Supporting Palestine can now get you denied entry to the US

First published by the Middle East Eye on 17/10/2018

I have been a severe critic of the current US administration’s policy towards the Palestinians. But does this make me a possible security threat to the US? Of course not

In April 2017, while travelling for a routine family holiday to Jerusalem, I was denied entryupon arrival at Tel Aviv airport. Israeli authorities’ official – and bizarre – explanation for the entry denial was: I had attempted to “gain illegal entry”. However, being British citizens, we are normally allowed to travel to Israel without a visa. We have it issued at the entry point and I had obtained it on many occasions before.

But as I came to realise later the real reason was due to my role as vice chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), a UK-based organisation that campaigns peacefully for Palestinian rights and which upholds the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel’s occupation.

BDS promoters denied

In March 2017, Israel passed the “BDS law“, which allowed it to deny entry to those engaged in BDS movement promotion. My colleague and PSC chair, Hugh Lanning, was denied entry soon after the law was passed. Another colleague, Anwar Makhlouf, head of the Palestinian Federation of Chile, was also denied entry at the Allenby Bridge based on the same law.

When I contacted both the British embassy in Tel Aviv and the foreign office in London for an explanation, I received the same reply: this was a sovereign decision for Israel. This meant Britain did not even acknowledge that Israel has no sovereignty over the occupied Palestinian Territories. The UK’s position is what gives Israel the green light to conduct its policy with total impunity.

Even pro-Palestine Jewish foreign nationals, who are supposedly entitled to go to Israel by the Law of Return (which grants citizenship to Jews from anywhere in the world) have been denied entry, and even denied permission to board their flights to Israel.

In July 2017, five members of an interfaith delegation were denied permission to board a Lufthansa flight at Washington DC’s Dulles International Airport that would ultimately take them to Tel Aviv. Among them was Rabbi Alissa Wise of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), who said in a statement: “Israel denied me the ability to travel there because of my work for justice for Palestinians, even though I’m Jewish and a rabbi.”

She added: “I’m heartbroken and outraged. This is yet another demonstration that democracy and tolerance in Israel only extends to those who fall in line with its increasingly repressive policies against Palestinians.”

US student Lara Alqasem sits for a hearing at the Tel Aviv district Court on 11 October, 2018 (AFP)

Last July, Ariel Gold, co-director of BDS campaign group Code Pink, was denied entry at Ben Gurion airport despite obtaining a visa in advance to take a course at the Hebrew University. Her deportation, and those of others, are normally ordered by Israeli Minister of Security Gilan Erdan, and Israeli Minister of Interior Aryeh Deri.

The most recent case of entry denial involved Lara Alqasem, a 22-year-old Palestinian-American student, despite the fact that she has recently been granted a student visa for her masters’ degree in the Hebrew University. Alqasem spent days in detention at Tel Aviv airport struggling to be allowed to join the course she had registered for.

At the time of writing, Alqasem was planning a second appeal to Israeli courts. She stood her ground, refusing to bow to the demands by Erdan to renounce the BDS movement.

When I was denied entry to Israel last year, the Israeli interrogator had printed many pages of my tweets and challenged me about a small number of them. However, because they were presented to me in Hebrew I declined the opportunity to comment.

Israel’s arrests of Palestinians for social media posts have soared. In May, the Palestinian Prisoners’ Centre for Studies (PPC) said that Israel had detained some 500 Palestinians, including women and children, because of their social media posts. In 2015, Dareen Tatour, a Palestinian poet, was detained for three years, before her release last month, for writing a poem, entitled “Resist my people, resist.”

US ban?

Entry denial due to BDS movement promotion is an established Israeli policy. I wonder, however, if my activity on social media, and my op-eds on the Palestinian conflict, were the reasons behind being denied boarding of a US-bound plane at Heathrow airport in August.

US authorities have thus far refused to provide me with an explanation as to why this happened despite having initially secured approval through the visa waiver (ESTA) scheme, just as any other British citizen is normally entitled to do.

ESTA entitles the holder to travel to the US without a visa for a two-year period. I had obtained this in the past and travelled to the US to attend conferences connected to my academic work without any problem, the last time being in 2015.

My trip was planned at short notice to spend Eid Al-Adha with relatives in America. Having obtained my ESTA, I made my way to Heathrow to board a Virgin Atlantic flight to Seattle on 17 August. Upon arriving, I tried to check-in via the terminals but could not.

I was informed by a member of staff that I would not be allowed to travel since my ESTA had been declined, despite its initial approval. No explanation was given. I was then told that I could apply for a visa at the American Consulate in London.

I was shocked and devastated. I had now missed the window for my holiday and lost a substantial amount of money, which was not recoverable.

