Geneva - A systematic Israeli campaign designed to prevent activists and NGO workers from working in the Palestinian territories was brought to the attention of the UN Human Rights Council this week by the Geneva-based Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor. The international secretary of Euro-Med, Pam Bailey, is one of the victims of the surging number of deportations, and the NGO called on the council to file a formal complaint against Israel with international bodies.
“We are not individuals who want to live and work in Israel; rather, we seek the right to do so in the Palestinian territories,” notes Bailey. “The Israeli government likes to claim it is not a prison warden. But what else is it if it controls who Palestinians choose to welcome as visitors and consultants?”
An analysis of UN data conducted by the Euro-Med Monitor shows that a recent surge in reports of deportations of individuals attempting to transit through Israel to work with Palestinians is apparently the result of an official strategy implemented by the Israeli government beginning in January of this year.
Reports submitted to the Access Coordination Unit (ACU) of the United Nations Office of the Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator show that in 2015, only 1 percent of the 384 “incidents” encountered by UN and international NGO employees and consultants resulted in deportations. Rather, the vast majority of the problems (76 percent) were delays. The same pattern was observed in the previous three years. However, through September 20 of this year, “mere” delays (which can last hours) dropped to 58 percent of the 232 reported incidents; instead, there was a dramatic increase in forced cancellation of trips (18 percent) and deportations (9-10 percent).
By far the most incidents were reported at Erez, the crossing from Israel into Gaza, indicating that travelers to the blockaded Strip are particularly targeted. About 4 percent of UN employees were denied permits.
Bailey was among them. She traveled to Israel in August with a permit to enter Gaza obtained by a Swedish NGO for which she had planned to implement a women’s project. Yet Bailey was refused entry to the country, was fingerprinted and photographed, held in a detention center for 12 hours and deported home. Just five days before her, another American—a trainer in ‘respectful confrontation’ working for the NGO—also was deported despite having a permit to enter Gaza.
“While the circumstances of their deportations differed in specific details, they had several characteristics in common,” notes Wedded Hussein, a researcher at Euro-Med. “They were professionals entering Israel to work on internationally supported projects in the Palestinian territories, who were seemingly arbitrarily ordered home and treated as criminals in the process. Despite notification and a request for help, the U.S. embassy refused assistance. One must assume, given the statistical trends, that a deliberate policy is at work.”
The numbers collected by the UN ACU do not include activists and independent workers who try to enter the Palestinian territories through Israeli-controlled crossings, for whom anecdotal reports of deportations have trickled in steadily over the past several years but have soared recently. (No one appears to be collecting these numbers, outside of the Israeli government.) One recent example is Adam Hanieh, a senior lecturer in development studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, who was scheduled to give a series of lectures at Birzeit University, a Palestinian institution in the West Bank (September).
Hanieh, Bailey and most of the other deported individuals were verbally informed of 10-year bans on returning to any Israeli-controlled border, and forced to sign a statement acknowledging they will no longer be allowed to obtain a visa at the Israeli border, as most travelers can. Although in the past has been widely known that Israel has discriminating against many travelers of Arab or Muslim heritage, increasingly ethnic and religious characteristics have appeared to play a minimal role; anyone tagged as sympathetic to Palestinians and capable of effective advocacy is at risk.
“When I was detained, one of my guards stated defensively that ‘all countries have a right to decide who enters,’” says Bailey. “But, as I responded, this is different. None of us wanted or intended to stay in Israel. We were forced to cross an Israeli-controlled border only because we wanted to visit the Palestinian territories, which Israel is occupying. I don’t know of any other place in the world where another country is allowed to prevent another from welcoming visitors.”
Bailey recalls a quote in a 2014 issue of the Jerusalem Post, in which the reporter described Israel’s periodic military forays into Gaza as “mowing the grass.” It seems, she says, that the Israeli government now is instituting a similar policy designed to rid itself of dissenters.
For example, it was recently reported in the media that a new joint task force, established by the Israeli interior and public security ministries, is urging Israeli citizens to call a hotline with information about individuals involved in BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) activities, thus allowing them to be deported.
Likewise, local officials for international NGOs such as World Vision and the UN Development Programme have recently been accused with financially supporting the Hamas movement that governs Gaza.
“It is increasingly looking like Israel has launched a systematic campaign to prevent substantive challenges to denial of Palestinian human rights,” notes Hussein. “And to date, the international community is looking the other way. Expressing ‘concern,’ as official spokespersons often do, is not sufficient.”