Detained and Then Deported: U.S. Human Rights Lawyers Barred from Entry into Israel
Two U.S. human rights lawyers were detained Sunday for 14 hours at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport before being deported back to the United States. Columbia University’s Katherine Franke and Center for Constitutional Rights executive director Vincent Warren were repeatedly questioned about their associations with groups critical of Israel.
They were part of a delegation of American civil rights activists heading to Israel and Palestine to learn about the human rights situation and meet with local activists. They arrived back in New York City early Monday.
This comes just days after Israeli soldiers shot and killed three Palestinian protesters and wounded hundreds more on Friday, when the soldiers and snipers opened fire during the Palestinians’ weekly nonviolent protest near the Gaza border.
On Saturday, a fourth protester died after succumbing to his wounds. The nonviolent protests demanding the right for Palestinian refugees to return to their land began on March 30. Since then, the Israeli military has killed at least 42 Palestinians, including two journalists, and injured thousands more.
For more, we speak with Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Katherine Franke, professor of law, gender and sexuality studies at Columbia University.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan GonzÃ¡lez.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: Well, we turn now to Israel, where two U.S. human rights lawyers were detained Sunday for 14 hours at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport, before being deported back to the United States. Columbia University’s Katherine Franke and Center for Constitutional Rights president Vince Warren were repeatedly questioned about their associations with groups critical of Israel. They were part of a delegation of American civil rights activists heading to Israel to learn about the human rights situation and meet with local activists. They arrived back in New York City early Monday.
Earlier this year, Israel published a blacklist of 20 different organizations worldwide whose members are being banned from entering the country over their groups’ support for BDS, the nonviolent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel over its treatment of Palestinians. Among the groups whose members are banned from entering Israel are Jewish Voice for Peace, National Students for Justice in Palestine, the American Friends Service Committee, American Muslims for Palestine, CodePink and the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, as well as Palestinian solidarity groups in France, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Britain, Chile and South Africa.
AMY GOODMAN: This comes just days after Israeli soldiers shot and killed three Palestinian protesters and wounded hundreds more on Friday, when the soldiers and snipers opened fire during the Palestinians’ weekly nonviolent protest near the Gaza border. On Saturday, a fourth protester died after succumbing to his wounds. The nonviolent protest demanding the right for Palestinian refugees to return to their land began on March 30th. Since then, the Israeli military has killed at least 42 Palestinians, including two journalists, and injured thousands more. No Israeli soldiers or civilians have been injured in the nonviolent protests. Israel’s bloody crackdown has sparked international condemnation.
We’re joined now by the two, I guess you could say, deportees. Vince Warren and Katherine Franke are here in our New York studio. Vince Warren, who was leading the delegation, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. And Katherine Franke is a professor of law, gender and sexuality studies at Columbia University. She’s faculty director of the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project and a member of the executive committee of the Center for Palestine Studies.
We welcome you both back to Democracy Now! Vince, what happened? When did you fly into Israel?
VINCENT WARREN: We flew in Saturday evening. And we had a delegation of folks that were coming with us. And having done this before, getting into Israel—
AMY GOODMAN: You did this just a few years ago?
VINCENT WARREN: We did this first in 2016, where we actually brought legal academics and other folks that were in the legal field. This delegation was actually about black and brown thought leaders and civil rights leaders in the communities, people that had worked on Dakota Access pipeline, people that had been key in Ferguson and taken that fight to Geneva, folks that have been doing work in the South. So, we flew out on Saturday evening, and we arrived in Tel Aviv on Sunday morning. And Sunday morning, that’s when we found out, as we got the delegates through, that we found out that Katherine and I had been singled out to be detained.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: And, Katherine, you were the first to be detained and questioned. Tell us what happened.
KATHERINE FRANKE: Well, the curious thing is, is that Vince and I had already been cleared through immigration, and we were waiting on the other side for the rest of the delegates to come through. And an immigration official comes out and drags the two of us back in. And at that point, I was interrogated for over an hour by the Israeli immigration officials, where they screamed at me, “You’re lying! You’re here to promote BDS in Palestine.” And I said, “I’m not,” which is—it’s kind of ludicrous. You don’t promote BDS in Palestine.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain BDS, very quickly.
KATHERINE FRANKE: The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is a movement that’s grown from civil society actors in Palestine to the rest of the world as a form of action to protest the human rights violations of the—committed by the Israeli government. So BDS takes place elsewhere, not in Palestine.