What could possibly have changed since my last trip to the US? My immediate answer was that there was a new administration in the White House, with little tolerance for foreigners and which is blindingly supportive of Israel.

However, I decided to investigate further before my hunch was confirmed. I wrote to the US ambassador in London and completed a “redress” request directly to the US Department for Homeland Security.

Hugh Lanning addresses a Palestine Solidarity Campaign rally in the UK in 2014 (PSC/Flickr)

A couple of weeks later, the embassy responded through its Customs and Border Protection Attache saying: “Whilst the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) are unable to discuss any person’s denial of an ESTA or their admission into the US due to security/privacy policy laws, I can confirm that you will require Non-Immigrant visa should you wish to travel to the US in the future.”

The “redress” response, which arrived a few days later, was almost unintelligible.

Trump’s America

In the absence of an explanation, I am left with the conclusion that Trump’s America does not tolerate criticism of its policies and that it works very closely with Israel, sharing intelligence about individuals who are deemed undesirable for both countries.

It is safe to assume that Israeli authorities have supplied US authorities with names of individuals like myself who have been denied entry because of their advocacy for the Palestinian people. However, for the US to then deny them entry based on this peaceful work is very troubling.

I have been a severe critic of the current US administration’s policy towards the Palestinians. But does this make me a possible security threat to the US? Of course not. However, it helps Israel to further bully its critics into silence if they fear being denied entry to other countries that Israel can influence.

Neither denial of entry to Israel nor to the US will silence supporters of the Palestinian people. In fact, this will embolden us to be even more vocal in our criticism of apartheid Israel.

Photo: Travellers arrive at the international terminal of O’Hare International Airport on 25 April, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois (AFP)

UNRWA, the US Embassy move and the Israeli occupation

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 24/4/2018

Gazan's gather outside the UN offices in Gaza to protest US cuts to UNRWA's funding, on January 28, 2018 [Mohammad Asad / Middle East Monitor]

Gazan’s gather outside the UN offices in Gaza to protest US cuts to UNRWA’s funding, on January 28, 2018 [Mohammad Asad / Middle East Monitor]

This will be remembered as the year when the United States of America broke with the international consensus by moving its Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, thus recognising the Holy City as the capital of Israel. The deliberate timing of the move to coincide with next month’s 70th anniversary of Israel’s creation in historic Palestine —the Nakba (Catastrophe) — has angered Palestinians whose faith in the US as an honest broker in the peace process has always been low but is now non-existent.

Palestinian anger has been fuelled further by the Trump administration’s removal of references to Palestinian land captured by Israel in 1967 as “occupied” from its latest annual human rights report. “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2017” broke with previous policy by changing the section on the human rights situation in Israel and Palestine from “Israel and the Occupied Territories” to “Israel, Golan Heights, West Bank and Gaza”. At a stroke, the US State Department has removed reference to the occupation of any land taken by force by Israel in 1967, including the Syrian Golan Heights.

US threats of aid cuts - Cartoon [Arabi21News]

It is rather ironic that the report still claims: “Our foreign policy reflects who we are and promotes freedom as a matter of principle and interest. We seek to lead other nations by example in promoting just and effective governance based on the rule of law and respect for human rights. The United States will continue to support those around the world struggling for human dignity and liberty.”

Such a change runs counter to international law. Washington’s alleged commitment “to support those around the world struggling for human dignity and liberty” can certainly not be seen as applying to the Palestinian people.

This US administration is chipping away shamelessly at the legitimate rights of the Palestinians, which they have demanded for 70 years. Trump claims to have taken Jerusalem off the table, that there is no occupation and that the settlements are no longer referred to as “illegal”. This leaves just one more issue to take off the table, the Palestinian refugees’ right of return.

In December 1948, the UN General Assembly passed resolution 194 in which it resolved that Palestinian “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.”

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There are now 5.5 million Palestinian refugees clinging to this right; the Great March of Return has seen tens of thousands of them marching peacefully to the border area in Gaza to reaffirm it. While they wait for that right to be implemented, they continue to be supported by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The agency was established in 1949 to carry out direct relief and works programmes for “Palestine refugees in the Near East”. UNRWA began its operations on 1 May 1950 and its services encompass education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, microfinance and emergency assistance, including in times of armed conflict. They are delivered in the main countries where the Palestinian refugees continue to live: the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. In Gaza, UNRWA provides services to refugees who make up 80 per cent of the population.

UNRWA is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions from UN Member States. It also receives some core funding from the regular budget of the United Nations, which is used mostly for international staffing costs.

READ: UNRWA gets cash injection after US cuts

The agency is facing a funding crisis, exacerbated by the US decision to cut its contribution. In January, the State Department announced that it was withholding $65m out of its $125m interim aid package earmarked for UNRWA stating that “additional US donations would be contingent on major changes” by the agency.

