For almost four decades, I have been demanding that my government protect and defend the rights of its citizens of Arab descent when they travel to Israel and the Palestinian lands occupied since 1967. We have had limited success in getting past U.S. administrations to issue statements challenging Israeli behavior and discrimination at the border. None have taken concrete action, until now.
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It may very well be that Israel's desire to enter the U.S. Visa Waiver program and the recent taped brutal beating of young Palestinian American Tariq Abu Khdeir have turned the tide, pushing Washington to take a decisive stand in defense of Arab American rights.
Admitting Israel into the Visa Waiver program would allow American and Israeli citizens to enter each other’s countries without obtaining a visa. However, Israel’s long-held practice of discriminating against Arab Americans at its border clearly meant that it could not reciprocate and allow Arab Americans entry without harassment – a primary condition of the Visa Waiver Program.
In March, U.S. State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki responded to the efforts saying, “The Department of Homeland Security and State remain concerned with the unequal treatment that Palestinian Americans and other Americans of Middle Eastern origin experience at Israel’s border and checkpoints, and reciprocity is the most basic condition of the Visa Waiver Program.”
The push to have Israel admitted started in May 2012. Over two years later, it still has not happened.
More recently, in the case of Tariq Abu Khdeir, the State Department condemned “any excessive use of force” and called for a “speedy, transparent and credible investigation” and his immediate release back home.
Calling on a government to defend its own citizens is not an unreasonable request to make, nor should it have been difficult to fulfill. It is not a sensitive or complicated policy matter, like the “thorny” issues of settlements, land confiscation, collective punishment, or other violations of international law.
There is, after all, a treaty governing U.S.-Israeli ties. In the 1951 Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation, signed by both parties, 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.”
As many Arab Americans and, most especially, those of Palestinian descent will testify, this treaty has been ‘honored more in the breach than in the observance.’ Over the years, the Arab American Institute has documented this discriminatory treatment by Israeli authorities. We have presented the State Department with the complaints of hundreds of American of Arab descent who, upon entering Israel or the Occupied Territories, have reported being detained, humiliated, and denied entry.
Getting my government to challenge Israel's behavior has been a long and frustrating struggle. The Clinton Administration made several private protests to Israeli officials. During her tenure as secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice issued a strong statement denouncing Israeli discrimination against Arab Americans. It was all statements with no action.
For too long, the best the State Department was willing to do was issue a rather lame "Travel Advisory" which read, in part, "U.S. citizens are advised that all persons applying for entry to Israel, the West Bank, or Gaza...may be denied entry or exit without explanation” and “U.S. citizens whom Israeli authorities suspect of being Arab, Middle Eastern, or Muslim origin…may face additional, often time-consuming, and probing questioning by immigration and border authorities, or may be denied entry.”
More disturbing still is the description provided by the Advisory of the treatment Israel metes out to Palestinian Americans. Israel, it appears, has taken it upon itself to define three categories of U.S. citizenship: American Jews, whom they see as having "birthright advantages"; most other U.S. citizens with no known association with Palestinians, who are respected and protected; and then, finally, Arab Americans, whose rights as U.S. citizens Israel does not fully recognize.
What we have asked of the last six administrations was, quite simply, to do what any government is required to do – protect and defend its own citizens by requiring Israel to live up to its treaty obligations. Though it has been a long time coming, change may now be in the air – at least on the U.S. side. For Israel and its treaty obligations, there is still a ways to go.
Dr. James J. Zogby is the president and founder of the Arab American Institute (AAI), and Director of Zogby Research Services.