But in any event, that’s not what the delegation was about. We were there to witness and testify to the kinds of human rights violations we were seeing there, not to engage in any BDS-related activity.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: Now, they actually showed you, on a cellphone, some right-wing site about you?
KATHERINE FRANKE: They did. They did. After he said, “Aren’t you here to promote BDS in Palestine?” and I said, “Absolutely not,” he held up his phone, where they had googled me. And there are these right-wing trolling sites that have all sorts of false things that say I’m committed to the destruction of Israel, I’m anti-Semitic, I hate Jews, I want to kill Jews. None of that is true. And he said, “See! You’re lying! You’re lying to me because you’re here to promote BDS in Palestine!” And I said, “I’m absolutely not here to do that. We’re here as tourists”—political tourists, to be sure, but tourists. And at that point, two other guys started yelling at me that I was a liar and that they were going to deport me and ban me permanently, for life, from entering Israel.
AMY GOODMAN: So, how long were you held for?
KATHERINE FRANKE: Fourteen hours.
AMY GOODMAN: How long were you questioned?
KATHERINE FRANKE: About an hour.
AMY GOODMAN: Of that time.
KATHERINE FRANKE: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: And did they tell you then, “We are deporting you”?
KATHERINE FRANKE: He said he was deporting me. And then, later, he came back out and said, “Well, if you tell me more about your delegation and about the other people in the delegation”—basically give them intelligence about the other people in the delegation—”I’ll think about not deporting you.” And I said, “I’ve told you the truth about everything.” And then he started in again about how I was lying.
VINCENT WARREN: And that’s actually where my interrogation picked up, because after they interrogated Katherine, they pointed to Katherine and said, “Why are you traveling with someone who’s the head of the BDS movement in the United States?” which is—you know, it’s ridiculous. But then they also were asking me a lot of questions about who was on the delegation, where were they going, that sort of thing. So they were really trolling for information. And part of the thing that’s important is that, in these spaces, you really shouldn’t and can’t give information about where the delegation is going, because we want to keep those people safe, and we want them—and as well as the people that they’re visiting with. And, you know, there are 20 or 30 different organizations, both Palestinian and Israeli, that they were looking at.
They moved us to a secure detention area. We were separated. I was taken in a van to a cell, an immigration detention cell, where I was held for about four-and-a-half hours in that cell, before Katherine and I were reunited. Interestingly enough, virtually everybody in that cell other than myself was Ukrainian and Russian. And so, my Russian is not that good, so I didn’t really communicate, other than in sign language, but I communicated enough to know that some of those folks had been there for three days and didn’t know when they were going to be going home. And so, my takeaway from this was, this is the type of things that people trying to immigrate into a country like Israel or the United States have to deal with all the time. And as horrible as it was to be there for a number of hours and to be questioned, we have to be mindful that in the immigration fights this is happening to people all over the place. This is not a sort of a temporary transaction. This is a real incursion, I think, into liberty and dignity, just for people who want to be able to transit and to live their lives.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: And in terms of your deportation, did it get any coverage in the Israeli press at all?
VINCENT WARREN: Well, we’re getting inquiries now from the Israeli press, and so I think they’re interested in, I guess, hearing our side of the story. I’m sure some of them already have their side of the story. But we’re starting to get inquiries into that, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: And how are you—are you planning to challenge this deportation?
VINCENT WARREN: Well, we’re looking into it, because it was—as Katherine mentioned, it was totally untrue. It was based on all of these lies and conclusions. So, we—I think we’re looking into what we can do about that.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: It also, though, Katherine, does seem to signal the increasing desperation of the Israeli government in trying to stop the BDS movement, doesn’t it, to some degree?
KATHERINE FRANKE: Well, they pride themselves as being, supposedly, the only democracy in the Middle East. But they’re a democracy, supposedly, that represses free speech within Israel itself, within the West Bank, and punishes civil rights defenders or human rights defenders like ourselves, by not letting us come and witness what’s going on there. That, to me, doesn’t sound like a democracy.
You know, the curious thing is, as we’re sitting in detention, and, actually, while I was being interrogated, the president of Columbia University walked right by us. He was leaving the country while we were in the airport. He didn’t know we were there, so it’s not that he shunned me in any way. But Columbia University is planning on or thinking about opening up a global center in Tel Aviv—a center that faculty and students at Columbia University cannot visit, myself most prominently now. Part of why I was in—
AMY GOODMAN: This is Lee Bollinger, walked by?
KATHERINE FRANKE: Lee Bollinger.
AMY GOODMAN: Were you able to say hello to him? Did you see him?
