The U.S. government says it is concerned about new visa restrictions Israel is imposing on Palestinian-Americans who want to visit or live in the Palestinian territories.
U.S. State Department officials have delivered a demarche, or diplomatic note, to the Israeli Embassy in Washington outlining their concerns over the new Israeli policy that has restricted visits by Palestinian foreign passport holders, many of them U.S. citizens, to the occupied territories.
A number of Palestinian-American business people have complained in recent months that Israel is refusing to grant tourist visas, or issue extensions to existing visas they need to enter Israel, in order to travel to the West Bank, where their businesses and homes are located.
The issue was raised by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this month during a visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories. Secretary Rice said she would work to ensure that U.S. citizens receive "fair and equal" treatment with regard to the issuance of visas.
U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv spokesman Geoff Anisman says the United States hopes to resolve the issue with Israel soon.
"The U.S. government is committed to ensuring that all American travelers receive fair and equal treatment," he said. "As the secretary [Rice] noted recently, continuing security problems in those regions represent a great challenge for the many Palestinian-Americans living and working there - and for Americans who seek to travel there. We have a positive dialogue with the government of Israel on this and a wide range of other travel and security-related issues."
A spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry says Israeli officials are looking into the matter.
A leading Palestinian-American businessman, Sam Bahour, who lives and works in the West Bank city of Ramallah, says he welcomes the attention being brought to the issue by the U.S. government.
"We do hope this is the beginning of U.S. action towards actually leveraging their position with Israel to resolve this issue," he said. "The issue not only deals with Americans, but all foreign nationals who are coming to visit the Palestinian occupied territories, as well as more than 120,000 other people like myself, who are looking for residency here because our families are here."
Bahour and other Palestinians affected by the new policy say they are being targeted by Israel as part of a broader campaign of retaliation against Palestinians since Hamas took control of the Palestinian government earlier this year. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States, and the European Union.
Israeli officials deny targeting Palestinian holders of foreign passports, but say tourist visas are only good for visiting Israel, and not for living and working in the Palestinian territories.
Israeli officials say anyone who wants to live and work in the Palestinian territories must obtain a work permit. Palestinians say such permits are virtually impossible to obtain because they are issued by the Israeli Defense Forces.