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Israel bans activists in order to hide its crimes from public view, it’s nothing new

Ben Gurion Airport in Israel [file photo]
Ben Gurion Airport in Israel [file photo]

Last Sunday, the chair of Britain’s Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and advocate of the boycott of Israel over its occupation of Palestine was denied entry at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. Hugh Lanning was deported back to London early on Monday morning.

“The organisation Mr Lanning heads is one of the leading anti-Israel delegitimisation and BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) organisations in Britain, and one of the largest in Europe,” explained a joint statement from the Israeli immigration authority and the strategic affairs ministry. Israel also accused Lanning of maintaining ties with Hamas, the de facto governing authority in the Gaza Strip.

BDS is a Palestinian-led international movement established in 2005 calling for the boycott of Israeli goods, the divestment from Israeli companies and government-level sanctions. It is a non-violent movement, employing economic power to apply pressure on Israel to end its occupation and human rights violations of Palestinians, and get it to comply with international law.

This is the first notable example since the Israeli Knesset (parliament) approved a new law last week, banning anyone who supports the BDS movement from entering the country. The law applies to any individual who is active in an organisation that has issued a public call to boycott Israel or has pledged to take part in such a boycott.

In a media statement issued on Monday, the Director of the PSC, Ben Jamal, described Lanning as “the first victim” of the new law. He warned that Israel is violating “freedoms essential to a democracy: the right to free speech and criticise government policies and human rights violations; the right to advocate nonviolent actions to address human rights abuses; and the right of free movement and travel.”

Asa Winstanley: BDS and ‘commercial reasons’

BDS however is not the only reason why Israel bans activists; the ban on Lanning entering Israel and Palestine is far from being the first or only case. Furthermore, Israel has been banning not only activists, but also a wide range of supporters of Palestinian rights for years, including journalists, lawyers, researchers, academics and human rights organisations. Last year, there were 115 recorded cases of British pro-Palestinian activists being rejected entry, and it’s impossible to know how many unrecorded refusals there were.

Just last week, a Human Rights Watch researcher was denied a work permit to enter Israel. Other notable figures who have been refused entry include renowned academic Noam Chomski, theologian Isabel Phiri, human rights lawyer Emily Schaeffer Omer-Man and journalist Eoin Wilson.

Activists are not only refused entry at Ben Gurion Airport but also often handed bans for up to 10 years. They can be forced to endure intimidation, long hours of interrogation and being locked up in holding cells. The reason given is usually that the person is a “threat to Israel’s security.”

Even if individuals or organisations have no intention whatsoever of staying in Israel and are simply en route to the occupied West Bank of Gaza Strip, they are still refused entry. This happened to me when I tried to enter the West Bank from Jordan; I still had to pass through Israeli security in what was a stark reminder of the all-encompassing nature of the Israeli occupation and how it controls the lives of the Palestinians.

My membership of the burgeoning “No Entry Club” started in 2015 when I was stopped from entering Israel and Palestine by the Israeli occupation forces at the Allenby Bridge Crossing from Jordan. I had set out to join a Jewish-led interfaith peace building delegation to witness at first hand the impact of the occupation on the ground and speak with Israeli and Palestinian organisations working for a just and peaceful solution to the conflict.

The trip was influenced by my interest in human rights and peace building, but it was cut short before I even stepped foot on Palestinian soil when I was held and interrogated at the border post for eight hours. I should have known that my entry would be refused when I was greeted by the slamming of the door and a security official threatening to “kick my British ass home” if I didn’t cooperate.

Cooperation is not enough to gain you entry, though. Regrettably, I complied with the request to hand over access to all of my electronic devices, social media, and messaging and email accounts. The interrogation was nothing but an information-gathering exercise which ended with me being told that I was also refused entry because I would pose a security threat to Israel.

The reason for this was not BDS-related. The security officials googled my name and found images of me at pro-Palestine demonstrations and my online campaign calling for the end of the occupation of Palestine; they also “discovered” that I seek to provide an eyewitness account of life on the ground under occupation. I now face a ban of up to 10 years from entering Israel.

Without legal advice, individuals actually have no way of knowing how long they have been banned for and the reasons for being denied entry are often withheld and difficult to ascertain. Given that it is hard to know exactly why you are refused entry, it is thus impossible, practically-speaking, to appeal against the ban. Israel has withdrawn its freedom of information act, so even if your lawyer requests the full details held by the Israeli authorities, they are not obliged to show everything and can keep information confidential, even if the case goes as far as a court appearance.

When, in 2015, I found myself back in Amman sooner than expected, I discovered that there are many activists who are part of the “No Entry Club”, including some who have never set foot in Israel or Palestine, as well as those who had been allowed to enter on previous occasions.

