Exile of Palestinian lawyer reignites struggle over France’s Israel policy

Israel's expulsion of Salah Hammouri has energized France's Palestine solidarity movement — but backlash is spurring antisemitism smears.

Salah Hammouri speaks to the press and supporters at Paris Charles de Galle Airport, France, after having been exiled by Israel, December 18, 2022. (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)
Salah Hammouri speaks to the press and supporters at Paris Charles de Galle Airport, France, after having been exiled by Israel, December 18, 2022. (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

After holding him in administrative detention without charge or trial since March, Israel finally followed through on its threat to exile French-Palestinian lawyer and activist Salah Hammouri, putting him on a plane to Paris on the morning of Dec. 18. A few weeks earlier, Israeli authorities confirmed that they had revoked Hammouri’s permanent residency in Jerusalem on the basis of an alleged “breach of allegiance to the state of Israel.” Hammouri, who was born and raised in Jerusalem by a French mother and Palestinian father, also holds French citizenship.

A prominent advocate for Palestinian political prisoners and detainees, Hammouri was greeted by supporters as he landed at Charles de Gaulle airport, where he declared that the “struggle is not over” and called his expulsion a form of “ethnic cleansing.” The crowd included his wife, Elsa Lefort, a French citizen who has been barred from entering Israel since January 2016 (including to visit her husband during his detention) for unspecified “security” reasons. Palestinian rights activists and elected representatives from the New Ecological and Social People’s Union (NUPES), an alliance of left-wing political parties in France, were also there to greet him. 

The deportation capped off a long campaign waged by the Israeli government against Hammouri, who works for the prisoners’ rights NGO Addameer. Last year, Addameer was one of six Palestinian civil society groups designated as “terrorist organizations” under Israel’s Anti-Terrorism Law, through an order signed by Defense Minister Benny Gantz. These allegations have been proven to be unsubstantiated, with human rights groups and activists around the world condemning Israel’s raids and attempted closures of the six targeted NGOs.

Though Hammouri has not yet specified how he plans to move forward with his work and activism, his remarks and his reception at Charles de Gaulle airport point to a potential revitalization of ongoing Palestinian solidarity work in France. According to Taoufiq Tahani, honorary president of the France Palestine Solidarity Association (AFPS), Hammouri’s expulsion will significantly impact the movement in the country and beyond. “It strengthens our fight against ethnic cleansing, which no justice and freedom-seeking conscience can accept,” Tahani told +972.

But the extent to which this movement will succeed is dependent in large part on the French government, which, despite condemning Israel’s “illegal decision,” has staked out a highly ambivalent position in fighting the deportation — and indeed, in much of its policy regarding Palestinian rights.

Silence on apartheid and occupation

Israel first notified Hammouri of its intention to revoke his permanent residency status in September 2020. This decision was made possible by a 2018 amendment to the Entry into Israel Law, which gives the Interior Minister the power to withdraw the status of Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem on the basis of a “breach of allegiance” to the state.

The father of Salah Hammouri holds a photo of him at an emergency press conference in Jerusalem, December 2, 2022. (Oren Ziv)
The father of Salah Hammouri holds a photo of him at an emergency press conference in Jerusalem, December 2, 2022. (Oren Ziv)

Yet this amendment itself is in breach of international law, which stipulates that allegiance to an occupying power cannot be demanded of the occupied population. Furthermore, according to United Nations experts and rights groups like Amnesty International, Hammouri’s expulsion could constitute a war crime under Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits the deportation of protected persons from an occupied territory.

The French consulate in Jerusalem and the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued several statements over the months in support of Hammouri’s release from prison, condemning his deportation, and supporting his right to remain in Jerusalem. The French authorities also insisted that their government had “taken all measures, including among the highest political ranks,” in Hammouri’s defense. 

Despite this, the France-based Committee for the Liberation of Salah Hammouri condemned the French government’s inability to prevent the deportation, describing it as a “total failure of our diplomacy” in a press statement issued on Dec. 18. According to the Committee, the French state has played an “overwhelming” role in Hammouri’s expulsion — and it is not alone in thinking so.

For the AFPS, there remains a large disconnect between France’s official position against the forced expulsion, and President Emmanuel Macron’s silence on the case and on Israel’s wider policies of apartheid and occupation. “Palestinian solidarity organizations in France know that their actions have forced the French government to speak out about Hammouri’s case,” Tahani noted. “This is already a victory — given the omertà surrounding this subject — but they also want a statement from Macron.” 

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other NGOs have similarly argued that such statements and diplomatic discussions are insufficient, and that “only firm action by Emmanuel Macron could change the situation and allow Hammouri, his wife, his two children, and their family to exercise their right to reside in his native city of Jerusalem.”

Moreover, the statements issued by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs contradict sentiments made last spring by Macron to the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF), a centralized institution that aims to provide a unified political voice on behalf of France’s Jews. During this speech, read by former Prime Minister Jean Castex, the French President claimed “Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people. I have never stopped saying this.” According to Tahani, this comment — which is often invoked to justify Israel’s annexation of the eastern part of the city — suggests that France will do little to stop expulsions and dispossession of Palestinians from Jerusalem.