When asked what major changes the US Administration asked of UNRWA to continue its funding, the official spokesman was unable to point to specific requirements. Speaking at a meeting in the British parliament organised by the Palestinian Return Centre, Chris Gunness expressed the agency’s surprise at the defunding given that last November US officials had praised UNRWA’s high impact, accountability and flexibility.

The PRC meeting looked at Britain’s relationship with UNRWA. Gunness praised the government’s ongoing financial support but then set out the problems that the agency is facing, which he described as an “unprecedented financial and existential crisis.” He told the meeting that the Trump administration is actually “defunding UNRWA to the tune of $305 million” having only paid $60m in January when $360m was expected. Despite having already started to procure food and non-food items in the expectation of receiving the full amount from the US, UNRWA was told by the State Department that no more would be forthcoming.

US embassy might be moved to Jerusalem – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Gunness described the scale of UNRWA’s work in numbers: it educates 525,000 children, for example, 270,000 of whom are in Gaza. Its health projects offer 9 million patient consultations a year. It employs 33,000 people, including 22,000 teachers and education staff, the overwhelming majority of whom are refugees themselves; this gives a huge boost to the economy in Palestinian refugee camps. It also supports small-scale projects through micro finance. “UNRWA is not a light bulb you can turn on or off,” insisted Gunness. “You cannot just offer a third of an education to half a million children.”

UNRWA’s resources have been stretched by the crisis in Syria, the spokesman pointed out. Additional needs have been generated by the 150,000 Palestinian refugees who were among more than half a million living in Syria to flee to neighbouring Lebanon and Jordan.

Gunness warned that even after the recent Rome conference which sought to raise $466 million for UNRWA, only $110m was raised, including $50m from Qatar alone. Although Saudi Arabia subsequently pledged another $50 million, the agency only has sufficient funds to see it through to July of this year.

The real problem, he said, is the lack of a political solution; this is a conversation that the donor community “is not prepared to have. They seem to believe dialogue about reform somehow replaces it, but it does not. Their focus continues to be on how efficient UNRWA is in delivering its services and the rising costs.” The costs are rising, he added, because there has been 70 years of unaddressed dispossession and 50 years of occupation. “That is what drives the bill up. There are more and more refugees because there is an unresolved political plight and the children of refugees have become refugees.” This “protracted refugee situation” also applies to UNHCR.

When asked what would happen to the refugees if UNRWA collapsed, Gunness said, “Palestinian refugees are human beings with rights.” Those rights do not disappear if UNRWA is not around. “Their options will remain as integration wherever they are, third country repatriation or repatriation, which means going home.” He confirmed that the preferred remedy for dealing with refugees by UNHCR is the right of return in that it produces the most stable outcome.

READ: 100 days since Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem, the facts

Speaking at the same meeting, Oxford-based Palestinian academic Karma Nabulsi warned that the US defunding of UNRWA is designed to “dismantle it”. Professor Nabulsi argued that UNRWA was created by the UN following the “dismantlement of our country and destruction of our society” under its watch. “It was,” she reminded the audience, “initially meant to exist for 6 months to a year but with the passing of time, it had become ‘stabilised’.”

The current crisis, she insisted, is more extreme than those previously, “because it goes at the heart of who we are as a people and that we are a people.” UNRWA, she said, “is the only institution that recognises our inalienable rights and our status as refugees and the obligation of the UN to uphold those and protect us. Its demise would be like you have wiped us off the face of the earth.”

She contrasted the reaction to Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem with the UNRWA funding cut. There was pushback by the international community, including the UN Security Council and the General Assembly, against the embassy move. “The attack on UNRWA, however, has happened very quietly. Not many people understand it or see how important it is.”

Nabulsi reminded the audience that the US Embassy move, the siege on Gaza and other Israeli policies are classic settler-colonialism, which the Palestinians have experienced for a century. “Colonialism displaces the people and sets up a new country instead. It is a process not an event.”

Nevertheless, Professor Nabulsi finished by sharing a reason for optimism. “Because it is an ongoing event, we have a chance to stop it,” she pointed out. “It is not over.”

Israel, the West and shameless hypocrisy

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 20/3/2018

UK British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson [Financial Times/Flickr]

The current crisis between Britain and Russia offers yet another example of the shameless hypocrisy of the West when dealing with Israel and almost any other country. Why bring Israel into the attempted murder of two people on the streets of Britain in which Russia, not Israel is implicated? I do so because of the sudden regard for international law that has resurfaced in Western political circles.

Speaking alongside NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson accused Russia of using military-grade nerve agent and stated that the two were clear, “that the use of such agent is a clear violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and a flagrant breach of international law.” A day earlier, he claimed on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that Russia had been in breach of international law for the past 10 years because it had been stockpiling nerve agent during that period. Conservative Party chairman Brendan Lewis, speaking on Peston on Sunday, also referred to Russia’s action as being in breach of international law.

