The Attorney General’s Office has begun looking into several cases over the last few months in which Israelis and foreigners were detained and questioned upon their arrival in Israel due to their involvement in left-wing organizations.
In response to a complaint by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber said she has requested explanations from the Shin Bet security service, which decides which activists to question and often carries out the questioning itself.
Zilber sent her letter two weeks ago, but since then, there have been several other high-profile incidents. Most notably, American Jewish journalist Peter Beinart was questioned for an hour upon his arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport on Monday; inter alia, he was asked about his political positions and his ties with left-wing organizations in Israel. The Shin Bet later said this was an “error in judgment” on the part of the Shin Bet officer on the scene, and that the agency has launched an investigation.
Now, the Shin Bet will also have to provide answers to Zilber, who plans to convene a meeting on the subject next month.
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The practice isn’t confined to visitors from overseas; the Shin Bet has also questioned Israelis upon their return home. In May, Israeli Tanya Rubinstein was detained and questioned upon her return from a conference in Sweden. In June, Israeli Yehudit Ilani was questioned upon her return from covering preparations for a flotilla to the Gaza Strip on behalf of Israel Social TV. And in July, Israeli Moriel Rothman-Zecher was detained and questioned about his ties with the left-wing organization Breaking the Silence.
Several American Jews have undergone similar questioning. Last month, Meyer Koplow, who has donated millions of dollars to Israeli schools and hospitals, was questioned at the airport on his way home from Israel because a Palestinian leaflet was found in his suitcase. And last week, two left-wing American Jewish activists, Simone Zimmerman and Abby Kirschbaum, were questioned when they entered Israel through the Taba border crossing from Egypt. Zimmerman and Kirschbaum said that inter alia, they were asked what they thought of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Last week, ACRI sent a second complaint to both Zilber and the Population, Immigration and Border Authority’s legal advisor, asking them to make it clear to border control inspectors that they have no authority whatsoever to detain Israeli citizens at the Shin Bet’s request, and that the only legal reason for detaining foreigners is to examine whether they have the legal right to enter the country.
On Tuesday, MK Nachman Shai (Zionist Union) asked the state comptroller to launch an urgent inquiry into the “blacklist of people denied entry” to Israel. He cited the Beinart case in particular, but noted that Beinart is just the latest in a long list of people similarly subjected to “a lengthy and humiliating interrogation” upon entering Israel.
“Israel, which boasts of its democracy and its freedom of expression, cannot impose such restrictions on visitors,” Shai wrote. “The war on terror and on delegitimization is one thing, but gagging people is something else entirely. This causes great damage to Israel’s international standing and its democratic values, as they are perceived overseas."
“I have no idea how the list is put together and who appears on it,” he continued. “But it’s reminiscent of totalitarian regimes."
He therefore urged the comptroller to examine every name on the list, how the list was put together, who approved it and who decided on the procedure for airport interrogations.
In ACRI’s original complaint to the Attorney General’s Office, the group’s legal advisor, Dan Yakir, said the incidents arouse suspicions that the Shin Bet is abusing the border control process to delve into issues that have nothing to do with necessary security precautions. He asked that these incidents be investigated, and that the attorney general ensure the Shin Bet’s compliance with the rules dictated by the High Court of Justice.
Those rules were set in response to a petition ACRI filed in 2013 against the Shin Bet’s practice of summoning social and political activists for “warning talks.” About a year and a half ago, the court issued its ruling, in which it said the Shin Bet did have the authority to conduct such talks, but only if it told the person being summoned in advance that he is not under investigation and therefore has no obligation to show up.
Noa Landau contributed to this story
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