Ramah Kudaimi expected to be questioned when trying to cross the Israeli-Jordanian border this July. She wears the hijab and her parents were born in Syria – factors bound to attract the attention of Israeli border authorities.
Kudaimi hoped to cross into the occupied West Bank to join an interfaith delegation of people of colour and indigenous people who wanted to witness life on the ground in Palestine.
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Instead, Kudaimi said she was interrogated for two hours by Israeli border guards in an office on the Israeli side of the Allenby Bridge, which connects the West Bank to Jordan. She told Al Jazeera that she was accused of being a liar, of being a terrorist, and of wanting to bomb Israel.
Israeli guards searched the web for information on Kudaimi and found out that she worked for the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. According to Kudaimi, one interrogator wanted details about who the organisation worked with in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Eventually, border officials said that she was being denied entry to Israel, which controls all crossing points into the occupied territories. Four other delegation members – those who had Muslim names or were perceived to be Muslim – were also denied entry and deported from Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Kudaimi said.
“The Muslims were targeted,” claimed Kudaimi. “Israel wants to make it more difficult for people to come and witness what’s happening and connect with people.”
Kudaimi said she fell victim to Israel’s crackdown on foreigners who support Palestinian rights and the BDS – boycott, divestment and sanctions – movement, which calls for boycotts of Israeli products, divestment from firms that do business with Israel, and government sanctions on the country because of Israeli human rights abuses.
Hundreds of Americans have been denied entry by Israel, according to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, though not all of them are activists. The Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor told Al Jazeera that Israeli deportations of aid workers trying to reach the occupied territories have increased this year.
In 2015, only 1 percent of 384 “incidents” – encounters with Israeli or Palestinian authorities that include searches, delays or deportations – resulted in humanitarian workers being deported by Israel, according to the group’s analysis of data compiled by the access coordination unit of the UN’s Office of the Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator.
But in 2016, more than 9 percent of “incidents” – including only humanitarian aid workers and not activists – resulted in deportations by Israel.
because it’s so unlikely that these decisions will be challenged.”]
In recent months, Israel has stepped up measures to prevent activists entering Israel and the occupied territories. On August 7, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan announced the formation of a committee to prevent BDS activists from entering the country, and to deport those already in Israel/Palestine.
In a Facebook post that day, Erdan also called on Israelis who have information on boycott activists in the country to “tell us about it” so they can deport them.
In a statement, Erdan said the formation of the committee against BDS advocates was “a necessary step, given the evil intentions of the delegitimisation activists working to spread lies and distortions about the reality in our region”.
Israeli officials have called the Palestinian-led movement “anti-Semitic”. At a Jewish National Fund conference in New York this month, Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked called the BDS movement “the new face of terrorism”.
The Israeli government did not respond to repeated inquiries from Al Jazeera about the committee and the plan to deport BDS activists.
Campaigners for BDS criticised the August announcement of the plan to deport and deny entry to BDS activists.
“Deporting BDS activists in order to silence them and undermine their principled support for Palestinian human rights is not only anti-democratic; it is yet another incident of Israel shooting itself in the foot,” Abdulrahman Abunahel, a spokesman for the Palestinian BDS National Committee, said in a statement.
“If anything, we expect such acts of heightened repression to boost support for boycotting Israel back in these activists’ home countries.”
In addition to foreign activists, Israeli officials have targeted Omar Barghouti, one of the founders of the BDS movement. In April, the Israeli government refused to renew Barghouti’s travel document so he could leave the country on the grounds that Barghouti’s “centre of life” was not in Israel – a charge Barghouti disputes. Barghouti is a permanent resident of Israel, so he needs official permission to travel.
Deri, the interior minister, has previously said that he was thinking about revoking Barghouti’s resident status. In July, the Israeli government temporarily lifted the effective travel ban for two months. But the suspension expired in September, placing Barghouti under a travel ban again.
“We cannot predict what may happen next. In the meanwhile, the official Israeli vitriol against BDS activists has reached a new low, and an atmosphere of sheer intimidation and McCarthyite repression prevails,” Barghouti told Al Jazeera.
The Israeli government’s anti-BDS task force may lead to an increase in denials of entry and deportations of BDS activists. Israel has used such tactics in the past against activists, foreigners with a Palestinian background, or those who have a connection to Palestine or the Arab world. In 2011 and 2012, for instance, pro-Palestinian activists flew into Israel as part of a “flytilla” campaign meant to bring people to the West Bank. Hundreds were denied entry to the country.
Last July, Nerdeen Kiswani, a Palestinian-American activist from New York, was denied entry at the Israeli-Jordanian border. She told Al Jazeera that she was held at the border for 16 hours, interrogated about her activism – she was the president of a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter. She was called a liar by Israeli border officials when she told them, in response to a question, that Jews were part of SJP. (Jewish students across the US are members of SJP chapters).
Kiswani said she was singled out because she is visibly Arab and wears a hijab – a charge of racial profiling that has been echoed by the US State Department.
“I feel on par with all the Palestinian refugees living in camps that can never go back to Palestine,” said Kiswani. “I feel like I’ve just been sent back to the position I was supposed to be in anyway, that I was able to evade because of my American citizenship. It granted me access to my homeland. So now I get that taken away.”
Emily Schaeffer Omer-Man, senior counsel at the Michael Sfard Law Office in Tel Aviv, has represented many foreigners who challenge their denials of entry in legal hearings. She said that Israel has “virtual carte blanche [to deny people entry] because it’s so unlikely that these decisions will be challenged”, often because they lack money to hire a lawyer.
“Every country has the right to deny visitors who it believes would pose harm to their citizens, to the security and safety of their country,” she said. “But a person’s political views alone are not an indicator of a threat to safety and security.”
Schaeffer Omer-Man added that the Israeli government’s anti-BDS task force is part of a “whole series of anti-democratic measures that are either trying to be passed or have been passed” – including the 2011 law that authorises lawsuits against those who call for boycotts of Israel or West Bank settlements.
“All of these are efforts to keep dissent down,” she said, “both from within and from without.”