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When the Israeli Consulate in Munich Decides to Investigate German Researchers

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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Israel's Ben-Gurion International Airport in December.
Israel's Ben-Gurion International Airport in December.Credit: JACK GUEZ / AFP
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

It turns out that what happens at Ben-Gurion Airport doesn’t stay at Ben-Gurion Airport. That’s because sometimes the airport – with its humiliating security checks and culture of profiling and political censorship – shows up at the Israeli consulate in Munich.

Sarah Rueller and Maria Belén Gimenez Ciciolli personally experienced the magic of this geographic fluidity about two weeks ago. They’re two young female researchers from Germany who are appealing Israel’s decision to prevent them from entering Israel and the West Bank for five years. The decision to deny them entry into the country in November came after security staff at Ben-Gurion realized the two planned to engage in subversive activity during their stay: They were going to visit their research colleagues at Birzeit University in Ramallah.

As part of their appeal of the decision, the two visited the Israeli consulate in Munich on January 24 to verify their signatures on declarations in legal proceedings. They scheduled an appointment in advance and were confident it would be a simple bureaucratic procedure – signing and leaving. The staff at the consulate thought different.

According to a letter of complaint sent by lawyers Michael Sfard and Kela Sapir to the Israeli Foreign Ministry regarding the “illegal detention” of the two women, it appears the consular staff had been confused about their role and had fantasies that they were either airport security staff or Shin Bet interrogators. The two women were detained at the consulate for more than three hours, during which they underwent thorough questioning about their legal proceedings against the State of Israel.

They said the interrogator asked them numerous questions about the details of the proceedings and asked for the names of their Palestinian colleagues at Birzeit– as well as the colleagues’ home addresses. One of the two women was also asked to show “proof” that she was actually doing research, and to show her WhatsApp correspondence with one of her Ramallah colleagues.

None of this had any connection to the security requirements for entering the Munich consulate, and it seemed their visit was exploited to extract information about the legal proceedings. Then, as tradition goes, they also underwent a thorough inspection of their personal possessions and bodies. This included a bizarre requirement that they “open” a cellphone charger that doesn’t open- to ensure their Ben-Gurion Airport experience in Munich was as authentic as possible.

After they were finally permitted to sign the documents, for some reason a representative of the consulate also sent photos of their passports to an unknown recipient on WhatsApp. Now they are asking the Israeli Foreign Ministry to hold a disciplinary inquiry. The ministry acknowledged receiving the complaint and said it is being clarified by relevant officials.

Apart from the absurd situation in which consular staff appoint themselves to interrogate foreign nationals seeking bureaucratic services – as would be done at consulates where they hunt down “opponents of the regime,” – Rueller and Gimenez Ciciolli’s story is one of principle regarding the right of foreign nationals to have social and professional contacts with Palestinians without Israel intervening. The right of the two researchers from Germany to meet Palestinian researchers, aside from all the hassling, is the heart of the issue.

But as long as Israel controls the border crossings into the West Bank (occupation? what occupation?), it also takes it upon itself to decide who visits Palestinian university researchers and who doesn’t. As a result, Israel also decides what kind of academic cooperation they can engage in. And no, this case is not related to “security.”

It also has no connection with Ben-Gurion Airport, which is only the tip of the iceberg. It’s based on the view that defending the country’s borders includes political regimentation. 

In the now-defunct Israeli television series “Polishuk,” a failed cabinet minister has to arrest “advocates of human rights, dolphins’ rights and Palestinian rights” who pose as ordinary tourists, come to Israel and then protest the occupation. “You involve our embassies … and demand that they arrest the left-wingers,” an adviser tells him. “This is war!”

“A war over what?” the minister wonders. “Over the fact that people aren’t going to come running around here if they don’t think like we do,” is the answer.

Again, it turns out that this isn’t fiction.

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