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Cars and busses queue at the Qalandiya Israeli checkpoint leading from Ramallah into Jerusalem.



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Yesterday, I Was a “Security Threat”—Today, I Am Welcome in Jerusalem

On August 5, 2023, I went to Jerusalem.

For the entirety of my adult life, I never thought I would get to say that.

Overnight, I went from being a “security threat” to the State of Israel—as every Palestinian is—to being allowed entry almost everywhere. For years, I planned my travel around the hours of the Allenby Bridge, the only entry and exit point for Palestinians to and from the West Bank. But now—suddenly—I was allowed to use Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport.

On July 19, 2023, Israel and the United States signed a Memorandum of Understanding1 that marked the beginning of the trial phase of the Visa Waiver Program.2 Under this agreement, Israeli citizens will be allowed to enter the US without applying for visas beforehand but rather at the border upon entry. In return, all US citizens are also to be allowed entry to Israel without arranging entry beforehand. This has not been the case—Palestinians with Palestinian Authority (PA) IDs (like me—my family lives in Ramallah) may only enter directly into the occupied West Bank from Jordan, and many foreign passport holders of Palestinian descent have been harassed, investigated, and denied entry at Israeli entry points. But the trial period meant to do away with all that (except, of course, where it didn’t: Palestinians from Gaza were not included in the trial phase and Americans in Gaza were not to be granted visas to Israel). And Israel has the “right” to deny any US citizen entry if it views them as a “security risk.” This designation, of course, is ambiguous, arbitrary, and not defined anywhere.

In August, two of my friends from college came to visit me in Palestine. We had meticulously planned their week, making sure to go to as many places as possible. Of course, a visit to Jerusalem was on their itinerary, but I had been planning to remain behind in Ramallah. I hold a PA ID and a US passport, but in the eyes of the Israeli occupation, I am not a US citizen, only a Palestinian, and therefore subject to all its military rules. As early as I can remember, I knew that I was not allowed to enter Israel (or Jerusalem, which it has annexed and controlled) without a military-issued permit.

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“As early as I can remember, I knew that I was not allowed to enter Israel (or Jerusalem, which it has annexed and controlled) without a military-issued permit.”

Nadine Bahour

Israel’s permit regime holds all Palestinians in a chokehold.3 You need a “legitimate reason” to apply for a permit to enter Israel—one that is legitimate in the eyes of Israel. Most commonly, work permits are issued to Palestinians who commute to exploitative day labor jobs serving the Israeli economy. Visiting the capital or touring with my friends is not a “legitimate reason.”

In recent years, one must first apply for a magnetic card that holds your biometric details before even applying for a permit. I have been trying to get a magnetic card for 18 months now and cannot even schedule the required appointment.

Backgrounder Jerusalem: A Closed City

Closure, a “temporary” measure introduced in 1991, is the system that controls Palestinians’ movement and blocks millions from accessing Jerusalem.

From “Security Threat” to Welcomed “Visitor”

For all these reasons, when I learned about the Visa Waiver Program trial phase, I rushed to the Palestinian Authority office that handles permits to ask if I could apply. According to the temporary agreement, Palestinian Americans already in the West Bank should be able to apply for a visa just like foreign visitors.

I was met with confusion. The clerk answered, “I haven’t heard about this yet. I don’t know if you need a magnetic card or not. You have to check on al-Munaseq.”

Al-Munaseq, which means “coordinator” in Arabic, is the digital application that Palestinians now use to apply for permits. It has earned a reputation for illegal surveillance and the misuse of personal information. It is run by the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), a unit of the Israeli military responsible for the day-to-day running of its occupation. Israel has a long history of wrongfully using personal information, including a program named Red Wolf that uses facial recognition to monitor and restrict Palestinian movement (see “Double Panopticon”: Amnesty International Slams Israeli Facial Recognition Surveillance). Disappointed but unsurprised by the Palestinian response, I reverted to the only trustworthy source of information under occupation: the experiences and opinions of family and friends.

Recognizing that this might be a short window of opportunity to visit Jerusalem, I decided to complete the required form to apply and went out for the evening. I imagined that it would take at least a few days for the application to process—after all, I had waited 18 months for an appointment for my magnetic card.

Not more than half an hour later, my mom called and in the most energetic, excited voice said, “Mabruk, mabruk (Arabic for congratulations) you’ll go!” I responded, confused, “What are you talking about? Mabruk for what?” She quickly interrupted my sentence, “You will get to go to Jerusalem this summer, you got the permit, mabruk!”

I was speechless. I opened the document on my phone and read and reread every word. “All days of the week,” “includes Eilat,” “all entry points,” “includes sleeping in Israel.” These opportunities are almost never included in the military permits issued to Palestinians.