KATHERINE FRANKE: No, I didn’t see him. I heard about it afterwards, when I got home, that he was traveling through the airport the same time we were there. I would like to think that Lee would have reached out, had he known I was there.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: “That’s one of my employees.”
KATHERINE FRANKE: Yeah. He’s a—he’s a good person.
But part of what I had planned to do while I was in Israel was visit with graduate students, both in Haifa and in Ramallah, who actually can’t come to Columbia right now to work with me, because they can’t get—the one in Ramallah cannot get a permit—
AMY GOODMAN: In the West Bank.
KATHERINE FRANKE: —from the Israelis to visit the United States. And so, I can’t work with my own graduate students because of this ban and because of the enormous travel restrictions that are placed on Palestinians.
AMY GOODMAN: So, in January, Israel published a list of 20 international groups, many of them affiliated with the BDS movement, that are banned from entering the country. Israel’s Minister of Strategic Affairs Gilad Erdan, whose office published the list, said that the list signaled that Israel has shifted, quote, “from defense to offense.” He went on to say, “Boycott organizations need to know that Israel will act against them and will not allow [them] to enter its territory in order to harm its citizens.” Professor Franke, can you respond?
KATHERINE FRANKE: Well, the curious thing is, in deciding about who they ought to let in and who they shouldn’t let in and what their security interests are, the security personnel of the Israeli government have assigned to private, right-wing, unreliable trolls the job of deciding who is a security risk and who isn’t. That’s the folks that they googled when they held up the phone to me and said, “Look, you’re committed to the destruction of the state of Israel.” Right? So, it’s actually a kind of hack way to be doing their own security project, by allowing these websites to decide who to admit and who not to admit. But it’s quite clear that they are very worried about a peaceful mode of resistance, which is the boycott movement, and they’ve really ratcheted up the ways in which they’re excluding people from entering.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: Vince, I wanted to ask you. Interestingly, those who remember the boycott and divestment movement against the South African white minority regime, even the South African government didn’t go to this kind of extreme for people who were opposed to its policies.
VINCENT WARREN: No, that’s definitely true. I really cut my political teeth in college, and I was one of the leaders in my college to get the school to divest from, you know, holdings in South Africa. But you’re right. I mean, the political situation was a little bit different, because there was also not only a divestment movement, but there was also—people were not traveling to the country, at least officially, to get in. I’m sure that if they had been, that the South African government might have taken this role.
But what is interesting about Israel is that it is a fluid situation. I think it has also captured the international attention the way that South Africa has. And I think the big challenge now in the information age, which we didn’t have back in 1980-something, is how do we stay in touch and support the work that’s happening on the ground from a place like the United States, which would include also working, in country, with students and with activists, to make sure that, if nothing else, the actual stories get out to the international community.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, we’re talking about a moment now of severe crisis, not that in recent years it hasn’t been, but in Gaza. Since March 30th, this massive, nonviolent, ongoing protest at the wall between Israel and Gaza, nonviolent protesters gunned down by the Israeli military, more than 40 of them at this point, two journalists, Palestinian journalists, as we described the picture of—showing the picture of one of them with a very clear ”PRESS” sign on him, these protests continuing up through May 15th, the 70th anniversary of the founding of Israel, what Palestinians call the Nakba, when they were, so many, hundreds of thousands of them, were expelled. Were you planning to go to Gaza?
VINCENT WARREN: No, we were not planning to go to Gaza, and mostly because you can’t get into Gaza, number one. Number two, that these—the delegation were people that had not been to the region before, mostly, and so we were looking primarily to have them interact with folks in Israel and in the West Bank, but outside of Gaza.
But I will say that it is an absolute crisis that’s going on. And even—even in places like the West Bank and in parts of Jerusalem, which doesn’t even approach the horror that’s happening in Gaza, it is an extraordinary situation. This would have been my second time going. And I have to say, the first time that I went, I was expecting really bad things, but I was not prepared—I was not prepared for the level of structural targeting and racial profiling that is happening in that region. It is mind-boggling. And that’s why we were trying to bring people to the delegation, because people need to see this for themselves. They can’t read about it on Facebook. They can’t look at these websites that are characterizing it. They have to see for themselves.
AMY GOODMAN: And certainly, it’s astounding the lack of coverage of what’s happening in Gaza right now by the corporate media here in the United States.
KATHERINE FRANKE: It is astounding, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. Vince Warren, head of the Center for Constitutional Rights; Katherine Franke, professor at Columbia University, law professor. That does it for our show. Both deported from Israel this weekend.