Arab Americans and the groups that represent them are alleging that the US "bent" the rules of the Visa Waiver Program in order to allow Israel to join, and they are suing to block Israel's participation in the program.
Hours before the announcement that Israel was officially added to the Visa Waiver Program, the largest Arab American human rights organization in the United States, the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, announced that it filed a lawsuit against in United States District Court in Michigan in order to block the move on the grounds that Israel still discriminates against some Americans and that Israel was admitted into the program unlawfully.
According to the indictment obtained by Ynet, the US State Department and the Ministry of Homeland Security "bent" the rules of the program in order to allow Israel to join. The lawsuit asserts that the Department of Homeland Security is not following the law by redefining the meaning of reciprocity, a central tenet of the Visa Waiver Program which requires that participating countries treat all American citizens equally.
The countries that participate in the program must allow all US citizens visa-free travel to their countries. Israel, the lawsuit claims, discriminates against American Palestinian citizens and received special treatment in its acceptance into the program.
"Every other country accepted into the waiver program treats all US citizens exactly the same, without imposing requirements, regulations or restrictions based on national and ethnic identities, and no other country restricts the access of US citizens to any territory under its control based on their national and ethnic identity, as the US authorities allow Israel to do," the lawsuit claims.
Israel, the lawsuit states, does not allow American-Palestinian citizens unrestricted access to the country as the rules of the program require, and restricts those who are residents of the West Bank and Gaza or have Palestinian heritage. The US entered into an agreement "that allows the Israeli government to create different classes of US citizens and treat them differently in a way that is not reciprocal to the way the US treats Israeli citizens" the lawsuit claims.
The lawsuit asks the court to find the MOU allowing Israel into the Visa Waiver Program to be "arbitrary, capricious and not in accordance with the law," and asks the court to issue an injunction preventing the DHS from admitting Israel into the Visa Waiver Program.
According to one of the petitioners, Adam Shapiro, director of Advocacy for Israel-Palestine for DAWN (Democracy for the Arab World Now), the purpose of the lawsuit is to ask the court judge for a restraining order to stop the process, and according to him it is not too late.
"The announcement (of the visa exemption) is one thing, but the final steps administratively may not yet have been taken. Regardless, the issue - about how the memorandum of understanding creates a new rule regarding reciprocity and whether the DHS and State Department had the legal authority to do that - should be reviewed by a court. ideally, we would like the same reciprocity that 40 other visa waiver programs apply to also be applied to Israel - that there is no distinction between US citizens and all the territory under the control of the participating countries is accessible to all US citizens covered under the visa waiver program," Shapiro said.
The minimum requirements are reciprocal privileges to US citizens, according to Shapiro. "This is the basis for the visa waiver program. The MOU sets up different classes of US citizens with different rules and requirements for Palestinian-American US citizens who have West Bank or Gaza IDs and then different standards for each of them. This is not reciprocal. the US will treat all Israeli citizens exactly the same and will allow them to travel to all territories the US controls," he added.
The other three plaintiffs are three Palestinian American citizens who have either Palestinian Authority West Bank or Gaza IDs, and who allege recent discrimination when trying to enter israel.
The US State Department the Justice Department declined to comment and said that they do not discuss lawsuits that are in legal proceeding.