U.S. State Department to Israel: "An American Citizen Is an American Citizen"

For thirty years now, I have been demanding that my government, in Washington, protect and defend the rights of its citizens of Arab descent when they travel to Israel and the Palestinian lands occupied since 1967.

I never felt that this was an unreasonable request to make, nor did I feel that it should have been difficult to fulfill. It was not a sensitive or complicated policy matter, like the "thorny" issues of settlements, land confiscations, collective punishments or other violations of international law. Even these the U.S. has, at times, criticized, though been loathe to act more decisively to stop.

What I have asked of the last five administrations was, quite simply, to do what any government is required to do; and that is, to protect and defend its own citizens and, in this case, require Israel to live up to its treaty obligations.

The U.S. passport, the prized possession of any U.S. traveler, says quite clearly on the opening page: "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."

There is also the 1951 Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation, signed by the U.S. and Israel, in which Israel agrees that U.S. citizens traveling there be permitted "to travel therein freely, to reside at places of their choice; to enjoy liberty of conscience…and to bury their dead according to their customs." The Treaty also prohibits "unlawful molestations of every kind," and guarantees U.S. citizens "the most constant protection and security."

As many Arab Americans and most especially those of Palestinian descent will testify, this treaty has been "honored more in the breach than in the observance." Over the many years that I have worked on this issue, we have recorded countless cases where Arab Americans (even those with U.S. diplomatic passports) were detained at entry and exit, treated harshly and in a humiliating manner, and in some cases held for hours and subjected to long and often humiliating interrogation. Palestinian Americans, even those born in the U.S., have been forced to surrender their U.S. passports. Israel requires Palestinian Americans, even those born in the U.S., to secure a Palestinian travel document upon entry and exit. Others have been denied entry when attempting to visit their families; while still others have been denied the opportunity to remain with their families, bury their dead in ancestral plots, or conduct normal business on family-owned properties.

At times, past administrations have intervened in individual cases, some burials were allowed, some visas were given or extended. Former National Security Sandy Berger, and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and, more recently, Secretary of State Rice, have raised this issue directly with the Israeli government, but the problem remains because the Israeli behavior persists.

It appears that Israel has its own view of U.S. citizenship, seeing three classes: American Jews whom they see as having "birthright advantages," other U.S. citizens who are respected and protected, and then, finally, Arab Americans whose rights as U.S. citizens Israel does not fully recognize.

In somewhat tacit acknowledgement of this shameful attitude, the U.S. State Department has issued a travel advisory for U.S. citizens going to the West Bank and Gaza in which they state the following: "American citizens whom Israeli authorities judge (based on their name or other indicators) may be of Palestinian origin are likely to face additional, and often time-consuming, questioning by immigration and border authorities. …persons judged by the Israeli authorities to have claim to a Palestinian Authority ID are subject to Israeli law and regulations that apply to residents of the West Bank and Gaza, regardless of the fact that they hold U.S. citizenship. …In addition, American citizens considered to have or to be eligible for a Palestinian ID who entered Israel via Ben Gurion Airport might be required to depart via the Allenby Bridge to Jordan." (emphasis added)

In response to what can only be described as Apartheid treatment, the U.S. government rather lamely adds in its advisory that, "the U.S. government seeks equal treatment for all American citizens regardless of national origin or ethnicity. American citizens who encounter difficulties are encouraged to contact the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv or the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem…."

After my organization in Washington wrote to the Secretary of State (in a letter signed by 29 other Arab American organizations) protesting this state of affairs, the department spokesperson, at a press briefing, responded (it’s in the bottom third of the page) more forcefully saying that, "Our view,…is that an American citizen is an American citizen is an American citizen. There are no second classes. …You have a blue American passport, you should be treated like an American citizen. …We expect all American citizens to be accorded the rights that any other American citizen would be accorded." To that, I can only add, "Amen."

The question arises, however, what the U.S. government would do when its expectations are not met. I have been waiting for an answer to that question for more than thirty years.