US Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Reuters/Jacquelyn Martin)
Recently I became one of the many Arab-Americans denied entry to, deported and banned from Israel. My experience is part of a disturbing trend that, at the very least, should figure into the public debate about our country’s “special relationship” with Israel. Instead, the US Congress is considering a bill that would reward Israel for its discriminatory practices—not just against Palestinians but against US citizens.
My story began with an invitation from the Media in Conflicts Seminar, an Israel-sponsored conference on conflict reporting for young journalists. Instead of being welcomed to Israel and sent on my way, I was detained and interrogated for four hours and then informed that I was being deported and banned for ten years. I was denied the right to call my mother—much less the American Embassy—before being escorted by a Shin Bet officer to my plane. My luggage had been broken while it was being ransacked and covered in tags that said “Security.”
My “crime” was not cooperating with my interrogator, who demanded that I divulge information on all of my contacts in the West Bank. I refused, knowing that it is a Shin Bet ploy to tap Palestinian phone numbers.
Would I have been pulled aside for questioning in the first place if I were not Arab-American? Everyone I have spoken to—including human rights lawyers and researchers—finds my deportation story outrageous. But what is more outrageous is that Congress is considering codifying into law this very kind of Israeli discrimination against American citizens.
In March, Senators Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) introduced the US-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2013. In addition to creating a special class of US ally reserved for Israel, the bill proposes adding Israel to the US visa waiver program—allowing Israeli citizens to visit the United States for up to three months without needing to obtain a visa in advance. While this deal is normally reciprocated, Israel’s agreement would include a special caveat that allows it to retain the right to deny entry to anyone who threatens Israel’s national security.
In other words, Israel would retain—with the explicit approval of the US government—its policy of systematically discriminating against Palestinian, Arab and Muslim Americans.
If the overwhelmingly Arab demographic of the interrogations waiting room or the fact that even Palestinian citizens of Israel are taken aside for questioning at the border isn’t proof enough of Israel’s discriminatory border policies, even the US consulate has a travel advisory specifically for Arab and Muslim-American travelers. Its website reads: “U.S. citizens whom Israeli authorities suspect of being Arab, Middle Eastern, or Muslim origin…may face additional, often time-consuming, and probing questioning by immigration and border authorities, or may be denied entry.”
This explicit warning from the State Department proves that Israel openly discriminates against Arabs, Muslims and, crucially, Palestinian-Americans. These systematic denials deprive applicants of Palestinian descent from visiting their families in territories illegally occupied by Israel. Israel is not simply deciding who can visit its country. It is also deciding who has the right to enter—and for how long—territories that do not belong to it.
The Palestinian diaspora consists of more than 5.8 million people—far more than the number of Palestinians living in the occupied territories themselves. For them, access to Palestine means seeing old friends and close relatives, many of whom—due to either age or travel restrictions imposed by the Israeli occupation—face great difficulties traveling outside the West Bank (traveling outside the Gaza Strip is nearly impossible). Being denied entry at the border—or banned as I was—would mean never seeing their family members—or homeland—again.
Unfortunately, the only way to get to the West Bank and East Jerusalem is through Israel. Whether one is landing at Ben Gurion Airport or crossing via a land border with Jordan or Egypt, it is the Israeli border authorities who decide whether or not you can enter the West Bank.
For many, the effects of these policies are already a harsh reality. Since the end of 2000, Israel has frozen all so-called “family reunification” requests. An additional 17.2 percent of Palestinians in the occupied territories have a first-degree relative—a parent or sibling—who has not been able to register in the population registry, thus forcing them to reside illegally. If they are caught without documentation at a checkpoint, or randomly searched by the police, they could be deported immediately and banned from ever seeing their families again.
The most recent news on the US-Israel special relationship is that the National Security Agency is sharing private information on US citizens with the Israeli government. But I and countless other Arab-Americans did not need a top-secret leak from Edward Snowden to tell us about this—we have lived it.
If Congress passes the US-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2013, it would add to a legacy of exceptionalism that affords Israelis full privileges in the United States while subjecting Palestinians and other Arab-Americans to surveillance and racial discrimination that estranges many from their families and homelands while normalizing an illegal occupation that rests on racial discrimination and apartheid.
Roane Carey debates Israel’s brutal system of control in the occupied territories.