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An Open Letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and Attorney General Loretta Lynch

The Department of State ‘Travel Advisory’ acknowledges Israel’s disregard for our citizenship rights and claim to be powerless.

No US citizen should be subjected to the treatment that George Khoury and Habib Joudeh received when they arrived at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel last month.

George is a 70-year-old Palestinian-American from San Francisco. Habib, 62, from Brooklyn, is also an US citizen of Palestinian descent. During the third week in July, both attempted to travel to Israel/Palestine. Both told me they had been excited about their trips since neither had visited the area in more than two decades. Habib and his sons were going to a family wedding in the West Bank. George is a deacon in the Archdiocese of San Francisco and was making a Holy Land pilgrimage with a priest friend. In the end, neither Habib nor George were able to complete their long awaited visits.

On arrival in Israel (George landed on July 21; Habib and his sons landed on the 23rd), they were detained for long hours, subjected to abusive interrogations, insulted by Israeli security personnel, and finally denied entry and forced to purchase, at their own expense, return tickets back to the United States.

There are some differences in the treatment they received (George was held for more than a day, while Habib and his sons were detained for six hours), but there were significant common elements with the most disturbing being the reason they were denied entry. Because both men were of Palestinian descent, the Israelis would not honor their US passports as travel documents or recognize that they were US citizens who did not want or seek Palestinian IDs. Both were told that they needed to acquire Palestinian IDs and that, as Palestinians, they could only enter through Jordan, via the Allenby Bridge.

The reason stamped on Habib’s “deportation” order was that he was denied entry based on “prevention of illegal immigration considerations.” When the Israeli border control agent told George that, as a Palestinian, he could not enter Israel, he attempted to engage the agent saying, “I’m not coming through as a Palestinian. I’m coming as an US citizen.” To which the agent replied, “No, no, you belong with the Palestinian people. This is our Israel, this is for the Jews. No Palestinian should come to Israel. You should have gone through the Allenby Bridge.”

When George explained that “I am coming with an American passport and you should honor it,” the agent replied, “How do you want me to honor your American passport? Do you want me to kiss it, to hug it, or to worship it?”

What happened to Habib and George were not the actions of a few rogue agents. For more than three decades, we have recorded and submitted to the State Department hundreds of instances where Arab-Americans, upon arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, have been subjected to such treatment.

By so flagrantly disregarding the citizenship rights of Palestinian-Americans, Israel is in violation of its treaty obligations found in the “1951 US-Israel Treaty of Friendship, Commerce, and Navigation.” In the language of the treaty, Israel pledges to permit US citizens the right to “travel freely, to reside at places of their choice, to enjoy liberty of conscience” and to guarantee them “the most constant protection and security.”

Not only has Israel consistently violated its treaty obligation, but our government has failed to live up to its commitment to protect the rights of its own citizens. The opening page of the US Passport states that, “The Secretary of State of the United States of America hereby requests all whom it may concern to permit the citizen/national of the United States named herein to pass without delay or hindrance and in case of need to give all lawful aid and protection.”

The Department of State says that it does not condone Israel’s behavior, but, in reality, it acquiesces. For example, when George Khoury’s daughter wrote a letter of complaint to the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, she received a response saying that “Unfortunately, the US government cannot assist US citizens in gaining entry into Israel … Should your father wish to travel again in the future, we advise him to contact the nearest Israeli Embassy or Consulate for guidance.”

The US official then directed her to the Department of State “Travel Advisory” which states that, “regardless of whether they hold US citizenship, Israeli authorities consider anyone who has parents or grandparents who were born or lived in the West Bank or Gaza to have a claim to a PA ID.” They will, therefore, be treated as Palestinians and not as Americans.

Israel, it appears, has a peculiar view of US citizenship. If you are Jewish, you are in a special class in that you can become an Israeli citizen. If you are an US citizen of any non-Arab ethnicity, you are welcome to visit. But if you are an US citizen of Arab descent and, in particular, of Palestinian descent, then you are not seen as an US citizen and are not welcome.

It is upsetting that both the Department of State “Travel Advisory” and the Consul’s letter acknowledge Israel’s disregard for our citizenship rights and claim to be powerless to hold them accountable for their actions. This acquiescence allows Israel to act with impunity. It also makes our government appear to be complicit in Israel’s behavior.

Last year, some members of Congress made a determined push to have Israel admitted into the US Visa Waiver program. In response, the State Department noted that they could not support Israel’s admittance because of their long-standing practice of discriminating against US citizens of Arab descent, in particular Palestinian-Americans. This was the right move, but it is clearly not enough.

I am, therefore, writing to you, Secretary Kerry, urging you to insist that the Israeli government fully live up to its treaty obligations to treat all US citizens equally without regard to their religion or national origin.

Should the Department of State fail to act, I am requesting that you, Attorney General Lynch, determine whether or not the State Department by its acquiescence is guilty of failing to provide Arab US citizens equal protection under the law.

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