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U.S. blasts Israeli restrictions on American travelers in West Bank

Barak Ravid, Amira Hass & Natasha Mozgovaya ¦ Ha’aretz

20 August 2009

The United States has harshly criticized new Israeli restrictions placed on foreign nationals entering the West Bank via the Allenby Bridge, calling the new regulations ‘unacceptable’. A report on the restrictions appeared in Haaretz last week.

Earlier this week, a senior official at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv met with the head of the Foreign Ministry’s consular division, Yigal Tzarfati, for clarifications on the new procedure, by which passports are stamped at the bridge with a directive limiting the bearer to areas of the Palestinian Authority only.

The U.S. message was that such a procedure is harmful to U.S. citizens who come to the Palestinian Authority.

At the meeting in Jerusalem, U.S. diplomats asked Tzarfati what the reason was for the restrictions, and a statement issued yesterday by the State Department said that “the United States expects that all American citizens be treated equally, regardless of their national origin or other citizenship.”

The statement added, “we have let the government of Israel know that these restrictions unfairly impact Palestinian and Arab-American travelers, and are not acceptable.”

In addition to its critical public statement, on August 14 the U.S. State
Department renewed its travel advisory to Israel and the Palestinian
Authority, drawing the attention of American travelers to Israel and the West Bank to the new procedure at the Allenby Bridge.

For some three months, border control officials at the Allenby Bridge have been stamping visitors’ passports with a visa and the additional words “Palestinian Authority only.” Those who have received the stamp are mainly citizens of countries that have diplomatic relations with Israel, from Europe and the United States, and are mainly those who have family in the West Bank, work or study there.

At the same time, Interior Ministry officials at the borders advise these
people not to come to Israel through Ben-Gurion International Airport or the Sheikh Hussein Bridge crossing with Jordan near Beit She’an, rather only through the Allenby Bridge, frequently after they had been refused entry through the other entry points.

Meanwhile, other foreign nationals arriving at Ben-Gurion airport have
reportedly been asked to sign a pledge that they will not enter Palestinian Authority territory without the approval of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories.

Senior Foreign Ministry officials said that the Interior Ministry is behind the new procedures, and the Foreign Ministry does not support it and does not understand its logic. “It is unclear what good it is and how it can be enforced,” a Foreign Ministry official said. “All it does is damage Israel’s image in its foreign relations,” the official added.

Haaretz has learned that a number of European embassies are planning to
approach the Foreign Ministry to protest and seek clarifications.

The Oslo Accords state that citizens of countries with diplomatic ties with Israel can enter the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with their Israeli visa and a valid passport.

According to Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Haddad, the procedure is based on a decision by the interior minister and the defense minister from 2006 that “any foreign national who wants to enter the Palestinian Authority must have a permit issued by the army, and entry is permitted only into PA territory.”

Haddad refused Haaretz’s request for a copy of the text of this decision.

Instructions the coordinator of government activities sent to diplomats at the time, which were based on the decision, do not prevent entry to Israel, but determine that foreign nationals must request the approval of “the military commander” to enter the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Palestinian Authority is not mentioned as one of the categories in these instructions. In the past three years, no procedure has been enacted to receive the “military commander’s approval.”