Last year, some members of Congress attempted to pass legislation that would admit Israel into the U.S. Visa Waiver Program. The State Department pushed back, noting that because of Israel’s long history of discrimination against Americans of Arab descent, they do not meet the program's key requirement of reciprocity.
Congress relented and instead passed a Sense of Congress that stipulated that should Israel meet this requirement, they could be included in the Visa Waiver Program. In a sense, they were put on probation.
After landing at Ben Gurion International airport, George Khoury, 70, and Habib Joudeh, 62, were detained for long hours, subjected to abusive interrogations, insulted by Israeli security personnel, and finally denied entry and forced to purchase, at their own expense, return tickets to the United States.
George is a professor and a deacon of his church from San Francisco. Habib is a pharmacist and respected community leader from Brooklyn. Both are American citizens of Palestinian descent. George was traveling to the Holy Land on a pilgrimage. Habib was on his way to attend a family wedding in the West Bank. Neither had been back to Israel/Palestine in more than 20 years. And neither was able to complete their journey.
While no American should be subjected to such treatment, the most disturbing element of these cases is the reason they were denied entry and deported. Because both men were of Palestinian descent, Israel would not honor their U.S. passports or recognize the men as American citizens. Both were told they had to acquire Palestinian IDs and then, as Palestinians, enter the West Bank through Jordan.
George's case is especially instructive. When the Israeli border control agent told him that he could not enter Israel, George attempted to engage the agent saying, "I'm coming as an American citizen." To which the agent replied "No, no, you belong with the Palestinian people. This is our Israel, this is for the Jews. No Palestinian should come to Israel. You should have gone through the Allenby Bridge."
When George explained that "I am coming with an American passport and you should honor it," the agent replied, "How do you want me to honor your American passport? Do you want me to kiss it, to hug it, or to worship it?"
What happened to Habib and George were not the actions of a few rogue agents. For more than three decades, the Arab American Institute has submitted to the State Department hundreds of instances where Arab Americans have been subjected to such treatment at Israel’s borders.
By so flagrantly disregarding the citizenship rights of Americans of Arab descent, Israel is in violation of its treaty obligations found in the "1951 US-Israel Treaty of Friendship, Commerce, and Navigation." In the language of the treaty, Israel pledges to permit U.S. citizens the right to "travel freely, to reside at places of their choice, to enjoy liberty of conscience" and to guarantee them "the most constant protection and security."
Not only has Israel consistently violated its treaty obligation, but our government has failed to live up to its commitment to protect the rights of its own citizens. The opening page of the U.S. passport states that "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."
The Department of State says that it does not condone Israel's treatment of Arab Americans. In reality, despite denying Israel's admission into the Visa Waiver Program, the State Department appears to acquiesce to Israel's behavior.
When George Khoury's daughter wrote a letter of complaint to the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, she received a response saying "Unfortunately, the US government cannot assist US citizens in gaining entry into Israel...Should your father wish to travel again in the future, we advise him to contact the nearest Israeli Embassy or Consulate for guidance."
The U.S. official then directed her to the Department of State "Travel Advisory" which states that "regardless of whether they hold US citizenship, Israeli authorities consider anyone who has parents or grandparents who were born or lived in the West Bank or Gaza to have a claim to a PA ID." They will, therefore, be treated as Palestinians and not as Americans.
It is upsetting that both the Department of State "Travel Advisory" and the Consul's letter acknowledge Israel's disregard for our citizenship rights and claim to be powerless to hold them accountable for their actions. This acquiescence allows Israel to act with impunity. It also makes our government appear to be complicit in Israel's behavior.
More must be done. Israel cannot be allowed to disregard the citizenship rights of Americans or to unilaterally define persons of Arab descent as second-class American citizens. The Department of State and our elected representatives should demand that the Israeli government fully live up to its treaty obligations to treat all Americans equally without regard to their religion or national origin.
This is not merely a matter of denying Israel Visa Waiver privileges, it is a question of whether or not our government will guarantee Arab Americans the equal protection to which they are entitled and which they deserve.
Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute.