The rise in detentions of left-wing activists entering Israel, coupled with recent legislation passed that targets left-leaning political groups, could have violent repercussions down the road, legal and political experts said.
Israel’s internal security agency, the Shin Bet, has questioned a number of left-wing activists entering Israel in recent weeks. This follows the passage of an Israeli law last year that bars entry to supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. At the time, Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry blacklisted 20 organizations, including several from Europe and the United States.
Last month, Israel’s parliament passed a law known as the “Breaking the Silence law
” which forbids left-wing organizations deemed to undermine the state or the army from entering school grounds and meeting with students.
Roy Yellin, Director of Public Outreach at B’Tselem, a left-wing group based in Jerusalem that documents alleged human rights violations in the West Bank, believes the detentions are part of a trend in Israel “towards becoming illiberal.” He noted that questioning Israeli citizens over their politics “is dangerous and has a chilling effect on democracy.
“It’s a matter of freedom of expression,” Yellin elaborated to The Media Line. “People should not be barred from entering the country based on their political activity. It’s unacceptable, regardless of whether they support the BDS movement or not.”
Irit Kohn, former head of the International Department at Israel’s Justice Ministry, has a more nuanced view of the matter, stressing that while freedom of speech is enshrined under Israeli law, various forms of incitement are not protected.
“Freedom of speech is allowed as long as you don’t incite people to do things that are against the law,” she explained to The Media Line. “We don’t know on what basis these people were stopped. In Israel, you can say whatever you want and no one is arrested.”
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Kohn qualified that “the line between freedom of speech and incitement is very difficult to draw.”
Ami Ayalon, the former head of the Shin Bet, agrees with Kohn’s assessment that balancing security needs with upholding democratic values can be difficult.
“The Shin Bet has gotten itself into a bind,” he told The Media Line, “as on the one hand it has to ensure the safety of Israeli citizens, while on the other hand it must, according to the law, protect Israeli democracy. The question, then, is at what point does keeping Israeli citizens safe infringe on the country’s democratic nature?”
The issue of activists being detained first came to light last year, when the vice-president of the left-wing New Israel Fund (NIF) was stopped at Ben Gurion Airport for questioning. Israeli officials apologized after the incident caused an uproar.
Over the past two months, though, a half-dozen activists have been detained while trying to enter the country. Most recently, two pro-Palestinian Jewish-American women were interrogated by Israeli agents at the Israel-Egypt border.
Simone Zimmerman, a founding member of the anti-occupation group IfNotNow and a former adviser to U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (the former presidential candidate fired Zimmerman when reports surfaced detailing her harsh criticism of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu); and Abigail Kirschbaum were held for several hours by border control officials at the behest of the Shin Bet.
Some of those detained reported being asked about their political leanings, their views on the Israeli premier, and their support for the Palestinian cause.
In a statement to The Media Line, the Shin Bet rebuffed accusations of political bias as “baseless” and claimed to operate “solely in accordance with its designated purpose under the law.
“The Shin Bet is charged with protecting national security, the democratic system and its institutions from terror threats, sabotage, subversion and espionage,” the agency wrote. “In this framework, we conduct investigations based on intelligence information which indicates a suspicion that an offense has occurred or is about to occur.”
The agency noted it only investigates individuals on the basis of ideology when there is a risk of violence to either Israelis or Palestinians.
“These investigations do not seek to undermine legitimate protest activities, but rather to prevent illegal acts which sometimes transpire as a result of these same protests,” it said.
Others that have worked in Israeli intelligence concur that the matter is being blown out of proportion.
“I don’t believe the government will take dramatic action [against left-wing activists],” Dr. Martin Sherman, Founder and CEO of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies, told The Media Line. “The government has not only a right but a duty to regulate who enters the country and to prevent provocateurs from coming and disrupting law and order.”
Dr. Sherman said those detained may have been involved in activities related to incitement, or security officials gathered enough intelligence to assess a reasonable threat.
“One thing’s for sure, organizations like Breaking the Silence are not really human rights organizations,” he argued. “They are political organizations that use human rights to advance their political agenda."
In this regards, both Ayalon and Kohn suggested that left-wing activists were detained in recent months based on information that has not been made public.
Ayalon nevertheless warned that recent legislation aimed at delegitimizing left-wing groups could end up fomenting extremism.
“I learned a lot about extremist groups and how such ideology develops,” he concluded. “Most of the time, they spring up the moment a democratic state denies them the stage to express their political struggle via parliamentary or public arenas. That energy has to go somewhere.”
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