Israel denies entry to four American civil rights leaders

The delegation is in Israel and the West Bank to learn about the human rights situation on the ground. Three of the four deported already received their visas, but were taken back in.  

An El Al plane is seen through a barbed wire fence at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)
An El Al plane is seen through a barbed wire fence at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Four members of an American human rights delegation to Israel and the West Bank, were detained at Ben Gurion Airport, denied entry, and deported by Israeli authorities on Sunday. The rest of the delegation was allowed through.

Two of the four deported are Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), and Katherine Franke, chair of CCR’s board and Sulzbacher Professor of Law, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Columbia University. The two others who were deported did not want to be named or interviewed. Franke was accused of being affiliated with the BDS movement; Warren appears to have been deported simply by association.

The “Justice Delegation” of 19 prominent civil rights and social justice leaders from the U.S., most of whom have not been to the region before, include Howard University Law Professor Justin Hanford, who heads the Thurgood Marshall Center for Civil Rights, and Women’s March co-chair Tammika Mallory. The trip was organized by CCR with the stated goal to “witness the human rights situation in Israel and Palestine, including the history of systematic displacement and institutional racism, as well as the work of human rights defenders there.”

A source within the delegation says none of them is on any designated Israeli blacklist related to BDS activism and that the purpose of the tour has nothing to do with BDS. There are two Jewish members of the delegation — one of whom was deported.

Katherine Franke and Vince Warren take a selfie at Ben-Gurion Airport before being deported, April 29, 2018. (Courtesy: Franke)
Katherine Franke and Vince Warren take a selfie at Ben-Gurion Airport before being deported, April 29, 2018. (Courtesy: Franke)

Israel’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority (PIBA) spokesperson Sabine Haddad told +972 only three were deported while the fourth volunteered to leave. Haddad says one person was barred entry for “BDS activism, as per the recommendation of the Strategic Affairs Ministry, and the other two — for lying about the reason for their trip.” The deportation order issued to Franke specifies the reason for deportation as “prevention of illegal immigration consideration.”

According to Franke and Warren, the notion that someone left voluntarily is categorically false. All four were informed they were being deported. Warren, however, did not actually receive a physical deportation order, which could explain why Haddad claims one person left of their own volition.

According to Warren and Franke, who spoke by phone on Wednesday, they had already gone through passport control, had their visas in hand, and were waiting in the baggage claim area for the rest of the delegation, when an immigration official approached them and demanded they return to passport control for questioning.

When I asked Haddad why three people who had already received visas and were at the baggage claim were taken back in for questioning, she said they were legally defined as “refused entry.” “As long as they are still within the boundaries of the closed terminal, they have not entered Israel,” she said. Haddad insinuated that getting a visa issued at passport control does not constitute entry into Israel, but stepping outside the terminal does. I am not aware of other cases in which people who were already issued a visa had then been detained and deported.

Franke was interrogated for an hour, during which immigration officials asked her if she is a BDS leader, to which she answered no.  The official then accused her of coming to “promote BDS in Palestine,” to which she said no, pointing out that there is no need to visit Palestine in order to promote BDS. He also accused her of working for Jewish Voice for Peace — an organization that openly promotes BDS and is on Israel’s blacklist — but she said no.  While Franke did serve on JVP’s academic advisory council and is a signatory of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, she is employed by Columbia University.

The order Katherine Franke received at Ben Gurion airport, denying her entry into Israel.
The order Katherine Franke received at Ben Gurion airport, denying her entry into Israel.

Franke said at one point the interrogation became aggressive, and the official started yelling at her, accusing her of lying about the purpose of her trip. He then proceeded to show her what he claimed was proof of her ties to BDS: He showed her that her name appears on the websites of what she is fairly certain were Canary Mission and AMCHA — both ultra-right American watchdog groups that publish names and information of individuals deemed “anti-Israel,” with the explicit goal of damaging their reputations and careers. They have no legal or security credentials or official ties to the Israeli government (as far as I know). They often accuse people of being anti-Israel or antisemites because of their opposition to Israeli policies and support for Palestinian rights, among them the right to boycott.

“The government is essentially outsourcing their security to rightwing trolling websites,” Franke said.

According to Franke, the immigration official then took her visa, crumpled it on the floor, and said she would be banned for life. They took her photo and scanned her index fingers. Upon receiving the deportation order, she was told she was banned from Israel for five years, although this is not specified in the order.

Warren says he was informed he would be deported before even being interrogated. “It was impossible to leave voluntarily. There was no consent. We were all informed we were being deported,” Warren says. After being told he was being deported, he was then asked the purpose of the trip. He was not asked about whether he is a BDS activist. He does not know whether he has been banned.

None of the activists who are currently traveling wanted to speak on the record, fearing mistreatment upon departing through Ben-Gurion Airport.

The “Justice Delegation” group is meeting with Palestinian and Israeli human rights organizations, among them, B’Tselem, Adalah, Al Haq, Addameer, Breaking the Silence, The Israeli Public Committee Against Torture,  and Yesh Din.  They have already visited Umm al Hiran, Hebron, Jerusalem, and will also visit south Tel Aviv to learn about groups working with African asylum seekers. Gaza is not on the itinerary.

Police arrest an Israeli activist participating in the ‘Welcome to Palestine’ fly-in protest on April 15, 2012 at the Ben Gurion Air Port near Tel Aviv, Israel. The action protested the routine discrimination against travelers attempting to visit the occupied Palestinian territories, which are only accessible through Israeli-controlled airports and border crossings. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)
Police arrest an Israeli activist participating in the ‘Welcome to Palestine’ fly-in protest on April 15, 2012 at the Ben Gurion Air Port near Tel Aviv, Israel. The action protested the routine discrimination against travelers attempting to visit the occupied Palestinian territories, which are only accessible through Israeli-controlled airports and border crossings. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

This, of course, is not the first time people wishing to enter Israel have been barred entry, and Israeli officials have the discretion to refuse entry to whoever they want.

In March 2017, Israel’s Knesset passed a law that bars issuing temporary visas or residency to any non-Israeli citizen who has publicly called for or pledged to participate in a boycott of Israel. Then in January of this year, Israel published a blacklist of 20 organizations whose members would be susceptible to being barred entry for their support for BDS.

Last November, Raed Jarrar, Middle East and North Africa advocacy director for the human rights organization Amnesty International U.S.A., (not on that list) was barred entry to Israel because of an Amnesty campaign calling on governments to ban settlement products.

And last July, five members of an interfaith delegation to Israel — including Jewish Voice for Peace deputy director, Rabbi Alissa Wise, were prevented from boarding their flights from the U.S. to Israel because if their BDS advocacy.

While I cannot report or confirm the same about the two unnamed deportees, it is clear that when it comes to Warren and Franke — the reason for their deportation was their politics, their vocal opposition to Israeli policies, and their desire to witness and document the reality on the ground.  It has nothing to do with what they said was the purpose of their trip, and has nothing to do with BDS. It is about their work in the U.S. on behalf of Palestinian rights and their opinions.