Ben Gurion Airport
The Arab-American Institute (AAI) has published a collection of stories from American citizens who say they were harassed, detained or deported when trying to enter Israel. The snapshots of trouble at the Israeli border were published as the battle over legislation granting Israelis visa-free entry to the U.S. heats up.
The stories published by the Arab-American Institute cover some well-known ground, particularly for regular readers of this site. AAI highlights the stories of Najwa Doughman, a Palestinian-American who was detained and deported at Ben-Gurion Airport; Sandra Tamari, the Palestinian-American activist who was also deported after receiving no help from a U.S. embassy official, who asked whether she was Jewish; and Nour Joudah, the Palestinian-American teacher denied entry twice and deported back to Jordan. All of these cases highlight how Israel harasses Americans of Arab descent and activists in support of Palestinians when they try to enter the country.
Joudah’s case received attention in part because she was a teacher at a U.S. government-funded school–the Friends School in Ramallah. But Joudah’s experience of discrimination is not the only one demonstrating how a link to the U.S. government doesn’t matter to Israeli authorities. The AAI published this story of an Iranian-American graduate student from Virginia denied entry at Ben-Gurion in 2006:
The purpose of her trip was to visit religious sites in Jerusalem in addition to meeting with human rights activists working in Israel and the occupied territories. Upon her return, her intent was to reveal the findings of her trip in a briefing sponsored by the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. After inquiring and confirming that she was Muslim, Israeli authorities interrogated her for more than 8 hours and detained her for more than 26 hours. She was maintained in an airport detention center until her flight the following morning to Washington. She was strip searched multiple times, and her phone, camera, and belongings were confiscated and not returned until her flight the following morning. During the time of the incident, she still maintained a Top Secret Security Clearance in the U.S., having left a post at the DoS [Department of State] less than a year leading to the trip to Israel. She was subsequently told by Israeli authorities that she was denied entry and banned from Israel for ten years.
Here’s another story from the AAI collection, about a public health professional from Maryland:
In January 2013, a US citizen of Lebanese and Palestinian heritage was denied entry at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv after six hours of interrogation, while her husband was allowed in (her husband is also an American citizen of Lebanese descent). She was denied entry for refusing to answer questions or provide names and telephone numbers of her family and friends in Lebanon. She was told that the denial was based on suspicion she was a “terrorist”, and because “they didn’t like” that she was Muslim. This is incorrect on all counts: she works frequently on national security issues for the United States Government and has had a security clearance; and while religion is no excuse for discrimination in any event, this woman is not a Muslim, but a Christian. Despite the insult and seriousness of the situation, she says, she couldn’t help but burst out laughing at the absurdity of the accusation.
The stories highlight what is at the heart of a dispute between Congressional members over a bill granting Israelis visa-free travel to the U.S.
The bill, which has broad bi-partisan backing, has run into criticism from a small group of legislators and Obama administration officials, according to the Associated Press. These officials are concerned that the language of the bill–which states that Israel has to make “every reasonable effort, without jeopardizing the security of the State of Israel, to ensure that reciprocal travel privileges are extended” to U.S. citizens–allows for discrimination of the sort AAI highlights.
That specific language about not jeopardizing the “security” of Israel is unique, and not included in any of the other reciprocal visa-free programs the U.S. has with other countries, as Ali Gharib and George Hale noted in The Daily Beast. ”Security” concerns were the reasons cited by Israel to keep the Palestinian-American teacher Joudah out, though no specific evidence on that front was presented.
House members like Keith Ellison (D-MN), John Yarmuth (D-KY) and 13 other legislators wrote a letter to Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren expressing their concerns about discrimination at the border. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency obtained a copy of the letter:
The letter notes reports that Israel profiles Muslim and Arab Americans; that this year Israel turned away an American who taught at a school in the West Bank; that some Americans receive “Palestinian Authority Only” visas allowing them to stay only within the West Bank; and that Israel requires some U.S. citizens to turn on their computers or other devices and show them their email accounts.
“We ask that you work with us to ensure that all American citizens are treated equally at Israeli ports of entry,” the letter said.
But Oren brushed off those concerns in a reply letter. According to the JTA, Oren said that Israel restricts the access of Palestinian Americans to the country because of terrorism concerns. The outgoing ambassador also likened ”the requirement to show authorities emails to inspections of electronic devices in other countries, including the United States, although he does not show instances of U.S. authorities requiring actual examination of emails.”
Oren insisted in his letter that “American citizens are accorded all the rights to which they are entitled at their entry to the State of Israel…Given the security challenges we face, every effort is extended in this regard.”