Analysis

Netanyahu May Have Walked Back Peter Beinart’s Airport Detention, but What About the Leftists Who Aren’t on CNN?

The prime minister’s PR move doesn’t explain why the Shin Bet security service has detained a number of ‘far left’ activists in recent months

Benjamin Netnayahu and the head of the Shin Bet security service, Nadav Argaman, 2017.
Kobi Gideon / GPO

In a rare announcement in English, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he asked the Shin Bet security service for clarifications on the questioning of American Jewish journalist Peter Beinart at Ben-Gurion Airport, saying he had been told that it was an “administrative mistake.”

“Israel is an open society which welcomes all – critics and supporters alike,” Netanyahu’s office said.

This is very strange. This mistake seems to keep repeating; Beinart’s questioning is only the latest in a long line of similar incidents reported by Haaretz in recent months. But in no previous case have the authorities admitted to an administrative mistake. Sometimes it’s just the opposite.

To really understand Israel and the Middle East - subscribe to Haaretz

Since May, Ta’ayush activist Danny Kronberg was questioned by a Shin Bet investigator named Geva who introduced himself as “the coordinator for the radical left and delegitimization.” The head of the Coalition of Women for Peace, Tanya Rubinstein, was detained and questioned at Ben-Gurion upon returning home from a conference. Yehudit Ilani was detained when she returned from covering the preparations for a Gaza-bound flotilla. American Jewish attorney Meyer Koplow was questioned at the airport after a Palestinian pamphlet in English was found in his suitcase.

Also, Israeli-American writer Moriel Rothman-Zecher was detained at the border as he returned to visit family with his wife and daughter and was warned that working for leftist groups was a “slippery slope.” And just last week two left-wing activists, Simone Zimmerman and Abby Kirschbaum, were stopped at the Taba crossing; one of the questions they were asked was what they thought about Netanyahu.

Did Netanyahu mean that this time, in Beinart’s case, it was a mistake because he’s a well-known Jewish journalist and a regular commentator on CNN whose detention is more damaging to Israeli public relations? Is this why the unusual statement was made in English? Why did the prime minister not ask the Shin Bet to explain the detaining and questioning of Israeli citizens with leftist views? Is their status beneath that of a famous foreign journalist?

The smell of hypocrisy wafts from the statement, and much remains unknown on this issue because the Shin Bet refuses to respond to some of journalists’ questions on the matter – and the agency isn’t subject to the Freedom of Information Law.

So far, based on the details of the interviews and the recurring patterns, we can point to several types of political persecution of left-wing activists in Israel on pseudo-security grounds:

* Blocking the entry of foreign citizens by the Interior Ministry after the Strategic Affairs Ministry, headed by Gilad Erdan, marks them as supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. These denials of entry are under the auspices of the law, and are generally the subject of announcements by the ministries, which sometimes vie for the credit.

These shouldn’t be confused with the detaining and questioning described here. According to the Strategic Affairs Ministry, information on people’s support for BDS comes from open online sources.

* The “profiling” of foreign tourists on the border and their transfer to the Shin Bet, which will check whether they’ve come to protest the occupation. Such cases have been documented over the years, especially since the Mavi Marmara flotilla in 2010 and the Rachel Corrie affair in 2003, but the phenomenon seems to have increased recently.

* Delaying or summoning Israeli left-wing activists for questioning by the Shin Bet when they return to Israel from abroad or even while in Israel for a “clarification” conversation and a “warning.” It appears that this activity is being handled by those responsible for the left wing in the Shin Bet’s Jewish section.

Over the years, Haaretz has reported on incidents in which the Shin Bet would monitor activists from the “far left” and delay their boarding a flight, claiming that Palestinians might use them to smuggle a bomb onto the plane. Left-wing activists have also been summoned by the Jewish section. The recent questioning, however, could not be related to flight security; after all, the activists had already gotten off the plane and were only seeking to return home.

The only hint of a possible change in Shin Bet policy – if there has been one in the absence of clear responses from it – is the declaration by Geva to Kronberg that he's the agency’s “coordinator for the radical left and delegimization.” (This is probably the same investigator who told Rothman-Zecher that his name was “Gever”; perhaps the name sounded similar.)

The question is: Has the Shin Bet, like Military Intelligence a few years ago, broadened its authority to fight what the government calls delegitimization groups, organizations whose activities are perceived as “not accepting the State of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people,” among them BDS groups? The definition of this area is broad. It sometimes includes Israeli left-wing groups that criticize government policy.

If the Shin Bet has started to monitor activists in these organizations who haven’t broken any law, it’s a significant escalation in the prime minister’s battle against leftist groups, not an “administrative mistake.”

Think you know all about Israel's questioning of left-wing activists? Put your knowledge to the test with this Haaretz quiz: