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Israel Shuts Out Palestinians' 'Supporters'

Mideast: The nation's stepped-up policy of denying entry to foreign activists hinders efforts to monitor conditions, rights groups contend.

July 04, 2002|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — With Israeli troops reoccupying much of the West Bank, the government has begun routinely barring foreign human rights activists deemed too sympathetic to Palestinians from entering Israel.

The practice has become so common that rights groups say it is hampering the international community's ability to monitor and report on human rights issues in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Under the policy, introduced in March but recently intensified as troops have moved into more Palestinian-controlled areas, 35 would-be visitors were turned back at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv during the last week of June, according to figures provided by the Interior Ministry. The airport is the principal port of entry for international travelers seeking to reach the Palestinian territories.

Many of those turned back were Italians who had been invited to participate in a joint Israeli-Palestinian peace demonstration that was subsequently canceled.

Eighteen other activists, including 17 American citizens traveling under the auspices of Fellowship of Reconciliation, a New York-based pacifist group, were sent back to the United States on Tuesday.

"They wanted to go to Gaza, Hebron, Bethlehem and other places that are now closed military zones," said Tova Ellinson, spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry, of the Americans who were sent away. "They want to support the Palestinians who are for sure, now, our enemy. Nobody, anywhere in the world, can go to a country and support its enemy."

In a statement, Interior Minister Eli Yishai warned that "the ministry does not, nor will it, allow those coming to support terror and those out to harm the state of Israel into the country, especially at such a difficult time."

The policy, joked Yossi Sarid, leader of the left-wing opposition in the Israeli parliament, is "having a direct personal impact" on him because he takes telephone calls from the airport "all the time now" from people being barred from entering the country.

The Fellowship of Reconciliation delegates carried with them a letter from Sarid saying they had an appointment with him. A spokesman for the interfaith organization, which includes Muslims, Jews and Christians, said its members had intended to visit Palestinian-controlled areas and meet with Israeli politicians and Jewish settlers.

"This was our fourth trip this year, and we had not had any problems previously," said Ben Rempell, assistant project coordinator for the group's missions to Israel and the Palestinian-controlled territories. "This time, the group left with the Israelis refusing to provide a reason for why they were not being allowed into the country."

Sarid said the restrictions represent "a sort of collective punishment. The authorities have no idea about the character and the nature of the groups" that are being denied entry.

Rights groups say the policy is particularly damaging at a time when there is a large-scale Israeli military presence in Palestinian-held areas and the crumbling Palestinian Authority is unable to serve the needs of the besieged population.

"It is much more comfortable to again invade the occupied territories without being molested by human rights activists," said Gaby Lasky, a lawyer with the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel. The group is representing three activists, including one from the United States, who were arrested in the Balata refugee camp in the West Bank in May and slated for deportation. They have appealed to the Israeli courts.

The access of international organizations to the West Bank and Gaza is particularly important, Lasky said, at a time when Israelis are banned by their government for traveling to those areas because of security concerns.

"Many local human rights organizations depend on foreign staff members, their language skills and professional expertise, in order to pass their findings on to the outside word," Lasky said.

Several human rights and legal aid organizations contacted by The Times said they were studying the issue and might file appeals in Israeli courts.

The interior minister has broad leeway to ban almost anyone from entering the country, said Michal Pinchuk, a lawyer with the Assn. for Civil Rights in Israel. But "this is misuse of the interior minister's authority to decide who comes into the country and who doesn't. Being a human rights activist, by itself, should not be a reason to deny someone from entering Israel."

Citing security concerns, government spokesmen made no apologies for a policy they say they were forced to institute after droves of foreign activists were allowed entry at Ben Gurion, only to join Palestinian demonstrations and sneak into cities and villages that had been declared closed military zones.

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