Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan on Friday defended recent instances where left-wing Jewish activists were detained and questioned by the Shin Bet security service at airports and borders, saying there were legitimate security concerns.
“In most cases they are activists who were questioned by the Shin Bet, for reasons that the Shin Bet detailed,” Erdan told Hadashot news after it broadcast an item on the recent spate of detentions of American Jews critical of Israeli policies, where many of them were asked about their political opinions of the Israeli government.
“In cases of extreme-left activists, there is a suspicion they will be involved in violent incidents or disturbances, and the Shin Bet, like all security organizations, questions them to understand what their intentions are,” said Erdan, whose ministry is responsible for enforcing a ban on allowing Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) activists into Israel and for compiling lists of those deemed to have worked against Israel. Erdan is also the minister for public security.
Several of those detained were asked their opinions of the Israeli government and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Erdan conceded that this was not appropriate.
“I agree that some questions were, in my eyes inappropriate, and they should not have been asked by a security organization,” Erdan said, pointing to new directives on the subject issued last month.
The former Shin Bet head and ex-Labour MK Ami Ayalon, however, said the agency’s questioning of government critics undermined Israeli democracy, had “crossed a red line” and marked “not a slippery slope but a steep descent downhill.”
Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber said that the Shin Bet would no longer ask detainees at border crossings about their political views and that regulations to that effect would be reiterated to officials at the borders.
“It should be made clear that the questioning carried out by the Shin Bet in these situations was not intended to interfere with [political] protest activities, but to prevent violent and illegal actions carried out from nationalistic motives or in relation to terrorist groups,” Zilber, who conducted an inquiry over the past month, wrote in a letter to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, one of the NGOs that complained about the detentions.
The questioning at the border was “based on intelligence information that raised concerns, and was unrelated to the political identification or affiliation of the questionee,” Zilber said, defending the Shin Bet’s actions.
However, the letter goes on to acknowledge that some Shin Bet and border officials behaved in ways that did not conform to the legal and policy restrictions placed on such questioning — including the requirement to notify the detainee that their questioning was voluntary, and to avoid asking questions about their political views.
She said procedures would be refreshed.
In an appendix to Zilber’s letter, the agency said it received no orders from the political leadership to begin questioning “extremist activists from either left or right.”
It said it had denied entry to Israel of 17 foreigners who were identified as affiliated with the radical left since the start of 2018, the same figure for the same period in 2017.
“The Shin Bet is well aware of the context in which it is operating and the sensitivity of each questioning. The Shin Bet carefully and specifically considers the need for each questioning,” the agency said. “The questioning is not meant to prevent legitimate protest activities,” it added.
The letter from Zilber and the Shin Bet follows a month-long inquiry into the questioning taking place at Israel’s border crossings after American Jewish journalist and prominent critic of the Israeli government Peter Beinart said he was questioned on his political views upon arriving in the country for his niece’s bat mitzvah.
Beinart said he arrived in Israel with his wife and two children to attend his niece’s bat mitzvah celebration, and that security officers at the airport flagged him for extra screening. He was taken for questioning, where an official repeatedly asked him whether he was involved in organizations that might instigate violence, promote anarchy, or threaten Israeli democracy.
The interrogator also allegedly asked about a pro-Palestinian protest he attended in Hebron during his last visit, according to Beinart, who wrote about the experience in The Forward newspaper.
A supporter of calls to boycott Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Beinart said he was never asked about that issue, and was not offered a legal basis for the detention.
Netanyahu condemned Beinart’s detainment, calling it an “administrative mistake,” and a number of left-wing Israeli figures called for an investigation into what some had suggested was a new Israeli policy of blacklisting liberal US Jews and critics of the government’s policies.
Beinart rejected Netanyahu’s apology, saying Palestinians endure “far worse” on a daily basis.
Others who have said they were recently held up include Simone Zimmerman, a co-founder of the progressive Jewish group IfNotNow; Abby Kirschbaum, who works for an Israeli-Palestinian tour company; and the novelist Moriel Rothman-Zecher. In early July, the Jewish pro-boycott activist Ariel Gold was denied entry into Israel.
A law passed last year allows the Interior Ministry to bar entry for supporters of the BDS movement, which encourages boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. Under the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, Israeli citizens may not be prevented from entering the country.