Johnson was backed by the EU’s Foreign Ministers who adopted a statement of support for Britain. “Any such use [of nerve agent] is a clear violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, a breach of international law and undermines the rules-based international order,” they said.

Shortly after the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, the US, France, Germany and Britain issued a joint statement condemning the attack, which took place in the small English city of Salisbury: “It is an assault on UK sovereignty, and any such use by a state party is a clear violation of the chemical weapons convention and a breach of international law.”

Accusations that Russia has been in breach of international law have in the past related to its action against the Ukraine and what the West sees as its occupation of Crimea, which Russia disputes. In March 2017, the US Mission in the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) stated that, “The United States remains deeply concerned about ongoing Russian violations of international law and defiance of OSCE principles and commitments in Crimea.”

The statement further accused the Russian occupation authorities of “continuing to commit serious abuses against Crimean Tatars, ethnic Ukrainians, and all others who oppose Russia’s occupation of the peninsula.”

When the late Saddam Hussein sent his troops into Kuwait in 1990, the international community only allowed that occupation to stand for seven months. The Iraqi dictator had annexed Kuwait, declaring it to be his country’s 19th province. However, a coalition of forces from 35 countries was formed to free Kuwait, which ejected the Iraqis in early 1991. No one then talked of the Kuwaiti resistance against Iraq’s occupation as “terrorism”.

Both Iraq and Russia faced sanctions for what the international community regarded as illegal acts in Kuwait and Ukraine respectively. There is talk now about further sanctions against Russia following the attack in Salisbury. There are even calls for the English football team to boycott the FIFA World Cup, due to take place in Russia this summer. Responding to a question in the House of Commons, Boris Johnson told fellow MPs that if Russia is implicated then he thought it would be “difficult to see how UK representation at the World Cup can go ahead in the normal way.”

Some in the West are questioning how Russia can continue to hold a seat as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, which allows it to wield a veto whenever it chooses. This, it is argued, means it can vote down any resolution that criticises Moscow or its allies, or even considers imposing sanctions on, say, the Syrian government for its actions.

Here, then, is the hypocrisy of the West, which seems hell-bent on singling Israel out for exceptional protection from criticism or meaningful sanctions despite its 50-year long illegal occupation of Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese land, and its 70-year ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people. Just like Russia and Iraq, Israel has annexed illegally-occupied land, including East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

The US has been severely critical of Russia for its use of the veto when it comes to Syria and Iran. In 2015, the then US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, claimed that Russian vetoes were “putting the UN Security Council’s legitimacy at risk.” Her successor Nikki Hayley even threatened that if Russia continues to use its veto then the US may have to take unilateral action against Iran. This was after Russia vetoed a resolution that had been watered down from a condemnation of Iran for violating an arms embargo on Houthi leaders in Yemen to “noting with particular concern”.The particular hypocrisy of the US lies in its own use of the veto power on 43 occasions in support of Israel, the last of which was against criticism of its own action in recognising Jerusalem as capital of the Zionist state in December last year. This does not include the number of times that the threat of the US using its veto resulted in resolutions not even making it to a Security Council vote, including an attempt by the PLO to secure recognition of Palestine as a state in 2014.

Britain’s hypocrisy can be demonstrated in its support for sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq and its support for sanctions against Russia but its absolute refusal to consider sanctioning Israel for any matter, including its illegal colonial-settlement enterprise and alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity. The UK has actually worked to oppose any boycott or sanction against a state that stands accused of Apartheid by an ESCWA report which was sanctioned by the UN but was then taken down under pressure from the US and Israel.

Prominent members of the British government and long-established members of Conservative Friends of Israel work overtime to shield Israel. Environment Secretary Michael Gove, to his utter disgrace, labelled the peaceful and moral Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), designed to pressure Israel to comply with international law, as “anti-Semitic”. Gove has even called for Britain to move its Embassy to Jerusalem in a move that would be against international laws and conventions.

Britain has now indicated that it might not send members of the Royal family to the World Cup in Russia but has announced that Prince William — second in line to the throne — will make an official visit to Israel this year despite its continued illegal occupation of Palestinian land, its illegal annexation of Jerusalem, its Apartheid Wall and its illegal siege on Gaza which has been said to constitute collective punishment and is thus a war crime.

Palestinians and their supporters, therefore, have ample reason to call out the international community for its hypocrisy and double standards when it comes to dealing with Israel, whose illegal actions and breaches of international law have accompanied its whole 70-year existence. Remember this fact the next time that a Western politician defends Israel’s breaches of international law as “acts of self-defence”. It is the only country in the world to which the permanent members of the UN Security Council and others in the West grant such exceptional immunity.