Israel expels international witnesses

TEL AVIV – A group of 48 French citizens who had traveled to Israel was stopped at the Tel Aviv airport and denied entry on Aug. 20 when the Israeli government declared them personae non grata. The group had come to Israel at the invitation of the Hadash Front, an Israeli peace group, led by Issam Mahoul, a member of the Knesset. Among its members were young people of different backgrounds, including several of Jewish heritage.

Fernand Tawil, a spokesman for the delegation, told the press the group’s aim had been 'to visit Israel and the occupied territories, to meet Israeli and Palestinian youths to consider in common ways to mutual understanding and peace, to end bloodshed.' Tawil charged that the Israelis 'do not want eyewitnesses from abroad to see their inhumane, atrocious oppressive measures against the Palestinian population in the occupied territories.'

The order denying entry had been issued by Eli Yishai, Israel’s Minister of Interior. Yishai maintained that the group was pro-Palestinian and had arrived in order to interfere with Israeli security forces fulfilling their tasks in 'Judea, Samaria and Gaza' – official Israeli terminology for the occupied territories.

The matter was taken to the Jerusalem District Court, which issued an order preventing the group’s deportation. Moreover, they ruled that the Yishai order was illegal and that the group could enter Israel with the sole restriction that, for entry into the occupied territories on the West Bank, they had to get approval from Israeli army headquarters.

The Interior Ministry filed an appeal to the Supreme Court. On Aug. 25, the court overruled the lower court and upheld the ministry’s right to bar entry into Israel. However, the ruling did not include deportation, thus allowing the Jewish members of the delegation to remain in Israel until such time as the Interior Ministry orders them to leave. (The other 37 members intended to return home at the end of their week’s visit.)

In commenting on the case, Ha’aretz, a Tel Aviv daily newspaper, reported that since the start of the 'Defensive Shield' military operation against the Palestinians that began in April 2002, about 300 foreign peace activists, among them from the U.S., Canadian, British, French, German and Italian nationals, had been denied entry into Israel and 150 had been deported.

In another, not isolated incident, the occupation army in the besieged West Bank town Nablus detained Canadian peace activist Fiona Baker, Erica Weitzman from New York and Suha Arraf, a Palestinian-Israeli citizen and an accredited member of the press. The three were staying with a family in Nablus whose house had been taken over by the Israeli army and a fortified post set up on the roof.

The three women had been taken to the police station in the Jewish settlement of Ariel. After long hours of interrogations and harassment, Suha was released to leave for Jerusalem. Fiona and Erica were taken by a police escort to Tel Aviv, pending expulsion from Israel. Under threat of long prison terms, they are forbidden to again enter the occupied territories.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org