I was shocked. In a matter of 30 minutes, I went from a Palestinian ID holder required to pass a security clearance and provide biometric data just for the chance to apply for a permit to enter Israel, to a US citizen allowed to cross any checkpoint (except to Gaza). In a matter of 30 minutes, I was no longer a security threat. I have always been aware of the arbitrary nature of the Israeli apartheid regime, but I had never felt it so deeply.

What had changed? I was still geographically in the same place with the same passports and ID. Technically, nothing changed, but yet everything had. I brought myself back to the question I had posed hours earlier: if I do not go now, when will I ever have the chance again?

“I have always been aware of the arbitrary nature of the Israeli apartheid regime, but I had never felt it so deeply.”

Nadine Bahour

I Saw Jerusalem

I had passed through Jerusalem once before when I was 15 on my way to the American consulate in Tel Aviv. On that day, I was with my parents, and I had a permit limited to daytime hours to renew my passport. It specifically listed the consulate as my destination and that I was not allowed to be elsewhere in Israel.

On this day, however, my friends and I walked to the Ramallah bus station. I had always seen bus 218 (Ramallah—Qalandiya route) arriving and departing but this morning, I got on it. We drove toward the Qalandiya checkpoint, which separates Ramallah from Jerusalem and other points south. Instead of taking a left and driving around Jerusalem as usual, the bus directly approached the checkpoint gate. I was excited, worried, and nervous: excited at the prospect of entering, worried that if I had trouble, the soldiers would stop my friends too, and nervous about the unknown ahead.

We approached the gate and waited for a bit for Israeli soldiers to check our IDs. This was all so unfamiliar to me. For the past week, I had been showing my friends around the West Bank, explaining roads, settlements, and checkpoints. At this moment, I wanted someone to explain things to me.

Three soldiers got on the bus with their massive machine guns. One went all the way to the back and stood there, another stood at the front, and a third was checking IDs. We were sitting toward the back, and I watched as he checked one ID card or passport at a time. I was trying to see what paperwork he was demanding, being careful not to stare at him, but also trying not to look down too much. I avoided looking at my friends because I did not want the soldiers to know we were a group; in case they decided that I did not have the appropriate paperwork, I wanted to make sure they were allowed to pass. I put my bag on the seat next to me, as far away from me as possible and did not touch it. I kept my hands visible on my lap. Was this conscious? I could not tell. As the soldier approached, I saw he was holding one US passport in his hand, juggling it between his phone and his gun. I started to think that I would not pass.

First, he checked my friends’ US passports and returned them; I breathed an internal sigh of relief for them. He turned to me and I handed him my US passport. I never carry my passport as identification in Palestine; it is always my green PA ID that is important (under Israeli law, we are required to carry it everywhere). I waited for him to ask for it. He flipped through the pages and asked for the visa that I would have received upon entry at the airport. I handed him my permit. He looked confused, asked the soldier behind him a question in Hebrew, kept my passport, and continued walking. At this point, I was unsure what was happening: I knew I was not going to stay on the bus, but I did not know if I was going to be denied entry or not. While the situation was unfamiliar, I did not feel scared. I had heard so many Qalandiya crossing stories that I just wanted to know my fate.

A few minutes later, one of the soldiers returned to the bus and called for those of us who had not had our passports returned to get off the bus. I told my friends to stay and that I would text them with updates. I thought back to the arbitrariness of Israeli apartheid. I was, once again, reminded of the vacuous decisions of the occupation regime: nothing is ever truly procedural.

We stood outside with the soldiers for a bit while they went through the pages of our passports. The bus with my friends drove through the checkpoint. Then we were instructed to go to the “pedestrian crossing,” as the US State Department recently referred to the turnstiles and crowded gates of the checkpoint’s footpath.4 I got a flashback to the only other time I had crossed with my parents eight years ago; I remember my younger self incessantly asking my father what to say to the soldier. Apparently even though I was a US citizen, my status as a PA ID holder still mandated that I cross the checkpoint on foot. 

We were lucky that the checkpoint was not busy or full. In a few minutes, we had scanned our bags through the metal detectors and lined up at the bulletproof window. I gave the soldier, who looked to be 20 years old, my passport and permit. He was on the phone, laughing in Hebrew, and did not look at or speak to me. He continued his conversation for a bit and then clicked the keys of the keyboard, chatted, and laughed longer before tossing my passport on the counter. I assumed that meant I could pass and quickly walked toward the turnstiles and tried to find the exit. As soon as I walked past the last soldiers, I started thinking: I am in Jerusalem. I crossed Qalandiya. I am here.

“As soon as I walked past the last soldiers, I started thinking: I am in Jerusalem. I crossed Qalandiya. I am here.”