My experience was relatively tame compared to the humiliation that other human rights campaigners and Palestinians with passports from other countries have to endure. Individuals do not necessarily have to be involved in activism in order to face intimidation and a ban at the port of entry. Muslims who simply want to perform a pilgrimage to one of Islam’s holiest sites, Al-Aqsa Mosque, are also frequently denied entry by the Israeli occupation authorities. Last year, a British Muslim family of four were on the way to Al-Aqsa when they were subjected to hours of questioning and then separated before being sent to Ben Gurion’s detention centre without explanation. One of the passengers was held in solitary confinement for five days. They all had their belongings confiscated and were prevented from making any telephone calls, except to the UK consulate in Tel Aviv.

So why does BDS and Palestine solidarity strike fear into the hearts of the Israeli occupation? The government of Israel and its supporters are afraid to allow human rights and BDS activists to enter the country because they are losing their control over the coverage of human rights abuses and violations of international law. Israel is coming out second-best in the propaganda battle and cannot hide such abuses if concerned observers from around the world are on the ground to witness them.

This is not just an attack on pro Palestine or BDS campaigners; it is another manifestation of Israel’s attack on human rights. We can see this with the efforts being made to marginalise Israeli critics such as the former soldiers who are “Breaking the Silence” and to discredit human rights organisation like B’Tselem. Israel is not simply anti-BDS, it is also anti-human rights when they are linked to the people of Palestine.

There is also the economic factor to consider. In Britain’s Times newspaper last week it was revealed that BDS is costing the Israeli government tens of millions of dollars every year. As support for BDS and Palestine is growing, so Israel is losing the support of international civil society.

The very skilled Israeli propaganda – hasbara – would have you believe all types of myths to the contrary: that this is a religion-based issue between Jews and Muslims; that Israel needs to defend itself from Palestinian “terrorism”; that Israel is a democracy (“the only one in the Middle East”). International collusion with Israel and the near-complete absence of any accountability for its actions doesn’t help to set the record straight with a public which relies on the integrity of its political leaders and media but is all too often let down.

We live in an age of “alternative facts”, apparently. Despite having access to information at our fingertips in a matter of seconds, people’s minds remain gullible and open to mischievous influence and scaremongering. Nevertheless, no matter how well a lie is dressed-up and delivered, it remains a lie.

Read: British government on trial for blocking BDS

This is why we need BDS. We need this movement because in a world of militarism and war, it seeks its goals using non-violence. We need this movement because it’s an effective strategy. We need this movement because for over 100 years, governments in the West have betrayed the Palestinians and failed to protect their rights.

Israel today has over 60 racist and discriminatory laws against the 20 per cent of its citizens who are Palestinian Arabs. It is annexing – in all but name – Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank; enlarging its colony-settlements; carrying out the ethnic cleansing of the indigenous population; dispossessing Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem; and maintaining a brutal military occupation.

Furthermore, Israel violates international humanitarian law and ignores UN Resolutions and the Geneva Conventions, even as it faces accusations of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is found frequently on lists of states which commit crimes against children, journalists and political prisoners. It simply ignores international calls for it to end its seizures of Palestinian land and the building of illegal settlements, even though these are – rightly – described as obstacles to the peace to which Israeli leaders pay lip service.

Israel has unleashed three catastrophic wars against the Gaza Strip between 2008 and 2014, destroying the infrastructure and killing and wounding thousands of civilians. A crippling blockade adds to the misery of the Palestinians in the enclave, which the UN has said will be “unliveable” by 2020.

Read: UNRWA warns of ‘high cost’ consequences of Israeli siege on Gaza

Within the occupied West Bank, Israel forces Palestinians to endure humiliation and apartheid policies in their own land and homes, with hundreds of army checkpoints and night-time raids; permits are needed (and usually refused) to build or extend homes and to travel freely. The Separation Wall is one of the most visible manifestations of Israeli apartheid, and Israel’s occupation forces and illegal settlers shoot-to-kill.

Israel deprives Palestinians of necessities such as fuel, electricity and fresh water, and imprisons children, women and men without trial. It demolishes their homes and businesses and prevents families from uniting. It prevents cancer patients from accessing medical care; mothers from giving birth; and children from going to school. It storms Palestinian places of worship and wants to silence the Muslim call to prayer.

It has produced the world’s largest refugee group – there are an estimated 7 million Palestinian refugees worldwide – and prevents them from fulfilling their legal right to return to their land, while granting citizenship to any Jew from any country in the world.

Non-violent civil activism by Palestinians and their supporters is met with tear gas and rubber bullets, causing injury and even death. If Palestinians defend themselves against the occupation they are called terrorists, even though international law grants anyone the right to resist military occupation by any means necessary.

These are the realities of Israel’s restrictions on basic human rights such as freedom of movement, freedom of association and freedom of speech. This is also the reality of the spin that Israel and its lobbyists in Western capitals have propagated and about which the international community has been far too inactive for far too long.

This fact notwithstanding, the Israelis have got one thing right; eyewitness accounts and human rights workers are a threat to its security because they expose Israel’s lies. What we are now seeing is the tower of lies crumbling, and that is why Israel is taking steps to prevent the truth from being disseminated. It is on extremely shaky ground legally and morally; we are, perhaps, seeing the beginning of the end of Israel’s reign of terror over the Palestinians.

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