Salah Hammouri is greeted by supporters at Paris Charles de Galle Airport, France, after having been exiled by Israel, December 18, 2022. (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)
Salah Hammouri is greeted by supporters at Paris Charles de Galle Airport, France, after having been exiled by Israel, December 18, 2022. (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

“France adopted the correct position on this issue, since it demanded Hammouri’s release and requested that he be able to live in East Jerusalem with his wife and their children,” Monira Mouhoun, coordinator of the BDS campaign in France, told +972. However, she added that “France has no concrete ability to act if it does not apply real sanctions.” Hammouri’s case thus risks setting a dangerous precedent by demonstrating that Israel will enjoy impunity in its policies against Palestinians, including those with French citizenship.

Putting Palestine at the top of France’s foreign policy agenda

In contrast with Macron, segments of the French left have shown consistent support for Hammouri’s freedom, as well as his advocacy work, thereby presenting themselves as political alternatives to a government that largely steers clear of critiquing Israeli human rights abuses. The French Communist Party (PCF) has supported Hammouri for years, and his wife, Elsa Lefort, is the daughter of former PCF deputy Jean-Claude Lefort. This support has now extended beyond the PCF and embedded itself within other leftist parties through the NUPES coalition, which was formed in 2022. The far-left party La France Insoumise (LFI), a member of the NUPES, has been particularly vocal about demanding Hammouri’s release from detention, posting his pictures on social media, issuing multiple statements, and welcoming him at the airport. 

Such efforts have become part of a broader initiative within the French left to put the issues of Israeli occupation, apartheid, and repression of Palestinian human rights activists at the top of France’s foreign policy agenda. This includes a resolution proposed by 37 French deputies in July 2022 to condemn the “apartheid regime instituted against the Palestinian people by Israel.” The resolution, as well as the broader defense of Palestinian rights, has been critiqued by various deputies in other parties as well as the CRIF, who claim these efforts attempt to “delegitimize” Israel in a way that endangers the safety of French Jews. 

Multiple deputies, mayors, and senators from the left have also expressed support for Hammouri’s liberation, a move which Mouhoun described to +972 as “quite exceptional.” She noted that politicians who publicly support Palestine “face harassment campaigns on social media and defamatory accusations of antisemitism,” making it difficult to speak out for Palestinian rights in France.

Charges of antisemitism extend to those speaking out on behalf of Hammouri as well. Since his arrival in France, a debate has unfolded between leftist politicians and certain human rights and Jewish organizations in France around the use of the term “deportation” to qualify Hammouri’s expulsion from East Jerusalem. Though this word has been employed as a legal term by the United Nations, the U.S. State Department, and countless English-language and international news outlets, it is being framed by critics as deeply inappropriate and even antisemitic in the French context, because it is primarily used in the country in reference to the deportation of Jews to concentration camps under Nazi rule. 

While the debate is now being picked up by some right-wing French newspapers, it has largely unfolded on social media, albeit by prominent figures and institutions. The CRIF, as well as the International League Against Racism and Antisemitism (LICRA), among others, have specifically condemned the left’s use of the word in relation to Hammouri after he landed in Paris. Yonatan Arfi, the CRIF’s president, tweeted “The term ‘deportation’ is not neutral, it has a History. Using it to accuse Israel is to instill the idea that Jews have become the Nazis. And the victims, the executioners. An intellectual perversion common within LFI [La France Insoumise]. Spare us your indecencies!”

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysée Palace, Paris, France, July 16, 2017. (Haim Zach / GPO)
Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysée Palace, Paris, France, July 16, 2017. (Haim Zach/GPO)

This comment was a direct response to a tweet by LFI party deputy Ersilia Soudais, who has become the center of harsh criticism on social media. Her tweet read: “We came to welcome Salah Hammouri at the airport after his deportation orchestrated by Israel. Many emotions, but it was heartwarming to have so many comrades present. For #JusticeForSalah, for #FreePalestine and for France’s honor, #WeWon’tGiveUp.”

While Soudais is not alone in using the term “deportation,” she has been particularly targeted due to her affiliation with the LFI party, which is increasingly portrayed by critics as having antisemitic tendencies. Speaking to +972 about the controversy, Soudais said that using the word in reference to Hammouri’s case “does not deny the horror of the concentration camps, contrary to what those who attack me would have us believe.” She continued: “There is a desire to portray LFI as the go-to antisemites. I was far from being the only one using this term on social media, but I was the target of attacks because I am an LFI deputy.”

As in many countries, critiquing Israeli policies in the French political context is increasingly being portrayed as antisemitic for either calling out “the world’s only Jewish state,” or having the potential to fuel antisemitism and jeopardize the safety of France’s Jewish population, which has been the target of multiple attacks and murders in recent decades. As a result, few French politicians are willing to speak out publicly about Israel’s human rights abuses. 

Yet Soudais argues that framing any and all criticism of Israel as antisemitic is “dangerous,” leading to misunderstandings and confusion that conflate a diverse Jewish population worldwide with the actions of a single state. “It is important to remember that Israel does not represent all Jews, that not all Jews agree with Israel, and that not all Israelis themselves are necessarily in agreement with the politics of their country,” she said.

Despite this pushback, it is clear that the conversation in France around Hammouri’s case has already pivoted toward accusations and arguments over antisemitism, rather than Israel’s actions toward Palestinians. As activists fear, this risks obscuring the human rights abuses at the root of Hammouri’s case and centering concerns over Israel’s public image and the safety of French Jews, instead of condemning the breaches of international law that have exiled Hammouri from his homeland.

Correction, Dec. 30, 2022: A previous version referred to Taoufiq Tahani as the president of the France Palestine Solidarity Association. Tahani is the association’s honorary president.