Blacklisted: Why I will not allow Israel to defeat me

 

First published by the Middle East Eye on 9/1/2018

We will continue to work using all peaceful means to support the Palestinians until they have attained their rights whatever the price Israel attempts to extract from us

I do not have to imagine the anguish – yet determination – felt by the activists who are likely to be denied entry by Israel following the publication of its blacklist of organisations to be targeted for supporting the Palestinian people. I was denied entry at Tel Aviv airport in April 2017 shortly after the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, voted to ban supporters of boycotts against Israel.

Being denied entry to my homeland by a representative of a state that was built on the dispossession of my people was very difficult to grasp.

Denied entry

I had travelled with my wife and five-year-old son to spend the Easter vacation with family in Jerusalem. They were allowed in but I had to endure a 12-hour wait in a holding room for a flight back to Birmingham.

The British embassy told me they could not help as Israel was a “sovereign country”, but Israel is not sovereign over the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) including East Jerusalem where I was too be based.

Those wishing to visit the OPT can only do so via Israeli-controlled entry points either along the River Jordan or Tel Aviv airport.

I had mixed feelings about my experience – a combination of anger, helplessness and humiliation. But at no point did I regret anything that I had done that may have led to my being denied entry. I did, however, quickly understand more clearly than ever what it feels like to be a Palestinian refugee, to be so close to my homeland and not to be able to step out of the airport to see it, to smell it and to feel it. I always have this incredible feeling of belonging to the place as soon as I see the majestic Al-Aqsa mosque as I drive to the Mount of Olives where my wife’s family have lived for centuries.

On the blacklist

The two weeks I spent back in Birmingham separated from my wife and son could have been extremely difficult under the circumstances. However, I was damned if I was going to sulk or allow Israel to defeat me. Rather than curtail my activism I wrote my story up, was interviewed by the media, wrote more op-eds about Israeli violations and tweeted just as much, if not more.

Being denied entry to one’s homeland by a representative of a state that was built on the dispossession of your people is very difficult to take (AFP)

One of the reasons I was denied entry was I had a high profile in one of the organisations that appear on Israel’s blacklist, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), which has been campaigning for justice for Palestinians for nearly 40 years.

I had spent eight years as vice chair of the organisation but had stepped down from this position at the time of my being denied entry for personal reasons. However, I had done enough to appear on Israel’s radar as a “problem”.

The PSC is non-partisan, working for the right of the Palestinians to self-determination. It responded to the call from Palestinian civil society organisations in 2005 to support a campaign organised by the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel until it ended the occupation, treated all its citizens equally and implemented the right of return for Palestinian refugees. All three demands are legal and moral.

Israel has attempted to present the BDS movement as anti-Semitic but this smear has no basis in reality.

The PSC worked closely with the BDS campaign and other organisations to pressure companies complicit in the occupation to reconsider their involvement, which led to some key successes including changes made by Veolia and G4S.

BDS success

In response to the BDS movement’s growing successes, Israel has dedicated a minister, Gilad Erdan, and a ministry funded to the tune of millions to combat BDS activities but has failed to counter it through argument. It has resorted to legal means to bully those who may be tempted into supporting BDS, especially in the US and in Europe.

In the US, where Israel enjoys blind support, individual states have passed legislation that would punish those companies that may be suspected of refraining from doing business with Israel and to exact a price from individuals who support boycotts.

France has already effectively outlawed boycotts of Israel, using strict laws against “inciting discrimination”, while the UK has attempted to stop local authorities boycotting Israeli companies through their specific ethical procurement guidance.

When the UK tried to apply similar pressure to local authority pension funds they were challenged by the PSC, which defeated the government in this matter. Yousef Munayyer, the director of the Campaign for Palestinian Rights, called the group’s inclusion a “badge of honour”.

In a show of defiance, a number of the organisations on Israel’s blacklist have come out to call their inclusion a badge of honour. They are in agreement that they will not be dissuaded from continuing to fight for justice for the Palestinian people and will even redouble their efforts.

