– Israel eased travel for Palestinian Americans from the Gaza Strip on Monday as part of final preparations for a deal enabling Israelis to enter the United States without visas, an Israeli official said.
As a condition for its accession to the U.S. Visa (NYSE:) Waiver
Program (VWP), Israel has since July 20 loosened access through
its borders, and in and out of the occupied West Bank, for
Palestinian Americans in what the allies deem a pilot period.
The deadline for Israel to show compliance with the U.S. conditions is Sept 30. If successful, it expects to be incorporated in the VWP by November – a respite for relations strained by disputes over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial reforms and policies on the Palestinians.
Gaza, whose governing Islamist Hamas is designated a
terrorist group by Israel and the United States, was previously excluded from the pilot. The enclave is under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade and both maintain restrictions along their borders with it.
The exclusion stirred protests by Palestinian Americans and calls from Washington for a change in practice.
An Israeli official said that, as of Monday, Palestinian Americans living in Gaza and who are not deemed security threats will be able to enter Israel on a “B2” tourist visas, opening up the possibility of them taking flights out of its airports.
Israel previously said it intended to include Palestinian Americans living in Gaza – whose number it puts at between 100 and 130 – on Sept 15 but would try to bring the date forward.
The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem had no immediate comment.
As part of the pilot, Israel says it has already been letting Palestinian Americans leave Gaza by special buses to Jordan, from which they could travel elsewhere.
In another new policy, Israel says it is allowing Palestinian Americans from abroad who have first-degree relatives in Gaza to make once-yearly visits of up to 90 days.
Palestinian and U.S. officials have assessed that the number
of dual U.S. nationals in Gaza may be several hundred. Asked
about the apparent discrepancy in the figures, an Israeli official said most of those are not full-time Gaza residents.