Israel deports Italian human rights activist after West Bank raid

The National  /  January 18, 2023

Violence has spiked in the Israeli-occupied territory since spring.

Israel has deported an Italian activist after conducting an army raid in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, during which a 14-year-old boy was shot dead.

Stefania Costantin was arrested at the Dheisha refugee camp in Bethlehem on Monday, an incident caught on video that shows her being carried into a military vehicle.

The raid, initially reported by Palestinian news agency Wafa, which at first did not mention Ms Costantini, occurred during a riot at the camp, which has frequently been raided by Israeli forces. Dheisha refugee camp, built in 1949 as a temporary shelter for 3,000 people, is now home to at least 8,000.

Italian media described Ms Costantini as an advocate for Palestinian rights. Israel’s Shin Bet security service said Ms Costantini was arrested on suspicion of belonging to, and transferring funds to, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

The militant group, known as the PFLP, was involved in hijacking passenger planes in the 1960s and 1970s, and later claimed responsibility for suicide attacks during the Second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, in the early 2000s. It is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.

The Shin Bet said Ms Costantini arrived in Israel on May 2 on a tourist visa and was summoned for interrogation last September about her alleged involvement with the PFLP. Ms Costantini did not report to authorities “and even continued her activities” for the militant group, the security agency said. Israel deported her on Monday afternoon, the Interior Ministry said.

The COBAS leftist labour union in Pisa, Italy, to which Ms Costantini belongs, expressed “consternation” at the news of her arrest and deportation. The union said it was concerned for Ms Costantini’s “health and safety”.

The group described Ms Costantini as a specialist working with students with disabilities who has long sought to defend “those whose rights are denied”.

Several months ago, the group said, Ms Costantini left her life in Italy and moved to a Palestinian refugee camp. It made no mention of the Israeli security agency’s allegations.

The Italian consulate in Jerusalem did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Israeli and Italian foreign ministries also did not comment.

But on Monday, the day of Ms Costantini’s deportation, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen wrote on Twitter that he held a phone conversation with his Italian counterpart. The readout of the call focused on the countries’ joint efforts to “fight terrorism” and boost their “political co-operation.” It made no mention of Ms Costantini’s case.

Israel has stepped up its fight in recent years against Palestinian activists and rights groups. Last summer, the Israeli military raided and shuttered the offices of Palestinian human rights organizations that it designated as terrorist groups over their alleged links to the PFLP. Nine European countries rejected Israel’s charges against the rights groups, citing a lack of evidence.