Some have reported new members joining following the publication of the list. My guess is some organisations not included are feeling left out and will do even more in the coming years in support of the Palestinians.

It is personal

However, I, like Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, am hit doubly hard by the ban. First, I for now and Rebecca potentially are unable to visit Israel and the OPT to show our solidarity with Palestinians and Israelis striving for peace.

However, for her as an American Jew married to an Israeli with relatives there and myself as a Palestinian with relatives there, the impact on us is severe. It is personal.

The ban stops us ever seeing elderly members of our families. Certainly in my case my two remaining uncles are likely to die before I am next able to visit my homeland.

Following US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as its capital, Israel has embarked on a set of measures to entrench its occupation, to complete the Judaisation of Jerusalem and to shut down criticism of its criminal policies.

It is even working to introduce the death sentence for Palestinians accused of carrying out operations against it. Those measures hardly indicate a desire by Israel for peace or that the conflict is about to end.

Against this background, Israel can be assured of one thing: individuals such as myself and organisations like the PSC will not be bullied. The peaceful but oppressed Palestinian people need us now more than ever.

We will continue to work using all peaceful means to support them until they have attained their rights whatever price Israel attempts to extract from us.

We are on the right side of history, while the Israeli regime, which continues to delegitimise itself through its actions, will be consigned to the dustbin of history. This is not a threat, but remember apartheid South Africa?

– Kamel Hawwash is a British-Palestinian engineering professor based at the University of Birmingham and a long-standing campaigner for justice, especially for the Palestinian people. He is vice chair of the British Palestinian Policy Council (BPPC) and a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC). He appears regularly in the media as commentator on Middle East issues. He runs a blog at www.kamelhawwash.com and tweets at @kamelhawwashHe writes here in a personal capacity.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A Palestinian boy walks past a mural calling on people to boycott Israeli goods in the al-Azzeh refugee camp near the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem (AFP)

As Britain pledges to celebrate Balfour, Israel denied my Easter homecoming to Palestine

First published by the Middle East Eye on 13/4/2017

On 7 April, I travelled with my wife, Lina, and my five-year-old son, Adam, to Palestine to spend Easter with family and friends, mainly in Attur, East Jerusalem.

In the late afternoon, we arrived at Tel Aviv airport and made our way to passport control. I was asked about the purpose of my journey which I explained. A minute later, an officer arrived to take me away for questioning while my wife, who holds a Jerusalem ‘residency’ ID card and my son, traveling on a British passport, were told they could go through.

I explained that they would wait for me while I was questioned and they were directed to a waiting room near passport control, one with which we are very familiar.

‘Problem people’

The first officer asked me a couple of questions and directed me back to the waiting room for a colleague of his to call me in soon after that. He was clearly waiting for me as my name was clearly on a list of ‘problem people’. He did not accept that I was on a family visit, not a political one, and told me that I ‘have a problem’.

He asked me if I knew about the new law banning those that promote the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign passed by Israel’s parliament, the Knesset last month. I explained that I did. In fact, I wrote about my views on this in Middle East Eye at the time.

He then asked if I was involved in any “anti-Israel” organisation. I explained that I was involved in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and had been vice chair until last January. I stated that I saw PSC as a pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli policy organisation rather than an anti-Israel organisation. He did not accept that.

The waiting room in the Tel Aviv Airport (MEE/Kamel Hawwash)

 

He then referred to a pile of papers printed in Hebrew and claimed they were some of my tweets. He claimed that I called Palestinian terrorists shaheeds (martyrs). Since I do not read Hebrew, I could not comment on any specific tweet and I asked for him to produce the tweets in English, which he did not.

Separated from family

We then had a long conversation (about half an hour) about the situation and the lack of hope for Palestinians and the reasons for the lack of peace – just the sort of discussion with Israelis that denying entry to those who are working for peace will prevent as a result of this new law.

