Palestinian human rights advocates refused entry to US, blocked from leaving Palestine

Sahar Francis, director of Palestinian NGO Addameer, speaks to media in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank (AFP)

Akram al-Waara

Middle East Eye  /  May 5, 2022

Campaigners Sahar Francis and Ubai Aboudi believe their recent travel ban was part of a broader Israeli effort to repress Palestinian civil society organizations.

Two prominent Palestinian rights activists were prevented from travelling by Israel last week while en route to attend the World Social Forum in Mexico, provoking an outcry from campaigners.

Sahar Francis, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, was set to board an American Airlines flight on 30 April from Tel Aviv to Miami, and then onto Mexico, when she was told by airport security that she could not board the flight due to an invalid visa.

According to Francis, the airline’s agents contacted the US embassy and were told that Francis could not board the flight, and was not allowed to enter the United States.

“This was all despite the fact that I passed Israeli security without any issues, and had a valid visa to the US, which expires in April 2023,” Francis told Middle East Eye.

“I was never informed before that time that I was banned from entering the US, or that my visa was cancelled.”

A day earlier, on 29 April, Francis’ Palestinian-American colleague Ubai Aboudi was attempting to cross the Israeli-controlled land border between the occupied West Bank and Jordan, when he was turned back by Israeli officials.

In a Twitter thread, Aboudi said that despite his multiple attempts to get an explanation for why he was denied exit from the country, senior Israeli officials refused to provide him with an answer.

“As a Palestinian, you have no rights in the eyes of #ApartheidIsrael. Even if you have an American citizenship,” he wrote.

“All these human rights violations would not happen if it were not for the complicity of governments and officials that are refusing to hold Apartheid Israel accountable for its crimes. This denial will not scare me, we will continue the work.”

Stepping up repression

Francis and Aboudi are the directors of Palestinian prisoners’ rights group Addameer and the Bisan Center for Research and Development, respectively.

These two groups are among six Palestinian civil society organizations that Israel declared “terrorist organizations” last year.

Despite repeated calls by the groups to provide evidence to back up its claims, the Israeli government has so far failed to do so.

Since the move last October, a number of the groups and their staff have been targeted by Israel, including a Pegasus spyware hack that targeted a number of activists working with the organizations, including Aboudi, and the imprisonment of the president of the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees, who was sentenced by an Israeli military court to 16 months imprisonment.

In January, the Dutch government decided to end its funding for the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC), another of the six groups targeted by Israel. The European Commission also suspended funding of its projects at UAWC and legal rights group Al-Haq.

According to Francis, the travel bans imposed on her and Aboudi are no coincidence, and are part of a broader Israeli effort to continue to repress Palestinian civil society organizations and the people who work in the sector.

“We believe this is in direct relation to the World Social Forum,” Francis told MEE.

“We were preparing very publicly for this, and we were supposed to take part in a workshop yesterday about surveillance, the use of Pegasus, and the attacks against civil society from Palestine across the world.”

“This was the main focus of the delegation: what we as Palestinian civil society are facing under occupation,” Francis said.

She added that the Israeli government is enacting a policy of “targeted harassment” of Palestinian human rights defenders, and is attempting to slowly strangle Palestinian civil society.

“We were expecting that they [Israel] would wait till things calmed down after the designation, and people stopped paying attention to us. We expected that they would hit us when no one was expecting it,” she said, adding that both her and Aboudi had travelled as recently as late March without any issues.

She warned that Israel would start slowly, beginning with first “denying people from travelling, then arresting us, raiding our offices, seizing our property, and shutting us down altogether”.

“They want to tire us out, and count on the fact that in a couple of months the banks and others will take measures against us. This is their strategy.”

‘We need concrete action, not empty statements’

One of the more troubling aspects of the US travel ban imposed on her, according to Francis, was that it seemed to indicate that the US government was possibly taking action according to Israel’s “terror” designation of the groups – something the White House has adamantly denied in the past.

Since she was refused boarding the plane to Miami last week, Francis said that she and the advocacy groups supporting her have received no answers from the US government in relation to her alleged visa complications.

“In the weekly State Department press briefing on Sunday, a journalist asked about mine and Ubai’s case, and the answer the official gave was very vague – they claimed it was an individual visa issue and that they can’t talk about it publicly,” Francis recounted.

At the time of the announcement in October, the Israeli government reportedly supplied the White House with alleged evidence for the designations, though the Biden Administration has refused to publicly adopt or condemn the decision, but maintains it has not taken any action against the groups.

Now, Francis fears that’s not true.

“They said they didn’t take any measures against the six organizations, but who decided to ban me and why? I don’t know the answer yet, but I believe it is connected to the designation,” she said.

“I can’t see any other reason to be banned from the US, especially since I’ve travelled so many times to the US, the last time was in late 2018.”

Francis urged the US to take a clearer position on Israel’s designation of the six groups, saying that vague and empty statements will only pose more danger to the organizations and their staff.

“Without serious and meaningful pressure on Israel to revoke its decision, it will be very dangerous for us,” she said, adding that European countries should also “publicly show their support for our groups, and pledge to continue to fund us.

“This is why actions should be taken seriously by states, it’s not enough just to issue empty statements.”

Akram al-Waara is a Palestinian freelance video journalist based out of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank