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Israel Increases Interrogations Of Country's Critics At Border And Ben Gurion Airport


Israel has recently interrogated several critics of its government as they've arrived at the airport and border. The questioning of a liberal American journalist prompted a walk back from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And there have been others - some denied entry. Israel passed a law last year that has authorities keeping a special watch on some pro-Palestinian activists, as NPR's Daniel Estrin reports.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Anyone who's traveled to Israel knows that airport and border officials question some visitors extensively. Israel says its screening for people who might pose a threat. Lately, some people say they've been questioned about politics. In April, a pro-Palestinian activist named Emily landed in Tel Aviv and was taken to a room with three officers who started asking questions.

EMILY: And they turned directly to asking me if I support BDS.

ESTRIN: BDS is Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. It refers to various global campaigns to boycott Israeli institutions and businesses. Proponents say it's a nonviolent way to promote justice for Palestinians. But Israel says their goal is to undermine Israel's right to exist. Last year, Israel passed a law banning entry to foreigners who advocate a boycott. Emily says the Israeli officers accused her of working for boycott organizations.

EMILY: They accused me of lying. They told me again that they knew who I was and that I was the mastermind.

ESTRIN: Emily works for a group in the U.S. that runs tours to the West Bank and teaches participants about ways to advocate for Palestinians, including a boycott on Israel. She supports a boycott but doesn't consider herself a leader in the boycott movement. She was banned from Israel for five and a half years, according to a document reviewed by NPR. Before boarding the plane back home, an Israeli officer spoke to her about it.

EMILY: He looked at my paper and told me it was because I hated Israel. I responded that I don't hate Israel. I just believe in peace and human rights, and I don't support the Zionist-Israeli regime.

ESTRIN: Emily asked that we only use her first name because she's concerned that by speaking out others with her group could get banned too. This has long been familiar to Arab and Palestinian Americans, who have faced Israeli interrogations and entry denials for years. Loubna, a Palestinian American, says leaders in her youth group have been denied entry to Israel repeatedly over the last decade.

LOUBNA: At least nine of us have been denied entry. And many more are given very difficult times in interrogation.

ESTRIN: She also wanted us to use only her first name to prevent more colleagues from being banned by Israel. Officials who enforce the new boycott law say they've denied 16 people entry. But advocates say other border agents, like Shin Bet security, have blocked many others. Israeli human rights lawyer Emily Schaeffer Omer-Man represents people detained at the border.

EMILY SCHAEFFER OMER-MAN: It appears to be that the lines are becoming a little bit blurred between what is security and what is political thought and ideology. And so what is very, very new is that we suddenly have the Shin Bet looking into activities that have nothing to do with what we would have conceived of as security in the past.

ESTRIN: In recent weeks, several liberal Israeli and American critics of Israel say they were interrogated about pro-Palestinian activism and their political beliefs. After prominent journalist Peter Beinart was questioned, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it was a mistake. But it rekindled the debate about whether Israel is limiting free speech. Deputy Minister for Public Diplomacy Michael Oren defends the law to ban boycott advocates but worries it's being extended too far.

MICHAEL OREN: Israel has a right to defend itself from those who seek to destroy it. That's a right and an obligation of any sovereign nation - especially a nation like Israel whose right to exist is regularly being assailed by hostile elements in the world. That part of the law should be upheld. But it should not be extended to people who aren't against Israel's existence but oppose parts of Israel's policy.

ESTRIN: He's called for Israel to reexamine its border questioning policies. Israeli justice officials say they're looking into the issue. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Tel Aviv.


Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.