I soon realised that the officer was going to deny me entry, especially when rather than giving me the entry visa slip, he started printing out documents. He confirmed that I was to be denied entry and then asked me the most difficult question of the day: “Will your wife return with you or go through?”

He even said, “Of course your wife is an Israeli citizen, so she can go through.” My wife is not an Israeli citizen but a stateless person, made stateless by Israel. In addition to her Jerusalem “residency” permit, she has an Israeli travel document and a Jordanian travel document for travel outside her homeland. I told him I would ask her what she wanted to do and was taken back to the waiting room.

As I returned to the room, my wife shuffled in her seat to get herself ready. She thought I had been given an entry visa until I told her that I would not be allowed in. She could not believe this and broke down. My son was bewildered, but ran to hug his mum who was weeping.

Lina and Adam in the waiting room (MEE/Kamel Hawwash)

I, of course, was never going to deny my wife the opportunity to go home to see her family and so, about an hour later, she left with my son and I was left reflecting on what had just happened.

Humiliation as a weapon

I contacted the British Embassy for help, but none was forthcoming. However, my local MP Richard Burden very kindly contacted the embassy in Tel Aviv and I had a call back from the British Consul who wanted to ensure that I was ok and that I could contact him if my situation changed.

I then waited for my flight which was not until 5am on 8 April. A couple of hours before that, I was taken for a full body search. It is interesting that the state which sells technology to other states resorted to a body search of someone who had been through security in Birmingham and Brussels and had not exited the airport.

But this was not about security: it was about humiliation, something Israel is a world expert at and which it has been meting out to Palestinians since its creation.

 

Document that the author was given at the airport (MEE/Kamel Hawwash)

 

I was taken to my flight half an hour before departure and my passport was handed to the pilot. This – and later being met by Belgium’s police –  made me feel like a criminal. When I asked why I could not have my passport, the officer calmly told me, “Because you are still in Israel.”

Upon arrival in Brussels, I was met by the police and taken to the police station. I was treated well and handed my passport without delay and I then made arrangements for my return to Birmingham.

Denials and hypocrisy

On 7 April, Israel stabbed me in the heart. It not only denied me entry and separated me from my family. It denied me my right to enter my homeland. That humiliation is something only Palestinians can understand.

The state which was created in my homeland and against the will of the indigenous Palestinian people not only denies Palestinian refugees the right to return from their camps, but also regularly denies those with Western passports the ability to visit.

Meanwhile, Israel’s illegal settlers are allowed to live on stolen land and travel to Western-style democracies unimpeded. They should be banned from entry to the UK, including Israeli ministers.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman himself lives in an illegal settlement but has the red carpet rolled out when he visits the UK. Contrast this with human rights activists who visit the Palestinian areas to bear witness to Israel’s atrocities and are now to be denied entry to see the situation for themselves.

Palestinian citizens of Western states should also not be impeded and banned from visiting their homeland and their remaining family members.

The British government’s reaction to any denial of entry by Israel was articulated by the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson recently when he said, “It is a sovereign decision for Israel as to who is allowed to enter the country.” It’s a statement that the British ambassador to Israel, David Quarrey, has reiterated to me.

It is important to note here that Israel is now sovereign over the West Bank including East Jerusalem, Gaza and the Golan Heights and that access to these areas is only possible through Israel which controls the whole of historic Palestine.

Not only is my government not willing to demand that Israel shelves its discriminatory law, it has also promised to celebrate the centenary of the very document that has directly resulted in the denial of my right to live and work in my homeland and in the continuing plight and Nakba of my people.

Dancing on Palestinian graves

Our prime minister had the temerity to tell the Conservative Friends of Israel that the UK would celebrate the Balfour Declaration with pride. She has invited the Israeli prime minister to London for the celebrations and even promised a royal visit to coincide with the celebrations. In so doing, Theresa May is dancing on our graves as Palestinians. Palestinians do not have justice and we continue to be murdered by Israel on an almost daily basis under the pretence of security.

