U.S. Criticizes Israel's Visa Policy

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JERUSALEM, Israel - The U.S. State Department issued a stinging criticism of a Israeli policy concerning visitors to the Palestinian Authority (PA).

The criticism followed complaints by Arab Americans regarding travel restrictions to the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and the Gaza Strip.

"We have let the government of Israel know that these restrictions unfairly impact Palestinian and Arab American travelers and are not acceptable," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters on Wednesday.

"We have repeatedly told the government of Israel that the United States expects all American citizens to be treated equally, regardless of their national origin or other citizenship," he said.

Under the policy, visitors listing PA-controlled areas as their destination may have their passports stamped with a "Palestinian Authority territory bound" stamp, which prevents them from entering Israel.

The Israeli Interior Ministry prefers that visitors heading to PA-controlled areas enter via the Allenby Bridge, which connects Israel with Jordan through the West Bank, where the entry stamp reads "Palestinian Authority territory bound," instead of through Israel's international airport near Tel Aviv.

The U.S. Consulate posted a statement on its Web site regarding the entry policy.

"Since the spring of 2009, Israeli border officials at both the Allenby border crossing (with Jordan) and Ben Gurion Airport have begun using a new entry visa stamp that permits travel only in Palestinian Authority-controlled areas.

"Anyone indicating that they either have connections to the West bank or are planning to travel to the West Bank, may get this stamp, which does not permit them to enter into (or in the case of Ben Gurion, return to) Green-line Israel. The Consulate can do nothing to assist in getting this visa status changed; only Israeli liaison offices in the West Bank can assist - but they rarely will," the Web site read.

Meanwhile, a State Department travel advisory cautions American citizens from visiting the Gaza Strip.

"The State Department strongly urges American citizens refrain from all travel to the Gaza Strip. This recommendation has been in effect since the deadly roadside bombing of a U.S. Embassy convoy in Gaza in October 2003. It applies to all Americans, including journalists and aid workers," a travel advisory reads.

A separate State Department policy prohibits U.S. government employees from visiting the Old City of Jerusalem after dark on weekdays and between 11 a.m. And 2 p.m. on Fridays when Muslims pray on the Temple Mount.

Israel's Foreign Ministry had no immediate comment on the visa situation but said the issue was under examination.

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