New Israel Fund accuses gov't of political harassment against activists

They were detained by border control officials for four hours and questioned regarding their work for advocacy organizations for Palestinian rights and regarding their political opinions.

By
August 7, 2018 02:15
egypt nitzana border crossing

An Israeli flag (L) flutters next to an Egyptian one at the Nitzana crossing, along Israel's border with Egypt's Sinai desert. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The New Israel Fund accused the government of political harassment against pro-Palestinian activists after two Jewish-American women who are legal residents in Israel were detained for four hours at the Sinai border on Monday following a vacation there and, according to the activists, asked questions of a political nature about their organizational affiliations.

Simone Zimmerman and Abby Kirschbaum, who both have valid work visas, had been vacationing in the Egyptian resort town of Nuweiba and were seeking to reenter Israel at Taba’s Menachem Begin Crossing, and fly back to Tel Aviv from Eilat.

They were detained by border control officials for four hours and questioned regarding their work for advocacy organizations for Palestinian rights and regarding their political opinions.

Both are involved with organizations that oppose Israel’s control of the West Bank and promote Palestinian rights.

Zimmerman is associated with the IfNotNow anti-occupation group, and says on her Twitter profile that she is with the #JewishResistance.

The Interior Ministry, and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) which sent questions to border control officials for the two women, claimed however that no political questions were asked, and that the two women were detained due to issues with their visas and involvement in protests against Israeli security personnel in the West Bank.

Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Kirschbaum insisted that she had never participated in a violent protest in the West Bank, and that she was asked explicitly political questions such as her opinion of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and why she works with Palestinians instead of helping Jews in the US.

Zimmerman also stated that she has not been involved in violent protests.

The New Israel Fund, which funds the Gisha legal rights group for whom Zimmerman works, said that the detention and questioning of the two women fits into a broader pattern of increasing numbers of such incidents against activists for Palestinian rights at Ben-Gurion Airport and border crossings.

Last month, Meyer Koplow, a philanthropist and donor to Israeli institutions including Jerusalem’s Shaare Tzedek Hospital, was detained at Ben-Gurion Airport and questioned by Shin Bet personnel because, he said, security personnel found a magazine in his baggage called This Week in Palestine.

Koplow had been on a visit to Bethlehem, where he picked up the magazine, as part of a program run by the Encounter educational organization which tries to bring Jewish leaders into contact with Palestinian society.

Later in July, the Shin Bet also detained and questioned Israeli author Moriel Rothman-Zecher for his connection to left-wing anti-Occupation groups.

And in February 2017, New Israel Fund senior official Jennifer Gorovitz, who previously worked as CEO for the San Francisco Jewish Federation, was detained for 90 minutes and questioned about her organizational affiliations and activities.

Kirschbaum told the Post she was explicitly asked her opinion of Netanyahu and why she works with Palestinians instead of US Jews.

She said she was also asked about any protests she has been to and her volunteer work with the All That’s Left collective, a group which says it is “unequivocally opposed to the occupation and committee to building the Diaspora angle of resistance.”

Kirschbaum also stated that her work visa was in order, as did Zimmerman although on a previous entry to Israel had had problems and so obtained a work visa from the Interior Ministry.

Zimmerman said she was not questioned about her visa at all but only about her organizational affiliations, participation in protests, and questions of a political nature.

Kirschbaum said that she understood that some of the questions could have been legitimate security questions, but that the political questions were “saddening” since they were premised on the idea that working for Palestinian rights meant they were against the state.

“I did my undergraduate degree here. I live in central Tel Aviv. It felt very much like they think I’m against them just because I have friendships and relationships with Palestinians,” she said, adding that she had felt at the time concern for Palestinians “for whom this is common place, frequent and much more fearful.”

Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund, said that the incident proved the Israel Security Agency had introduced political tests for entering the country.

“Either you agree with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ultra-right wing coalition or you’re subject to questioning, intimidation or refusal. This may be legal, but it’s morally unacceptable and anti-democratic,” said Sokatch.

“The Israeli government has mobilized every ministry to mark its political enemies, including its own citizens and legal residents, and that’s simply not something a democracy does. Israel now finds itself in very poor company. Only a government with something to hide would work this hard to keep out those with whom it disagrees.”

The Immigration and Population Authority of the Interior Ministry said in response to the incident that border inspectors “suspected the purposes” of Zimmerman’s entry into Israel because of previous issues with her visa.

“Border inspectors also spoke with security officials, who were not present, but who gave instructions to ask questions. No question was asked about the prime minister or any other political question, and despite this in the context of the questions the traveler [Zimmerman] of her own accord made a comment about the prime minister.

After she was questioned we did not find a reason to refuse her entry in Israel,” said the Immigration and Population Authority.

Zimmerman insists that she never spoke about the prime minister, and that the border control officials had indeed asked her about him.

The Israel Security Agency said in response that after the border control officials had begun questioning the two women, “information arose that was referred to the Shin Bet,” and that the Shin Bet had subsequently asked the border officials to ask the women certain questions “with an emphasis on their involvement in violent protests against [Israeli] security personnel in Judea.”

“The Shin Bet did not request to ask the travelers about their opinion on any political officials and did not request clarification of their political positions,” the agency said, adding that it recommended both women be allowed entry after the questioning.

“It should be emphasized that the Shin Bet works strictly in accordance with its goal under the law for the sake of the security of the state, and any attempt to attach other motives to it is an unfounded smear,” the agency added.


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