. officials. In a first, they were given the same B2 tourist visa as other arriving Americans, allowing them not only to visit family in the West Bank but to travel around Israel for up to 90 days.
Sami Almalfouh, a Gaza-born electrical engineer from California, flew in Saturday simply to test the new system. He passed the flight questioning whether he would get in at all.
“I spent 14 hours wondering if I was just going to have to fly 14 hours back,” he said. “That has happened to a lot of Palestinians.”
At passport control, Almalfouh, who has a PhD from Georgia Tech and has worked in Silicon Valley since 2011, was told to wait for “an hour and five minutes” without explanation while others passed through.
“What was different about me than the guy from Utah who was behind me?” Almalfouh wondered. “They didn’t say.”
But when he was handed a visa and the electric gate swung open: “That was very emotional. I have been waiting for that for many years.”
Almalfouh, who left Gaza when he was 17, joined other Palestinian Americans touring sites that have been off limits to them for years, including al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and the ancient port cities of Jaffa and Haifa.
A number of American passport holders in the West Bank crossed into Jordan and back just to acquire the new B2 visa. Many have driven into Israel repeatedly to explore; some have seen the Mediterranean for the first time in decades.
“It was nice to be able to say to my friends, ‘Hey guys, let’s go to the beach,’” said al-Kateeb, who was visiting his mother when the trial program began. Most of the crossings have been smooth, he said, but some soldiers blocked him temporarily, seemingly unaware of the new rules.
“Every time I approach a checkpoint, my heart speeds up,” he said.
For those with roots in Gaza, the rules are stricter and harder to navigate.
Almalfouh compiled a dizzying flow chart of the regulations governing a visit to Gaza, which includes more than a dozen variables that affect individual outcomes.
“It’s still very confusing, and the Gazans are getting the shortest end of the stick,” he said.
Maha al-Banna, 49, who moved back to Gaza after 12 years in the United States, hopes the changes will make it easier to visit her children stateside.
She currently has to apply for permission from the Israeli military, then board a bus that is not allowed to stop until it reaches the Jordanian border. An official holds all the passports, and no one is allowed to carry hard bags, wheeled luggage, laptops or toiletries.
“Every time I travel, I have to re-buy everything,” al-Banna said.
Exiting through Ben Gurion would be a huge improvement, but she too finds the new rules baffling and said they have changed more than once during the trial period. They require her to apply for permission from the Israeli army at least 45 days in advance.
“I’m not really optimistic it’s going to work for Gazans,” she said.
Israeli tourists, tech companies and ultra-Orthodox citizens with business and family ties to the United States have long pressed their government to gain access to the visa waiver program. The effort picked up momentum in 2021 under Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and has been a priority for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israelis were shocked when U.S. negotiators laid out how they expected Israel to treat all arriving Americans the same, even those with Palestinian IDs, according to officials from both countries familiar with the talks.
“At first it was, ‘Are you out of your mind,’ but they really wanted the [agreement] to go through,” Nides said.
The experience could hold lessons for a potential normalization deal with Saudi Arabia, in which Israel would be asked to make concessions to the Palestinians, he said.
“When it’s important to them, the Israelis can make big changes happen,” Nides said.
Not every Israeli official thinks the trade-off is worth it. “This will oblige us to allow the entry of unwanted parties, Palestinians, who will travel in the country,” Tourism Minister Haim Katz, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, said to an Israeli broadcaster. “Who needs this?”
Hazem Balousha in Gaza contributed to this report.