On January 7, 2018, I learned I was banned from entering Israel, despite a 1951 treaty between the United States and Israel that guarantees nationals of each country entry to the territories of the other. More importantly, the ban means I’m no longer able to visit Palestine because Israel controls the borders.
Earlier this month, the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs released a list of 20 organizations whose members are prohibited from entry into Israel because of their participation in the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS). Those of us who are impacted by the ban are not surprised. It’s well known that Israel and its supporters in the United States regularly target Palestine solidarity activists in attempts to dissuade us from exposing Israeli human rights violations.
In fact, I received the news of the ban with indifference, something my privilege as a white American allows me: my life won’t be severely impacted by the fact I’m no longer welcome in Israel. However, the same is not true for my Palestinian friends or for the millions of Palestinian refugees around the world who dream of being able to return to home and family, or even just to visit. Yes, Palestine is significant to me. It has been woven into the background of my entire life, first, by my Protestant upbringing and, later, by my practice as a Muslim. But, it’s not my lifeblood, and I can reach my father and childhood home in Michigan in less than a day’s travel. Omar Daoud, a Nakba survivor from Ein Karem, could not say the same. “How many times do I get up in the night and every time I pray, ‘God please send me back. Send me there, send me there. I want to live one or two weeks in Ein Karem, in the place where I grew up,’” he said in a testimonial about the Nakba. Omar never got his wish. He passed away at his residence outside Chicago in 2017.
Israel has been about the business of disrupting lives and quashing Palestinian human rights since its inception. This latest ban is in line with a long series of measures aimed at silencing Palestinians and those who work for Palestinian human rights. What is different, today, is the brazenness of the Israeli government which, most likely, is banking on the chaos and rabid pro-Israel sentiment in Donald Trump’s White House to further its undemocratic measures with impunity.
I became a target of such tactics since I began working for Palestinian human rights on a full-time basis in 2009. In October 2010, I was detained at Ben Gurion airport and subjected to repeated interrogation for seven hours. The ordeal began at passport control when I was pulled aside because my last name was “Jewish-sounding.” I was wearing a headscarf at the time, and traveling with a group of Christians. The inconsonance I seemed to represent to the young officer was apparently insurmountable. She picked up her phone to summon a colleague. It was not long before officials determined that, at the time, I was the director of media and communications for American Muslims for Palestine, one of the barred organizations. Rather than quirky tourist, I became a public enemy.
I was subjected to questioning, first by the Israeli police and military, then by the Shin Bet and, finally, by an officer of the Ministry of the Interior. After a 13-hour international flight, I was offered no food or water nor was I even allowed a bathroom break for several more hours. I was locked in what appeared to be a stainless steel room with all of the men who had questioned me to that point. One young female officer was there as well. At hour six, I was finally allowed to use the single-occupant bathroom, with the door open, while the men continued to grope through my luggage.
I rarely talk about this episode because the experience was traumatizing and deeply humiliating. But I know that my experience was not as harrowing as that of others, especially Palestinians. I know several Palestinian-American families who have been severely harassed at Ben Gurion. I know advocates for Palestinian rights who’ve been jailed and then deported. And, sadly, I know Palestinians who just can’t return to their homeland at all.
If Israel has nothing to hide, then why bar people who want to come and bear witness? If Israel wants peace, why target activists who support BDS – a peaceful movement that works to ensure Israeli compliance with human rights in the absence of the global political, financial and diplomatic will to do so?
These are the questions the American public doesn’t know and much of the media is failing to ask. It is striking that the levels of outrage have grown exponentially in the mainstream media only now that white and/or Jewish Americans are barred from entry into Israel, when so many Palestinians are prohibited from entering their historical homeland from which, in many cases, they were forcibly expelled.
That Israel has been actively engaged in targeting activists is well documented: in 2010, the influential Reut Institute described BDS as an “existential threat” to Israel and recommended Israel “sabotage and attack” the BDS movement. In response, and at the urging of the Israeli government, the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council on Public Affairs committed $6 million to the creation of the Israel Action Network to fight BDS . In 2015, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the Israeli military had been monitoring and gathering information on BDS groups around the world. And according to another Israeli news outlet in December 2017, the Israeli government committed $72 million to fight BDS through a public-private partnership, including Israeli officials and private individuals, mostly large donors to Zionist organizations. This is just a microcosm of much wider efforts. In 2013, the office of the Israeli prime minister announced it was hiring college students to set up “covert” groups to troll the internet and spread hasbara to counter the BDS movement and Israel’s increasing global isolation. This measure, along with others such as the Israel Action Network, are set up to appear independent, that is, to mask the Israeli government’s involvement. According to a report by Haaretz, the Israeli Foreign Ministry has established “front groups” in Europe charged with executing propaganda campaigns to ensure that the “message does not bear the ‘fingerprints’ of the Israeli government.”
These McCarthyist efforts reveal that Israel is merely handling a perception problem, rather than the root cause of global activism against its human rights violations: the occupation. Israel may have banned 20 organizations and hundreds of advocates – for now. But others will come after us. The tactics employed against me in 2010 have reverberated throughout the years as the Zionist colonial project tries in vain to stop a worldwide movement whose growth is organic and whose tactics are peaceful. Like the boycott campaign against South African apartheid before it, we are at the tipping point, if we have not reached it already. Even Israel’s top anti-BDS czar and founder of the Reut Institute Gidi Grinstein admitted in 2016 that the movement was winning despite Israel’s massive efforts to stop it.
A few years ago, my Palestinian-American friend and her family were held up for hours at Ben Gurion airport because she refused to remove her trousers as the Israeli soldier demanded. Her recalcitrance prevailed and she was finally let through without having to strip. But she did not go quietly: “Don’t worry. You don’t faze us. We will be back,” she told them.