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Israel includes Gaza Americans in US visa-waiver pilot as deadline nears

FILE PHOTO: Israeli and American flags flutter during preparations for U.S. President Joe Biden's visit to Israel

By Dan Williams and Nidal al-Mughrabi

JERUSALEM/GAZA (Reuters) -Israel eased travel for Palestinian Americans from the Gaza Strip on Monday as part of final preparations for a deal enabling Israelis to enter the United States without visas, Israeli and U.S. officials said.

As a condition for its accession to the U.S. Visa Waiver Program (VWP), Israel has since July 20 loosened access through its borders, and in and out of the occupied West Bank, for Palestinian Americans in a pilot period.

The deadline for Israel to show compliance with the U.S. conditions is Sept 30. If successful, it expects to be incorporated in the VWP by November - a respite for relations strained by disputes over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's judicial reforms and policies on the Palestinians.

Gaza, whose ruling Hamas Islamists are on Israeli and U.S. terrorism blacklists and whose borders are blockaded by Israel and Egypt, had been excluded from the pilot. That stirred protests by Palestinian Americans and U.S. calls for a change in policy.

Israel's Interior Ministry said that, as of Monday, Palestinian Americans living in Gaza and who are not deemed security threats are able to enter Israel on "B2" tourist visas, which also gives them the option of flying out of its airports.

The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem confirmed the new policy.

Palestinian Americans from abroad are still largely precluded from visiting Gaza. As a stop-gap, Israel has said it would allow those who have first-degree relatives there to apply for permission to make once-yearly visits of up to 90 days.

"This is an improvement that doesn't really add any value," Hani Almadhoun, a Palestinian American from the Washington, DC area, told Reuters. He said he felt like he was being told: "You may come and have a picnic in Israel, but you might not be able to go see your family which is really just minutes (away)."

Under the pilot, more than 5,400 Palestinian Americans have entered Israel or crossed its boundary with the West Bank, according to Interior Ministry figures. It said 51 Palestinian Americans have been refused entry, 49 on suspicion of planning to overstay their visas and two as potential security threats.

The U.S. Embassy says some Palestinian Americans have complained of being barred from travelling between Israel and the West Bank by car. On Monday, it said a joint U.S.-Israeli team begin talks "to develop solutions over the coming months".

Between 45,000 and 60,000 Palestinian Americans live in the West Bank, a U.S. official estimated. An Israeli official gave lower figures, saying that of 70,000 to 90,000 Palestinian Americans worldwide, 15,000 to 20,000 are West Bank residents.

Israel previously said it intended to include Palestinian Americans living in Gaza - whose number it puts at between 100 and 130 - on Sept 15 but would try to bring the date forward.

Palestinian and U.S. officials have assessed that the number of dual U.S. nationals in Gaza may be several hundred. Asked about the apparent discrepancy in the figures, an Israeli official said most of those are not full-time Gaza residents.

(Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by William Maclean)