Tel Aviv — A noted Jewish-American journalist. A prospective new immigrant to Israel involved with a left-wing activist group. A prominent Jewish-American philanthropist.
All three have been detained at Israeli border points in recent months as part of a widening effort to clamp down on left-wing activists who protest Israel’s policies toward Palestinians in the West Bank. Some have been asked about their political opinions concerning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Is Israel putting up a not-welcome sign at its borders for anti-occupation activists and eroding its democratic traditions in the process? Or, is it taking necessary security precautions against individuals who might stir up unrest in the West Bank?
Human rights advocates say they have seen a significant uptick in the number of people who have been subjected to questioning or even denied entry, and are describing the practice as a form of political persecution.
“The Netanyahu government has turned its border crossings into tools of political targeting and intimidation,” said Daniel Sokatch, the director of the New Israel Fund, in a statement last week following the detention at the airport of Julie Weinberg-Connors, an activist in the process of making aliyah to Israel.
“This government has targeted progressives who disagree with its regressive policies,” he continued, “or who participate in legal, nonviolent protest, including Israeli citizens and longtime supporters, for questioning, intimidation, and refusal. Now, we can add Americans who have visited Palestinian areas in the West Bank, legally and for any reason, to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s list of ‘troublemakers.’”
For years, Israel has been detaining its Arab citizens for questioning as they pass through the airport, a practice criticized as racial profiling. Then in March 2017, the Knesset passed a law to prevent entry to anyone who had ever made a public call for a boycott of Israel, Israeli businesses and settlements.
However, Israeli officials have dramatically expanded the practice in recent months. In August, Jewish-American journalist Peter Beinart was detained at the airport for questioning while arriving in Israel for a bar mitzvah — a move that put the issue on the media agenda in Israel and prompted an apology from the prime minister and the Shin Bet. The previous month, Meyer Koplow, chairman of the Brandeis University board of trustees, was detained at the airport while leaving the country because he had a Palestinian brochure.
The incidents have included Israeli activists as well, and have affected individuals crossing at borders with Egypt and Jordan — not only the airport.
Michael Sfard, a leading Israeli human rights lawyer, said his office is handling a surge of cases that involve individuals who have been detained for questioning or organizations that are concerned that visiting delegations might be subjected to interrogation or deportation. He said that the troubling practice has been expanded to cover a broad range of political expression.
Officials are stopping individuals who have supported any sort of boycott against Israel and alleged efforts to “delegitimize” Israel.
“Based on the questions that activists and travelers have been asked, and the reasons for denial of entry, I infer that criticism of government policy regarding the occupation of Palestinian territories … is grounds for denial of entry, and grounds for interrogation,” Sfard said.
While suspicion of violent or criminal activity has been used to delay or deny entry in the past, Sfard said the current focus is on political activity.
“The sanctions imposed on these activists is a sanction on political participation and speech,” he continued. “That, of course, makes the whole practice not just non-democratic, but authoritarian, and, to a certain extent McCarthyist, because you are looking into what people’s views are.”
Following the detention of Beinart, opposition leader Tzipi Livni called the proliferation of border incidents “intolerable,” according to a report in Haaretz.
While the practice may put a crimp on political speech, activists planning to join demonstrations in the West Bank “stir unrest” and potentially burden IDF soldiers — a clear security issue, wrote political columnist Shmuel Rosner in Maariv.
Israel needs to clarify whether the public relations damage outweighs the benefit from the practice.
As part of the preparations for Israel to host the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest, European organizers reportedly sought to obtain a commitment from Israeli authorities that Eurovision delegations and tourists would not be detained or barred from the country because of political considerations.
Rosner noted that while many of those being detained are Jews who feel at home in Israel and have a sense of shared responsibility, they remain “guests,” and Israel must determine the “limit” of what it will allow.
In August, Israel’s Attorney General’s Office launched a review of the border policy, but has yet to make public any findings. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel has argued that the result of the policy is to scare political activists and deter activity.
“No one is saying that Israeli authorities have concrete information that a certain person will be involved in terrorism or criminal activity, [so] they shouldn’t intervene,” said ACRI spokesman Gilad Grossman.
“We’re talking about guidelines to scare political activists based on their convictions. … The feeling is that people are being intimidated and deterred from participating in political activity.”
In an editorial, the liberal Haaretz newspaper cautioned that the border hold-ups are not some low-level initiative of the Shin Bet or the Border Authority but a “faithful expression of government and coalition policy.” And it issued a dire warning: “It won’t be long before citizens with opinions the government disapproves of will be woken by knocks on the door in the middle of the night.”