Shin Bet says prominent author’s claim of border interrogation is not true

Disputing account from Reza Aslan in which agent threatened to separate him from family, security agency says scholar was held only ‘briefly’ after he ‘aroused suspicions’

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Reza Aslan speaks at the UTA "United Voices" Rally at United Talent Agency headquarters on, February 24, 2017, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP)
Reza Aslan speaks at the UTA "United Voices" Rally at United Talent Agency headquarters on, February 24, 2017, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP)

The Shin Bet security service on Wednesday denied as “unfounded” the allegation made by prominent American-Iranian writer Reza Aslan, who said he was detained and threatened by Israel at a border crossing during a recent visit.

The Shin Bet said in a statement that Aslan, a frequent CNN contributor, was held by officers for a “brief interrogation” when he entered Israel from Jordan with his family earlier this month after their “suspicions were aroused.”

“The allegations that threats were made against Mr. Aslan, and that questions of a political nature were asked during the conversation, have been thoroughly examined at your request, and were found to be unfounded and have no basis in reality,” the statement to reporters said.

The Shin Bet defended its security procedures, saying that interrogating foreigners entering Israel has “prevented terrorist and espionage activity in Israel.” The internal security service added that its practices were carried out in accordance with Israeli law.

Azlan, a well-known scholar and author of several books and articles about religion, is a frequent critic of Israeli policies.

The agency’s response comes amid a rash of reports of questionable security measures by both Israelis and foreign nationals, who say they were targeted by the Shin Bet for their political views.

The issue received attention this week after prominent Jewish-American journalist Peter Beinart said he was questioned about his political activities upon arriving in the country for his niece’s bat mitzvah.

After Beinart disclosed his detention at Ben Gurion, Reza publicized his own interrogation at the Israel-Jordan border from two weeks ago, likening it to those in “police states.”

“We can make it so you don’t see your kids for a long time,” Aslan recalled being warned by a female Shin Bet interrogator, in a series of tweets posted Tuesday.

Aslan said he was asked why he hated Israel, and when he responded that he did not, the interrogator insisted that he “hate[s] our prime minister.”

Aslan said she accused him of opposing Israel’s right to exist, which he insisted was not the case, attempting to tell her that he was “against the occupation not Israel.”

After several hours, Aslan said the interrogator warned him: “I may let you into Israel but, who knows, I may not let you out. I will keep you here and kick out your family. It depends on you. You would miss your kids yes?”

“That my friends is the classic police state trick. Iran has perfected it,” the Iranian-born Aslan wrote.

Peter Beinart (L) speaking at a J Street session on July 26, 2016. (JTA)

On Sunday, Beinart became the latest left-wing American Jew to be detained and questioned upon entering Israel.

Beinart, frequent critic of Israel’s policies, said he was taken for questioning after he landed at Ben Gurion on Sunday night, where he was repeatedly asked about his involvement in organizations that could provoke violence, promote anarchy, or threaten Israeli democracy.

In addition to Beinart, Israel has recently detained other American Jews at the airport, including Simone Zimmerman, a co-founder of anti-occupation group IfNotNow; Abby Kirschbaum, who works for an Israeli-Palestinian tour company; and 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 Israel to bar supporters of the BDS movement, which encourages boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel.

But Beinart, a supporter of settlement boycotts, said he was never asked about BDS, and was not offered a legal basis for his detention.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Beinart’s questioning “an administrative mistake,” but the incident had already drawn harsh criticism both in Israel and abroad.

This week, the Haaretz daily reported that the Attorney General’s Office was seeking clarification regarding the growing number of complaints over Shin Bet detentions.

Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit attends a conference at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute on July 2, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Wednesday, Dan Yakir, chief counsel for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, told Haaretz that the security service could be overstepping its authority.

Yakir said border control security have no authority to detain an Israeli citizen at or prevent their entrance to the country. As per a 2017 court ruling, Yakir said, airport security was not legally allowed to withhold an Israeli’s passport or engage them in a “cautionary conversation” without an official summons.

Foreign nationals, Yakir said, may be detained at the border “if there is a reason to suspect that they are not entitled to enter Israel, if they are a threat to security, or if they are a supporter of BDS.”

But, he said, the Shin Bet was not authorized to interrogate non-Israeli citizens about their political activities relating to Israel boycotts; only border agents were allowed to do so.

He stressed to the daily that foreign nationals were not legally obligated to participate in “cautionary conversations” in order to enter Israel.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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