Tikun Olam / August 17, 2023
US citizens continue to be harassed and sexually abused by Shin Bet airport security.
For several years, Israel has attempted to join the US visa waiver program, which offers visa-free entry to the US for specified countries. There are several conditions for acceptance into the program, none of which Israel met. For the past two years, it has attempted to meet the requirements with partial success. US human rights groups, members of Congress and Palestinians, have protested the prospect of Israeli participation, because of its flagrant violations of human rights of Palestinian and Muslim-American travelers. In fact, the US has warned Israel that the increasing violence it perpetrates against Palestinians could endanger its candidacy for the program.
450,000 Israelis travel to the US each year for tourism and business purposes. Entering the program would be a political feather in Bibi Netanyahu’s cap. As he faces unprecedented mass opposition to his government’s judicial coup, he’s in desperate need of victories like this one. He even told his Shin Bet chief to lighten up. A well-informed Israeli security source told me:
Bibi told Ronen Bar that entering the Visa waiver program is top priority, and Bar promised to end the decades-old policy known unofficially in as: “At the airport, every Arab [Palestinian] is a terrorist”.
The intelligence agency is notorious for its treatment of Palestinian-American travelers and anyone flagged by the security services for supporting BDS. Visiting staff of human rights NGOs and pro-BDS travelers are banned outright. In some cases, African-Americans as well face similar treatment. When the Alvin Ailey Dance company traveled to Israel, the security agent refused to believe a male member was part of the troupe and made him dance to prove it. Yes, he made a Black man dance. I suppose we should call it Dancing While Black. If that doesn’t evoke traditional racist stereotypes, nothing will.
Security checks can take hours and involve ransacking luggage, demanding electronic device passwords and reviewing and even copying data from them; stripping travelers naked for full-body searches; women are strip-searched with male agents in the room; hours of repeated questions, some of which demand highly personal information. Shin Bet security agents often refuse to permit these individuals to board planes; or forbid them from taking their luggage and devices (see below); or detain them so long that they miss their flights entirely. El Al is the worst offender since it is an Israeli carrier. But all airlines flying to or from Israel must agree to similar treatment of such passengers.
Last month, Israel signed a memorandum of understanding in which it declared that US citizens who enter Israel, whom it had previously subjected to invasive security procedures, will no longer be treated this way. It even promised that those who travel through Israel to Gaza will be permitted entry at Ben Gurion airport and at border crossing into Gaza. The security source told me:
Bar instructed Shabak’s [Shin Bet’s] air security personnel in Israel and abroad to change the policy to this unofficial definition:
‘At the airport, every Arab is a terrorist … except those who are American citizens’.
Such slogans clearly display the cynicism of the Israeli security apparatus. They should also send up red flags about its sincerity in adhering to the new standards. Israel is notorious for trumpeting with great fanfare its agreement to treaties, protocols, or other types of agreements, which it proceeds to abrogate when convenient.
An example is the case of @nfwazwaz (Noor Wazwaz), a Palestinian-American journalist. She was ticketed for an El Al flight last month. After endless hours of security interviews, searches, intrusive questions about her personal life, not to mention lies from her interrogators, she was ultimately denied as a “security risk”.
The Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) tweeted that it has filed a discrimination complaint on Noor’s behalf ,
I consulted an Israeli security source about Noor’s experience. He conceded it was unfortunate, and that the Shin Bet “has learned from the experience.” That remains to be seen. He added that the new protocol to which Israel had agreed had not yet been in force. Presumably, the domestic intelligence agency would have stopped its former harassment of such travelers. But apparently, that’s not the case.
Despite signing the MOU mentioned above, apparently some in the Shin Bet didn’t get the memo. Take American-Muslim, @wayoflifesq, who traveled to Israel-Palestine to make a pilgrimage to Al-Aqsa and other sites. On his return a few days ago, Shin Bet security [intelligence] agents at Ben Gurion engaged in the same behavior which had supposedly ended with last month’s agreement. He was strip searched by them and the security procedures lasted so long that he was late for his flight. The United Airlines Israeli gate attendant berated him for delaying the flight “for 300 passengers.” He responds with indignation blaming the security authorities for causing the problem. On the video, as he enters the plane he apologized to the passengers and then complains vociferously about the strip search.
Other Muslims on Twitter called him a poseur who was performing for the camera in order to magnify his social media following. He has 335,000 followers on Instagram. They noted he bragged about getting an Israeli Border police officer to recite Quran. Anyone who knows how Israeli police treat Al-Aqsa and its worshippers would never brag about something like this. They would, in fact, cringe.
Regardless of whether he’s a showboat, he was undoubtedly harassed and abused during his flight departure process. And the Shin Bet has once again acted in contradiction to its own claims. Apparently, as the saying goes: you can’t teach this old dog new tricks.
Given such behavior, the Biden administration should refuse to permit Israel to join the visa waiver program. The incident above shows the Shin Bet will ignore agreements Israel makes. Security trumps bilateral agreements with foreign governments. If the US admits Israel, it will have no leverage when US citizens complain of ill-treatment. The only recourse would be cancelling Israeli participation. Doing so would raise a furor with the Israel Lobby and any administration would be loath to confront it given the political price it would pay in doing so.
No doubt, Biden wants such an agreement because it would help him retain the Jewish vote and the donations of pro-Israel donors. In the process, he will be selling out Palestinian-Americans and their human rights.
Further, Israel will not change its policy of harassment of citizens of Palestinian origin from other countries. For them, it will be: “At airports, they are all terrorists.”
Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog, devoted to exposing the excesses of the Israeli national security state