U.S. Human Rights Observers Harshly Interrogated By Israel and Booted For Being Muslim

Five human rights observers carrying American passports say they were singled out by Israeli authorities because they were visibly Muslim, or perceived as such, and then subject to harsh detention and interrogation before being booted from the country.

The individuals were traveling as part of a 45-person interfaith delegation to Israel-Palestine “in order to observe the conditions under which Palestinians live, and to gain a better understanding of the situation on the ground,” according to a statement from the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.

But their plans went awry on July 17 when the five individuals were prevented from entering Israel with the rest of the group.

“Everyone who had a Muslim name, or who was visibly Muslim or believed to be Muslim, was singled out,” said Ramah Kudaimi, director of grassroots organizing for the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, who was among those refused entry. Four of the five people targeted were, in fact, Muslim, and the fifth had a long beard.

Kudaimi told AlterNet that there were also "two more people who were interrogated but let in. One was a black woman and one was Pakistani with a Muslim-sounding name. It is definitely the case that authorities profiled Muslim people.”

The individuals say that they were harshly treated before they were deported. According to the U.S. Campaign’s statement, “Bina Ahmad, a New York City public defender and former vice president of the National Lawyers Guild, was denied entry to the country and given no reason why, then transferred to a filthy cell without knowing how long she would be held.”

“Some of the female detainees were asked irrelevant and intrusive questions about their personal relationships, and were held for as long as 18 hours,” the statement says. “All five of the delegates endured similarly degrading and terrifying ordeals, and were put on flights back to the U.S. Some received travel bans that bar them from entering Israel or the occupied Palestinian territories for the next 10 years.”

Muhammed Malik, former Executive Director of Council on American-Islamic Relations (South Florida) and co-founder of Muslims for Ferguson, said in a press statement, "At some point the woman interrogating me called me a terrorist in the main waiting area at the bridge where there were plenty of people around, accusing me of coming to do bombings and threatening to tell the US government this. All of this was based only on me being visibly Muslim."

Such cases of discrimination are not new, as acknowledged by a travel warning from the U.S. state department, which states: “Some U.S. citizens of Arab or Muslim heritage not on the Palestinian Population Registry or otherwise prohibited from entering Israel have experienced significant difficulties and unequal and hostile treatment at Israel’s borders and checkpoints.  U.S. citizens of Arab or Muslim origin visiting the West Bank, including those not on the Palestinian Population Registry, have experienced restrictions by Israeli authorities from visiting Jerusalem or Israel.”

The Arab American Institute has been collecting stories of those who were mistreated and denied entry by Israeli authorities. According to the organization, as recently as April 2016, U.S. citizen Mary Akel wasdenied entry to the West Bank when attempting to visit family and friends living in Ramallah. She was detained for approximately three hours before being interrogated ‘as if [she] was a criminal.’ During this interrogation, she was accused of lying about her visit and planning to live in Palestine.”

However, Kudaimi says that the intentional targeting of Muslims taking part in a large delegation appears to reflect the current political climate. “It’s Donald Trump, but in general we are seeing policies of Islamophobia across the globe,” said Kudaimi. “There’s this general increase in Islamophobia.”

Despite requests to the U.S. Consulate's Citizen Services for assistance, the individuals say that they received no help. Israel is a close ally of the United States, receiving $3.1 billion in military aid from American taxpayers annually, dwarfing sums sent to other countries. The right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu is currently seeking to negotiate a larger sum of up to $5 billion.

“The degrading treatment that I experienced as a U.S. Muslim pales in comparison to the daily humiliations suffered by Palestinians," said Malik. "Israel controls the movement of Palestinians, including Palestinian-Americans, into and out of Israel-Palestine. This system of control at the borders is discriminatory and unjust, and another manifestation of Israel's apartheid policies. That the U.S. continues to support these policies is shameful.”

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