NEW YORK // Proposed legislation that would grant Israeli citizens visa-free travel to the US, while exempting Israel from extending the same courtesy to US citizens, troubles Palestinian-Americans like New York pastor Khader El Yateem.
Mr El Yateem, who moved to the New York borough of Brooklyn from Bethlehem in 1992 and was honoured by the New York state senate last year for his community service, said he has been discriminated against at Israeli airports and border crossings during every visit home to the West Bank.
"So why does my country want to make things so simple and easy for Israelis but it won't defend my rights as an American in Israel?" Mr El Yateem said.
Making travel to the US easier for Israelis is part of the larger US-Israel Strategic Partnership Act, a bill that was one of the central themes of this year's conference by the powerful pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC. The bill was introduced by Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer and co-sponsored by a bi-partisan group of 18 others.
It would also make Israel the only country out of 37 others participating in visa waiver agreements with the US that would be able to hold US citizens to different standards of treatment based on their race.
Israel routinely turns away Arab Americans and other US citizens. The practice is so pervasive that even the US state department warns in a travel advisory that some US citizens holding Israeli nationality, possessing a Palestinian identity card, or of Arab or Muslim origin, may not be allowed into Israel or the West Bank "without explanation".
Israelis, between the age of between 14 and 79, planning to visit the US must first schedule an interview at the US embassy or consulate. They can receive a three-month tourist visa fee for US$160 (Dh587).
Mr El Yateem said his American-born daughter flew from New York to Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport in 2010 to spend her 16th birthday with family in Bethlehem. She called him from the airport crying, after she was detained and questioned for hours as Israeli officials asked for her email passwords and searched her personal accounts as well as her mobile phone and computer. "It was pure harassment," Mr El Yateem said.
But the worst experience came in 2003, he said, when his brother-in-law called to say that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and wanted to see Mr El Yateem and his family before he died.
The family tried to enter the West Bank from Jordan, all using US passports, but Mr El Yateem said he was separated from his family, placed in police custody but was not questioned. He was told he could not enter the West Bank and was driven back to Jordan, with no explanation. While he was in Jordan for a week, his brother-in-law died.
"The message to me was that America is the only country in the world that allows Israel to discriminate against its citizens," he said.
The Arab American Institute, a non-profit advocacy group, has long asked members of US Congress and secretaries of state to press Israel to recognise the US citizenship of Palestinian-Americans.
Critics say the chances of the current version of the bill becoming law are slim as it would give official US sanction for Israel's discrimination of its citizens, including the denial of their citizenship.
This may be a step too far for even staunchly pro-Israel US legislators. There are indications that the strategic partnership bill may not pass unless the exemption for Israel's treatment of Arab and Muslim Americans is excised.
Dylan Williams, the director of government affairs for J Street, a liberal pro-Israel lobby group in Washington that supports the legislation, said he doubts the language exempting Israel from the standard reciprocity requirements of the visa-waiver programme will remain.
"From our discussions..., it's clear legislators do not want to give any country a green light to discriminate against certain groups of US citizens," Mr Williams said.
If the exemption is scrubbed from the final version of the law, the government of Israel may opt out of the visa waiver programme, Haaretz reported on April 13.