Nadine Bahour

Reunited with my friends, we headed toward the Old City. Everything we passed looked foreign to me but, ironically, I recognized all the Palestinian neighborhood names. Shu‘fat was the daily destination of my close friend from high school. Beit Hanina is where my mom’s friend lives. We passed a sign that read Sheikh Jarrah, a place that I had read about endlessly in the news. I was in awe at how these places—previously just names in my imagination—materialized for the first time.

We reached Bab al-Amud and entered the Old City.

My mom always said that the Old City of Jerusalem has a unique smell, one she could never describe but always longs for. I cannot describe it either, but I smelled it as we walked through the stores, cafés, and restaurants with little kids running past us and tourists exploring. I felt like a tourist—in many ways I was.

Except this was my capital and my homeland.

Two minutes in, I saw a barricade in the middle of the walkway manned by more than 10 Israeli police officers, each carrying a sidearm and a machine gun, chatting, eating sunflower seeds, and spitting them on the ground. They stopped a group of young men walking in front of us and harassed them, a portrait of racial profiling. I overheard one of the young Palestinian men saying as he walked away, “Every time—it doesn’t matter what I’m doing—every time, they stop me.” He laughed it off.

“I was in awe at how these places—previously just names in my imagination—materialized for the first time.”

Nadine Bahour

Damascus Gate, entrance to the Muslim Quarter in Jerusalem's Old City, August 2023

Bab al-Amud on the day of the author’s first visit to Jerusalem, as she recorded it on August 5, 2023


Nadine Bahour

Israeli police monitor movement in Jerusalem’s Old City, surrounded by barricades, across from a Palestinian restaurant.

Israeli police monitor movement in Jerusalem’s Old City, surrounded by barricades, across from a Palestinian restaurant.


2019 Mazur Travel/Shutterstock

We spent the entire day in the Old City, visiting the different quarters and religious sites, eating the best kebab sandwich in East Jerusalem (Nadine-approved!), and meeting people. I could not help but notice the security cameras around every corner, the number of Israeli flags plastered everywhere, and the ubiquitous Israeli police. We walked to the Sub Laban house that was stolen by settlers some months prior and as I passed it, I caught a glimpse inside the house. Behind the heavy metal door was a fully furnished home. It looked as though the settler family had lived there for decades and, I thought to myself, “A family did live here for decades, just not this one.” A departing child slammed the main door closed, triple-checked that it closed, and then walked slowly past three Palestinian boys playing football across the street. He looked at them and then ran away. Until today, I think about those four kids. Did the little boy want to join them? Were they scared of him? Was he scared of them?

There were so many moments like that during the day; many I still think about. I realized that I had not seen that many Jewish settlers, Israeli flags, or Israeli police in my entire life. In Ramallah, we see Israeli jeeps, soldiers, and checkpoints from a distance, but Jerusalem is different. I felt myself being watched by police officers with their fingers on the trigger of their weapons, monitored by security cameras, and feared by settlers close by and walking around. This is the fragmentation experienced by Palestinians: Israel has created intentionally vastly different lives for each segment of us, ensuring that one fragment rarely overlaps another.

“I realized that I had not seen that many Jewish settlers, Israeli flags, or Israeli police in my entire life. In Ramallah, we see Israeli jeeps, soldiers, and checkpoints from a distance, but Jerusalem is different.”

Nadine Bahour

At the end of the day, we got back on bus 218 and headed home, but my thoughts kept going. While the Visa Waiver Program allowed me to visit Jerusalem, I thought of US citizens in Gaza who are not allowed. I thought of refugees banished from Israel but nearby in the West Bank who are not allowed. I thought of refugees scattered all around the world who are not allowed. I thought of Palestinians without a US passport who are not allowed. I thought of American settlers in settlements less than five minutes from my house who do not need to apply for a permit through an application that surveils them. Most importantly, I thought of the extent that Israel is willing to go to in order to achieve this coveted goal. Today, this goal is for Israelis to enter the US without visas, but what will happen when the goal is wiping away the Palestinian Hebron village of Masafar Yatta or evicting the entirety of Sheikh Jarrah?

Jerusalem is undeniably meaningful to many Palestinians and my day there is unforgettable, although it left me with more questions than answers about this completely new experience of my identity. The colonial state has not only fragmented the land, it has also shattered the lives of Palestinians. Israel is treating this program as a calculated valve release of its oppression and deeply rooted racism, racial profiling, and violence toward Palestinians. That should not be accepted. The right to movement, to enter, and to be treated as a human should apply to every Palestinian native of this land, everywhere.

Graphic The Unreachable City

How many millions of Palestinians in historic Palestine and beyond are unable to enter Jerusalem without Israeli permission?



Visa Waiver Program,” US Department of State, accessed September 1, 2023.


Yael Berda, “The ‘Permit Regime’: Bureaucracy as a Weapon,” Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, August 2020.

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