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My Detention by Israel's Shin Bet at the Airport Is Only Surprising Because I'm Jewish

The current wave of detentions and bullying is worrisome, but for Palestinian citizens of Israel it's routine

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Rubenstein, who was detained at the airport in Tel Aviv after attending a conference in Sweden.
Tanya Rubenstein, who was detained at the airport in Tel Aviv after attending a conference in Sweden. Credit: Meged Gozani

When Israel's Shin Bet security service ordered my detention at Ben Gurion International Airport on my way back from a conference in Sweden, it obviously had no concern that I posed a security risk. I am sure the Shin Bet has its ways of knowing that I’m a law-abiding and peace-seeking citizen who would never hurt a fly.

They also know how to put me on a blacklist, since I am in contact with Palestinian women peace activists and am engaged in trying to expose human rights violations. They worry about transparent public activity and the exposure of truths which there are daily attempts to hide. They also worry about uncompromising political positions such as those that I hold, that they present as a threat.

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The current wave of Shin Bet bullying against activists and journalists should indeed be worrisome, but not for the reasons that concern the Israeli mainstream. What is of concern is not the fact that Jews are being detained and questioned, whether they are Israelis or American citizens. These are people who are supposed to enjoy extra privileges in this country. What is worrying is that the latest moves are part of a larger trend.

It's routine for Palestinian citizens of Israel to encounter humiliating treatment by the authorities, including the security agencies, and it's apparent at the airport. On a daily basis, Palestinian citizens of this country, whether activists or not, whether they are going abroad to engage in political activity or to go on vacation, undergo harsh and humiliating security screening that is arbitrary and threatening. It has been going on for years. Palestinians who live abroad who wish to visit their families in Israel, or the country that their families originally came from, also undergo strict and invasive screening and are frequently denied entry.

Lately, the authorities have devised stricter rules and have passed laws preventing foreign activists from coming here altogether. The Ministry of Strategic Affairs, the Prime Minister’s Office and security agencies are acting in concert, complemented by an ongoing, extensive and well-funded public campaign, to prevent the entry of activists from abroad, to sully the reputation of human rights organizations and limit activists' range of action.

The oft-heard claim that the state has a right to prevent the entry of those acting against it resonates throughout the Israeli media unchallenged. Has any journalist ever wondered if these foreign activists or Palestinians have any other way of reaching the occupied territories other than through a border crossing controlled by Israel? Of course not.

There is no real concern that the activists could carry out a violent act while in Israel. The worry is that they will reach the territories, where they can see the human rights violations with their own eyes and can make personal connections with Palestinian activists and support their struggle.

This policy is obviously not a security issue. It’s a matter of muzzling, intimidating and dividing the various forces that are working for human rights, justice and peace.

Recently we’ve seen another aspect of the government’s communications machinery — an effort to tarnish the reputation of activists who demonstrated in Tel Aviv a week ago holding Palestinian flags. It's part of that same attempt to curb civic activity and to demonize the fight to end the occupation and against racism and discrimination. Israeli media and many on the left have been cooperating for years with such steps, delineating the limits of their legitimacy based on a script provided by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan and Culture Minister Miri Regev. To achieve legitimacy in Israel’s mainstream, they congregate within the bounds of discourse dictated by the right, boundaries within which there will never be room for justice, equality or liberty for the Palestinian people.

In the public discourse around the rally a week ago in Tel Aviv protesting the nation-state law, the media and the public surrendered to the spin about the flags instead of talking about the substance of the law, the substance of the discrimination and injustice contained in the law and in Israel’s anti-democratic policies. And in talking about the Shin Bet policy, everyone was swept up into talking about Jews and about prominent people who have been detained and questioned. All the media outlets to which I have granted interviews over the past few days (which includes nearly every media outlet in the country) deleted my statement about Palestinians undergoing such screenings, and worse, on a daily basis.

Instead of presenting the bigger picture involving the curbing of civic space and the persecution of activists and human rights groups, there is just one message: How is it possible that Jews have been detained on entering a country where they are guaranteed special privileges. That's instead of raising the necessary question as to who is still denied freedom of movement on this piece of land, not only for an hour or two, but for years, living under siege and with strict limitations on their freedom of movement. And that's in addition to being deprived of almost every other basic freedom.

Tanya Rubinstein is general coordinator of the Coalition of Women for Peace.

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