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NGO: US-Israel visa waiver bill 'dead in the water'

Dec. 14, 2013 12:40 P.M. (Updated: Dec. 31, 2013 2:46 P.M.)
BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- A bill that would have included Israel in a visa waiver program with the United States is "dead," as the House of Representatives has left for the year, an American nonprofit organization said Friday.

The US-Israel Strategic Partnership Act -- a bill which critics said would have codified into US law discrimination against Arab and Muslim Americans at Israel's borders -- is "dead in the water," Arab American Institute said in a statement.

"The bills never ... came to the floor of the House or Senate for a vote," the AAI statement said.

Pro-Israel lobby groups including AIPAC have been advocating for the bill since it was introduced in March, citing as its advantages an economic boost due to Israeli tourism in the US and greater ease of travel for Israelis, who under current US law are required to apply for a visa before arrival.

But opponents say language in the bill is "lopsided," requiring the US to admit all Israeli citizens while allowing Israel to maintain discriminatory practices against Americans who are Arab or Muslim, or who are pro-Palestinian activists.

The bill would have allowed Israel "an exemption to reciprocity," the head of a Washington-based nonprofit wrote in the New York Times in October.

"In other words, Israel would get to determine which American citizens it permits to enter," Yousef Munayyer of the Palestine Center wrote in an op-ed.

He cited the cases of Nour Joudah and Sandra Tamari, two Palestinian-American women who were denied entry to Israel in 2012, as examples of the Israeli discrimination that would have been legalized by the current version of the visa-waver bill.

Joudah spent a year teaching English at the Friends School in Ramallah, but after a vacation was denied re-entry by Israel border authorities even though she carried a valid Israeli-issued work visa. Similarly, Tamari flew into Israel to attend an interfaith conference, but was denied entry and banned from the country for 10 years after refusing to provide Israeli interrogators with the password to her email account, according to the op-ed.

Activist backlash against the US-Israel Strategic Partnership Act was "about the United States standing up for the rights of its citizens -- all its citizens -- in the face of bigotry," AAI said.

Though all congressional discussions concerning the bill are now tabled, pro-Israel lobby groups may promote a similar version in 2014.

"AIPAC and its allies may come back in March with the same (pro-Israel) ask, but now they know that when it comes to codifying discrimination against our community, they're overreaching."

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