The twin Palestinian brothers thought they were ordinary young students in Germany.
They attended student events for Palestinians who wanted to study medicine in Germany, enjoying sitting around the campfire with new friends.
Keep readinglist of 3 items
One occasionally went to a local mosque, helping to wash plates at the end of Ramadan, but spent more time volunteering at a church helping refugees.
They timed their holidays to coincide with a Palestinian conference run by a United Nations-consulting NGO, staying with family and friends and using this as an excuse to see different cities in Europe, like Milan and Copenhagen, barely attending the conference.
Over the best part of their decade in the European country, A and O, 28, who did not wish their full names to be given out of fear of legal consequences, felt integrated and were doing well in their studies and at work while learning to master the tricky German language, but something was not quite right.
O, then a pharmacy student, received a puzzling letter in 2017. He was no longer allowed to work, leaving him in legal limbo. He did not hear anything else for years, until he took the initiative to phone up the interior ministry in his home state of Hessen.
The civil servant sounded confused, but this set things in motion. A few years later, both brothers were separately invited to speak with immigration authorities about “security concerns”.
They were subjected to long security interviews that they called “an interrogation”, over half of which was spent discussing their opinions on the Middle East conflict.
They explained the Palestinian perspective patiently to the authorities. The brothers have mainstream, liberal Palestinian views, wanting a peaceful democratic coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis and rejecting violence.
They criticised the Hamas movement to their interviewers and even recognised Israel’s “right to exist”, a controversial framing that many Palestinians reject, as it is often used to argue that there must be a Jewish majority in the state and therefore, Palestinians under Israeli rule should not have equal rights.
The brothers received similar letters in May from the immigration authorities rejecting the extension of their visas and initiating deportation procedures.
A lost his job as a result. The letters sent to them do not match his recollections of the interview.
“They confiscated my opinion and projected their own imaginations onto it. They selected anything and cut it so that it fit their prejudices, not to my statements or opinions,” he said.
Among the justifications given for deportation was attendance at Palestinian community events such as PalMed Students, the student event where they were taught how to use medical equipment, and briefly attending the conferences for the Palestinian Return Center, as well as pro-Palestinian Facebook comments.
The two Palestinian nationals “having pro-Palestinian sympathies” and a “one-sided, Palestinian perspective” were mentioned in context as security risks.
O’s “delayed” recognition of Israel’s “right to exist” was given as evidence of this, as well as his claim that many Palestinian attacks against Israel were reactions to Israeli actions.
“It’s about intimidating Palestinians. The background for all of these things is the idea from the security services, that if we follow Palestinians’ Facebook activities, they’ll be intimidated,” says O.
The documents received by the brothers, which have been seen by Al Jazeera, are contradictory. One was told that being a long-term member of the humanitarian organisation PalMed was evidence of being against the liberal democratic order and showed sympathy for Hamas.
The other was told that the membership of PalMed Germany could not be used as evidence for support for Hamas, because the group is concerned with humanitarian medical support in the Gaza Strip.
“Membership alone in PalMed does not necessarily prove a membership of Hamas or supporting its terrorist activities,” said the letter to A.
The documents also misrepresent typical Palestinian expressions to make them sound politically extreme.
It is common for Palestinians to call all of those who die in the conflict, including civilians, “martyrs”. The document implies that because one of the brothers used the word on Facebook, they support violent attacks on Israel, despite his assurances to the contrary.
Attending a mosque once every few months was considered “against the fundamental democratic order” because of alleged connections to the Muslim Brotherhood, which there is no evidence A knew about.
Though the authorities admitted the brothers show no evidence of Islamist beliefs, confusingly they used A’s statement that he disagreed with the Muslim Brotherhood as evidence that he knew about a connection between his local mosque and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Another Palestinian, who also wanted to remain anonymous, was asked about their opinions on the Middle East conflict in a citizenship application: “Due to the fact that the Palestinian and Israeli peoples do not [have] a peaceful co-existence, with regard to Israel’s special relationship with Germany, I would like to ask you where you stand on this. Please give a short written statement.”
They are still waiting for the decision.
Criminologist Christine Graebsch, a law professor at the University of Applied Sciences Dortmund, sees the accusations against the brothers as legally unconvincing.
She told Al Jazeera that “distant connections to Palestinian organisations are mentioned as alleged proof of clandestine support for Hamas … but these connections are not proven, only stated”, while “wordings or symbols in Facebook posts that represent a rather general Palestinian view” are “framed as radical within the German context”.
“From my experience, courts will later override these unfounded allegations of the security and migration agencies,” Graebsch said.
However, she added, “this takes years of thorough legal work and obtaining expert witness independent of the security authorities’ aspersions” and can cause the brothers major difficulties such as deportation, prohibitions to work and strict infringements on civil liberties.
As a lawyer, she has handled similar cases herself and sees a “system” in place where different migration authorities use similar arguments to make migration and integration more difficult for Palestinians.
“It’s very unusual what’s happening. I find it interesting that they were asked to give their recognition to the state of Israel, not just ‘pro-Palestinian views’ – this has nothing to do with dangerousness and also goes far beyond the expectation to accept the German constitution – which is what the law is about,” Graebsch said.
The European Legal Support Center, an advocacy group for the Palestinian cause in Europe, said: “We see here how deportation decisions are manifested on entirely racist and absurd premises. In our preliminary assessment, these cases present further proof of how law is abused and circumvented, as needed, to enact this anti-Palestinian repression by state authorities.”
They point out that these two cases are just the tip of the iceberg.
“As legal experts providing legal support to advocates for Palestine in Europe, we have dealt with dozens of cases of unfounded accusations and restrictions of individuals’ fundamental rights, only on the account of being Palestinian or supporting their struggle for justice,” the group said.
Palestinian activist and filmmaker Rashad Alhindi argued that the German state was seeking to ban pro-Palestinian activism from the public sphere, pointing to bans on demonstrations in Berlin.
“Just being Palestinian appears to be a problem in Germany for particular authorities.”
A representative of the Hessian government said: “We do not make any political statements or assessments to press organs.”