The Shin Bet security service’s detention and questioning of journalist Peter Beinart about his political views and activities may have been called an “error in judgment,” but it comes on the heels of several similar incidents. Last week, activist Simone Zimmerman was held by the Shin Bet at the Israeli-Egyptian border and was asked what she thought of the prime minister and about her participation in protests in the West Bank.
In late July, author Moriel Rothman-Zecher, an Israeli citizen living abroad, was detained at Ben-Gurion Airport by the Shin Bet and was asked about his involvement in left-wing groups, only a few weeks after a pro-BDS Jewish activist was barred from entering altogether.
The practice of border-control agents detaining foreigners to confirm that they don’t pose a danger to the country, and sometimes deporting them without an explanation isn’t new. What is new, and has raised concerns, is what appears to be an expansion of that definition, with the Shin Bet using the country’s borders to compel both Israelis and foreigners to take part in so-called cautionary conversations that are part interrogation, part warning – without clarifying that these discussions aren’t required.
Dan Yakir, chief counsel for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, says it’s crucial for both Israelis and foreigners who are detained to understand what they have to do and what they may refuse.
What do you do if you are an Israeli or dual citizen?
Every Israeli citizen has the right to enter the country, Yakir says. Border-control inspectors have no authority to detain Israelis at the border and prevent their entrance.
He stresses that the authorities have no right to withhold the passports of citizens returning to Israel as a way to pressure them to agree to a “cautionary conversation” with the Shin Bet.
“Such an action is invalid and illegal,” Yakir says. “If law enforcement wants to investigate an Israeli citizen who is suspected of an offense, they are entitled to do that – but they are not entitled to delay the citizen’s entrance into the country in order to do so.”
As Yakir explains, the High Court ruled in 2017 that before the Shin Bet can sit an Israeli citizen down for a “cautionary conversation,” that person must be served with a summons that specifies that their cooperation is voluntary. Thus an ambush at the airport designed to extract information and warn people not to cause trouble is completely out of bounds.
“This means, if you are an Israeli citizen who is asked to wait at a border-control clerk’s desk, delaying your entry with no explanation given, your detention is illegal,” Yakir says. “An Israeli in such a situation should call a lawyer and ask for their intervention.”
In the case of Rothman-Zecher, who holds Israeli citizenship, before being asked about his involvement in anti-occupation organizations, he should have been told he was under no obligation to answer such questions, Yakir says. And because he wasn’t served a summons ahead of time informing him that he would be questioned, the entire encounter violated the dictates of the High Court.
The authorities may have said that the conversation was a “general warning” and that Rothman-Zecher wasn’t suspected of a crime, but “I’m sure nobody bothered to tell him he was not compelled to participate in the conversation,” Yakir says.
What do you do if you’re detained and you’re not a citizen?
The rules are different for foreign citizens and for Israelis, Yakir adds. Foreign nationals, too, should know that there are limits to what they might have to do when they enter the country, or to whom they might have to speak with.
Under the law, Yakir notes, “Border control agents may delay a foreign citizen if there is a reason to suspect that they are not entitled to enter Israel, if they are a threat to security, or if they are a supporter of BDS” – the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. This is what happened to Ariel Gold, a Jewish American known for her work on boycotts against Israel as part of Code Pink, a far-left peace and social justice group.
The so-called BDS amendment to the Entry Into Israel Law, passed in 2017, bans any non-citizen “who knowingly issues a public call for boycotting Israel that, given the content of the call and the circumstances in which it was issued, has a reasonable possibility of leading to the imposition of a boycott – if the issuer was aware of this possibility.”
The law applies not only to boycotts of Israel, but also to boycotts of any Israeli institution or “any area under its control.”
If taken aside and detained upon entrance, foreign citizens should ask the official to say why and specify which authority is responsible, Yakir says. If they are taken in for questioning, they should ask which authority is asking the questions.
This is because border-control people, he says, do have the authority to ask non-citizens about their political activities as it relates to BDS, but the Shin Bet does not.
Since the passage of the entry-law amendment, this is within the border authority’s purview because it may help the agents determine whether the travelers’ activities meet the threshold of barring their entry based on the BDS ban.
However, “if the Shin Bet wants to speak with you, you are under no obligation to participate in the conversation,” Yakir says. “If you do not wish to do so, you should call a lawyer to expedite your entrance.”
Foreigners, he says, aren’t required to sit for “cautionary conversations” in order to enter the country.
In Zimmerman’s case, the source of the questioning was unclear. She was interviewed by a border agent receiving instructions by phone from the Shin Bet, muddying the distinction between the two authorities – one which she was obligated to cooperate with and one which she was not.
Beinart did end up calling an attorney – but only after he voluntarily spoke with the Shin Bet, even though his interrogator, by his account, “never offered any legal basis for my detention.” Yakir would have advised Beinart to call a lawyer immediately.
He says it’s unsurprising that Beinart, Zimmerman and others who have been stopped at the border have sat and answered the Shin Bet's questions. Most people who have done nothing wrong instinctually cooperate with the authorities, Yakir says, but they need to know that they’re under no obligation to do so.
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