If her Majesty the Queen or his Royal Highness Prince Charles makes a royal visit, he will be within touching distance of Deir Yassin, the site of a massacre recently commemorated – and many others. He will drive past houses that belonged to Palestinians and from which they were ethnically cleansed.

He will be near the British Consulate in Sheikh Jarrah and will be able to see Palestinians homes that have been demolished and others that had their Palestinian owners thrown out to be replaced by illegal settlers.

And if he visits his grandmother’s grave again at the Church of Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives, as he did back in October, he won’t seek permission to do so from Palestine, but from the occupying power, Israel. He would, of course, be welcomed with open arms in Palestine once it is free and independent with its capital in East Jerusalem, where his grandmother’s grave is located.

 

In January 2011, Israeli bulldozers, working under police protection, demolish the former Hotel Shepherd complex in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood to make way for 20 new homes for Jewish settlers (AFP)

By refusing to take any action against Israel for its continued illegal occupation or its new law, which impacts directly on British citizens, the British government fails the Palestinian people again, but also provides Israel with continued cover to entrench the occupation and to liquidate the Palestinian cause. It also severely damages the UK’s reputation further as it looks towards the world.

– Kamel Hawwash is a British-Palestinian engineering professor based at the University of Birmingham and a longstanding campaigner for justice, especially for the Palestinian people. He is vice chair of the British Palestinian Policy Council (BPPC) and a member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC).  He appears regularly in the media as commentator on Middle East issues. He runs a blog at www.kamelhawwash.com and tweets at @kamelhawwashHe writes here in a personal capacity.

Banning BDS supporters is incompatible with a Western-style democracy

First published by the Middle East Eye on 14/3/2017

The next time you hear Israel laud its democratic credentials, remember the ban on BDS supporters and take it with a pinch of salt

Israel’s parliament began the year with a volley of bills designed to entrench its occupation of the Palestinian territories, insult the indigenous Palestinian population and place a heavy price on anyone critical of its policies.

What is particularly galling is that to achieve this, it has used its loudly touted claim to be a Western-style democracy.

The year kicked off with the passing of the “regulation bill” on 6 February 2017, designed unashamedly to retroactively “legalise” 4,000 Jewish Israeli homes which were previously deemed illegal under Israel’s own laws.

The bill, supported by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was condemned by human rights group Peace Now which described it as a “fatal blow to democracy” and, if passed, would “turn Israeli citizens to thieves and stain Israel’s law books”.

While Israel’s attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, did call the law unconstitutional and while it is likely to eventually be struck down by the Israeli Supreme Court, its initial passage shows a dangerous direction of travel for Israeli democracy.

Silencing the call to prayer

On 12 February, Israeli ministers endorsed a draft bill, which would restrict the Muslim call to prayers. In the draft, the athan, the Muslim call to prayer – and an integral part of Palestinian culture and history since the siege of Jerusalem in 637 AD – was insultingly characterised as “noise pollution”.

Those initiating the bill argued that it disturbs non-Muslims – or more specifically, illegal settlers who have moved into predominantly Palestinian areas including East Jerusalem.

With the two bills and under the guise of a democracy and responding to the wishes of its citizens, Israel is using its predominantly Jewish Israeli votes in the Knesset to target Muslim history and Palestinian culture.

‘Threat to the state’

The impact of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement on Israel was downplayed by Israeli leaders until 2015, the 10th anniversary of the launch of the boycott call by Palestinian civil society.

Suddenly, it was identified as a “strategic threat to the state” and one which both Israeli leaders and supporters of Israel around the world decided to combat. In response, Netanyahu appointed Gilad Erdan as minister of public security, strategic affairs and public diplomacy, to tackle both BDS activism and Iran’s nuclear programme. Several pro-Israeli organisations and individuals gathered to find the most effective ways to quash the movement they described as seeking to delegitimise Israel and later labelled as anti-Semitic. Some $25m was allocated to their fight.

