U.S. links Israel visa-waiver to West Bank travel for Palestinian-Americans

Newly appointed U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Thomas Nides attends a ceremony whereby he presents his diplomatic credentials to Israel's President Isaac Herzog, in Jerusalem, December 5, 2021. REUTERS/Ammar Awad/File Photo

JERUSALEM, Jan 18 (Reuters) - The United States expects Israel, under a visa-waiver deal being discussed between the allies, to enable free passage for Palestinian-Americans into the occupied West Bank, the U.S. ambassador said on Wednesday.

Among territories where Palestinians seek statehood, the West Bank has seen a surge in violence over the past year. It is peppered with Israeli military checkpoints and patrols.

Ambassador Thomas Nides said he expected an announcement soon on whether the number of Israeli applicants refused recent requests for U.S. visas had been kept to 3% or fewer, as required for a waiver deal. Israel would also have to ratify such a deal.

"Number three, we have to be clear about reciprocity. Reciprocity will mean that Palestinian-Americans will be able to freely travel from Detroit to (Israel's main airport) Ben-Gurion to Ramallah," Nides told Ynet Radio, referring to the West Bank hub city that is the seat of Palestinian government.

"And Americans who live in Ramallah will be able to go from Ramallah to Ben-Gurion back to Detroit," he said.

"When we get all those pieces working together, hopefully, then Israelis will not have to stand in line ever again to get a tourist visa - a visa to come to the United States."

Asked whether Israel was preparing special provisions for Palestinian-Americans to pass through its West Bank checkpoints, a military spokesperson said: "We have nothing new to relay."

In an estimate that it says is based in part on U.S. census data, the Arab American Institute Foundation puts the number Palestinian-descended Americans at between 122,500 and 220,000.

The Office of Palestinian Affairs in the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for the number of Palestinian-Americans domiciled in the West Bank.

Some U.S. officials have privately put that number as being in the tens of thousands. The overall Palestinian population in the West Bank is 3.2 million, according to a Ramallah census.

In the Ynet Radio interview, Nides did not mention any arrangements for travel to the Gaza Strip, another Palestinian territory which Israel withdrew from in 2005 and which is now controlled by Hamas, an Islamist group blacklisted by the West.

There are a few hundred Palestinian-Americans living in Gaza, according to anecdotal accounts that Reuters could not immediately verify. Israel and neighbouring Egypt keep tight controls on the enclave's borders, citing security needs.

Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Alison Williams

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