A dozen members of Congress have asked top officials in the Biden administration to address a new Israeli policy that severely restricts the ability of foreigners, including U.S. citizens, to travel to the occupied West Bank.
The Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, known as COGAT, the unit of Israel’s Defense Ministry tasked with administering civilian issues in the occupied Palestinian territories, issued a lengthy set of rules earlier this spring regulating access to the West Bank. As The Intercept has reported, the rules formalize the invasive screening that’s long been the norm for those traveling there but also include new restrictions aimed at curtailing the ability of foreign passport holders of Palestinian descent to visit their families and homeland as well as of other foreigners to enter the territories, including to work or study.
In one letter sent this week to the heads of the State, Education, and Homeland Security departments, Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., and 11 other Democrats note that the new rules “severely restrict the ability of American academics and students to teach and study at Palestinian universities in Occupied Palestinian Territory” and stress that “no similar restrictions apply to American academics and students seeking to teach and study at Israeli universities nor to Israeli academics and students seeking to teach and study in the United States.”
The new rules, whose implementation was delayed to July pending a challenge in Israeli courts, limit the number of foreign scholars allowed access to the territories to 100 and that of students to 150. Israel will only grant visas to those focusing on specific fields of study, and it will limit the amount of time they can spend there.
“These one-sided procedures infringe upon Palestinians’ right to education and the academic freedom of American professors and students who wish to engage with their Palestinian counterparts,” the lawmakers wrote, adding that the policy has “no defensible rationale.”
In another letter, sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier this month, Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-Va., wrote that the new rules “could significantly impact [her constituents’] ability to travel, visit relatives, or do business in parts of the occupied West Bank.”
Wexton pointed to requirements, which Israeli officials are now looking to make permanent, first introduced during the Covid-19 pandemic that would prevent foreigners from traveling to the West Bank without obtaining approval 45 days prior to travel and without disclosing information about land they own there.
“It appears that Americans who wish to visit Israel or any of the settlements would be exempt from the new rules,” Wexton added. “This disparate treatment under the law is concerning.”
A spokesperson for the State Department told The Intercept earlier this month that department officials are aware of the new rules and “engaging with Israeli authorities to understand their application and encourage additional consultation with stakeholders before implementation.”
The spokesperson added, “We seek equal treatment and freedom to travel for all U.S. citizens regardless of national origin or ethnicity.” The departments of Education and Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment.
But critics of the new rules, including many Palestinian Americans, say that they have long denounced discriminatory treatment by Israeli officials when traveling to the occupied territories — and that U.S. officials have in the past done nothing to address the issue.
“In the past, American citizens have complained to the State Department about discrimination, and the U.S. response has always been that Israel has sovereign right to exclude people it doesn’t want,” Zaha Hassan, a human rights lawyer and fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told The Intercept. “This is actually a moment in which the U.S. could very well help to change policies that are impacting Americans attempting to work, study, and visit in the West Bank.”