Last March, at the Yediot Achronot conference in Jerusalem, Intelligence Minister Israel Katz called for the “civil targeted killing” of BDS leaders like Omar Barghouti. Several months later, Israeli authorities imposed a travel ban on Barghouti. His residency status in Israel continues to be under threat.

With the BDS movement showing no signs of abating, Israel has since moved to pressure its allies to quash and criminalise it in their own countries. It has also worked hard to push back against rising support for the Palestinian cause and against its oppressive policies on university campuses in the West.

Some US states have moved to criminalise boycotts, such as in California and New York. France’s highest court of appeal ruled that promoters of a boycott against Israel were “guilty of inciting hate or discrimination”, while a Paris Municipality recently passed anti-BDS resolutions. The UK government has specifically outlawed local authorities from using their pension policies to participate in the movement.

Banning boycotters

BDS supporters, however, have been, for the most part, free to enter Israel – to observe the situation on the ground and engage with groups promoting boycotts. But this changed on 6 March when the Knesset passed a law banning any foreign citizen who supports or promotes the boycott of Israel from entering.

In a statement after the bill passed, the parliament said: “A visa will not be granted nor a residence permit of any kind to any person who is not an Israeli citizen or permanent resident if he, or the organisation or body in which he is active, has knowingly issued a public call to boycott the state of Israel or pledged to take part in such a boycott.”

The law was quickly slammed by Jewish groups around the world including Jewish Voice for Peace, and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). The ADL tweeted: “Israel’s democracy, pluralism, open society serve as best defense against BDS. New law harms rather than helps.”

In Britain, Jewish groups including the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Jewish Leadership Council and Union of Jewish Students criticised the move, calling it “anti-democratic”, “indiscriminate” and “deeply problematic”.

The first to be banned

The first victim of the new travel ban was Hugh Lanning, chairman of the UK-based Palestine Solidarity Campaign. A longstanding human rights campaigner, Lanning was denied entry to Israel this past Sunday, less than a week after the passing of the bill.

Lanning, a frequent traveller to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, had never been barred from entry before, so it is reasonable to assume that the new law is behind his barring. Shortly after his entry was denied, Yiftah Curiel, spokesperson for the Israeli embassy in London, tweeted: “Lanning is the chairman of the PSC, an organisation that leads the campaign in the UK to demonise and boycott Israel.”

PSC Chair Hugh Lanning

In a statement on Monday, PSC director Ben Jamal said: “By introducing this law, Israel is violating fundamental freedoms essential to a democracy – the right to free speech, to criticise government policies and human rights violations, the right to advocate non-violent actions to address human rights abuses, the right of free movement and travel. A democratic country does not behave in the way Israel is behaving.”

Lanning, who is now safely back in the UK, told MEE: “What an honour – the first to be deported using the law.” He added that his questioning was “long and bizarre, mainly focused on people I had met, what I did as a chair, was I politically active?” More importantly, Lanning was “never charged with or accused of doing anything wrong on this or previous visits.”

He reiterated Jamal’s statement that: “If Israel believes that by introducing these draconian undemocratic laws it will intimidate its critics into silence it is mistaken. The PSC will not stop raising its voice to highlight the systematic violation of Palestinian human rights in Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel itself.”

Messages of support for Lanning and condemnation of the ban and his deportation have poured in, privately and over social media. Examples include trade unions PCS, UNITE and ASLEF.

Even from among Israel’s supporters, the sentiment is that this ban is a step too far. An integral part of any western-style democracy is freedom of expression. Israel’s initial objection to academic boycotts was that they restricted the opportunity to debate and criticise.

Now, by passing this law, it has closed the door itself on dialogue that could take place in Israel and the occupied territories. Not only does democracy lose, but Israel also loses support from those that gave it the benefit of the doubt as the self-proclaimed “only democracy in the Middle East”. This includes support from Jews with an actual connection to Israel through family members who may now be denied entry because they support a limited boycott of goods made in illegal settlements.

The next time you hear Israel laud its democratic credentials, take it with a pinch of salt.