'Ignored Israeli Actions for Palestinians': Court Hears Appeal of 'First BDS Supporter' Denied Entry

A Jerusalem court heard the case on theologian Dr. Isabel Phiri who was the first non-citizen denied entry into the country in 2016 over alleged support of the boycott movement

Isabel Phiri of the World Council of Churches, September 2016.
Albin Hillert, WCC

A Jerusalem court heard an appeal on Thursday by Dr. Isabel Phiri, a senior member of the World Council of Churches, against her denial of entry to Israel in 2016. The judges have not yet given a decision on the case. 

Phiri was the first non-citizen denied entry for alleged support for BDS.

State documents obtained by Haaretz show there had been an attempt to retroactively enforce an amendment not on the books at the time, and that the accusations against her included criticism of Israeli policy and support for the "Palestinian narrative" - claims without any direct connection to support of BDS.

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The Foreign Ministry had expressed reservations at the time against the measure.

Phiri is a theologian of Malawian nationality who resides in Geneva for her job as assistant general secretary for the WCC, an organization representing some 350 churches of various denominations. She arrived in Israel in December 2016 to participate in an annual Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel. The program brings church members interested in learning about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and volunteering in the territories. Its website says its goal is to gather testimony about life under occupation.

Four other people travelling with Phiri were allowed in. Phiri was questioned by the Shin Bet, which saw no security reasons to bar her entry. Afterward, she was questioned by the Population and Immigration Authority. Cabinet ministers Gilad Erdan and Arye Dery, in consultation with the Interior and Strategic Affairs ministries, ordered to deny her entry for her apparent support for the boycott movement.

They said in their statement to the press, “This is the first time Israel is explicitly denying entrance to a tourist on the backdrop of her activities against Israel and advancement of economic, cultural and academic boycotts.”

But the decision as handed by a border official to Phiri in writing said she was being denied entry for “reasons of preventing illegal immigration.”

The WCC condemned the decision at the time. The secretary general, Norwegian priest Dr.Olav Fykse Tveit, told Haaretz that his organization did not support boycotting or imposing sanctions against Israel.

“The World Council of Churches has no policy of general boycott against Israel,” he said. “We are a brotherhood of 350 churches and they all decide for themselves what to do.” He also rejected Israel’s claim that Phiri herself supported a boycott.

Phiri told Haaretz at the time that she was not asked about boycott activities or her position about them. “In all five stages of questioning by Israeli border officials the BDS issue did not come up,” she said. “Therefore, I was surprised to read that my deportation was linked to BDS.”

She said she had been asked about her family, her academic background, and her work for the WCC.

Erdan’s spokesman said at the time that “a comprehensive check by the ministry showed the World Council of Churches has for years expressed support for boycotting Israel in articles it has published and extreme statements by its activists.”

It now turns out that the opinion prepared by the Strategic Affairs Ministry as a basis for denial of entry included rationale that focused on the ecumenical accompaniment program in the territories. It says several times that activists deploy at friction points in the territories “and document the ‘violations’ committed by security forces.” The document says the “biased documentation creates demonic images of Jews and in particular settlers and soldiers being cruel to Palestinians and harassing them in all sorts of ways.”

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The opinion adds that “after they return to their home countries, many activists devote their time to giving lectures and writing articles against Israel and express support for advocating boycotts against it. These activities create a negative image of Israel in the eyes of communities abroad.”

The ministry’s report further claims that “the publications of the activists present an inaccurate picture of reality and ignores Israel’s actions to improve the welfare of the Palestinian population” and that “program activists in general avoid condemning terrorist actions of the Palestinians against Israeli civilians, and at the same time describe the actions of settlers against the Palestinian population as violent attacks.”

It says they take anti-Israeli positions and “present a one-sided Palestinian narrative.” An example of alleged distortion of the facts, the report says, is the publication of photographs of themselves escorting Palestinian pupils to avoid any harm to them by IDF soldiers or settlers, adding that “the activists take care to photograph settlers and soldiers with guns often aimed at Palestinians, with a focus on children and the elderly.”

The report shows beneath the heading of “The One-sided content of program activists” photographs taken by the activists with captions like “Soldiers aiming their guns at women and children,” “Checkpoints and a choking, prison feeling,” “Activists counting the numbers of people heading through a West Bank checkpoint, and “Destruction of homes and expulsion of Palestinians from their homes.”

The state’s response to the appeal repeats claims made in the report against the organization’s activities in the territories without any direct connection made to support of a boycott.

The document also shows that the Foreign Ministry had reservations about the policy. “It bears mentioning that the Foreign Ministry believes that as long as Israel continues to deny entry to Dr. Phiri, this position will continue to cause political and religious criticism and will resonate in the media,” the document states.

The appeal filed on Phiri’s behalf by attorneys Michael Sfard, Emily Schaeffer Omer-Mann and Sophia Brodsky, said the state has tried to impose an amendment that had not yet existed. In a letter of response the state referred to an amendment that denies entry to those who support boycotting Israel but the amendment spearheaded by MK Roy Folkman (Kulanu) became law in March 2017, while Phiri was denied entry four-and-a-half months earlier.

The Strategic Affairs Ministry commented: “Isabel Phiri was denied entry to Israel in 2016 because of her senior position in an organization that supports boycotts against Israel and also seeks to blacken the names of Israel and IDF soldiers. She tried to enter Israel by concealing the aim of her visit and there is evidence that she briefed activists of her organization to lie to border officers in order to avoid risking their entry to Israel.”