Questioning of Peter Beinart: Lawful but an error - Shin Bet

Shin Bet will no longer ask would-be entrants to Israel about their politics

After criticism over its questioning of liberal US Jews and other government opponents at airports, crossings, Deputy AG says officials at security agency will undergo ‘refresh’

Illustrative: Peter Beinart, left, marching with other activists from the Center for Jewish Nonviolence through the West Bank city of Hebron, July 16, 2016. On the right is the movement’s CEO, Ilana Sumka. (Andrew Tobin)
Illustrative: Peter Beinart, left, marching with other activists from the Center for Jewish Nonviolence through the West Bank city of Hebron, July 16, 2016. On the right is the movement’s CEO, Ilana Sumka. (Andrew Tobin)

One of Israel’s top law enforcement officials said Thursday the Shin Bet security service 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, while defending the agency’s detentions and questioning of Israel critics that sparked criticism and a government inquiry.

“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,” Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber, who conducted the inquiry over the past month, wrote in a Thursday 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.

People standing in line to go through passport control at Ben Gurion International Airport in Israel. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

“It was decided therefore, in agreement with the Shin Bet, to refresh the [officials’ knowledge of the] regulations among the relevant authorities, and to establish oversight mechanisms in the relevant regulations related to such questioning, in a way that will ensure the appropriate balance between avoiding the potential harm to [a detainee’s] rights, the prevention of a ‘chilling effect’ [for activists], and the requirements of security,” Zilber wrote.

Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber at the Knesset on January 31, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Shin Bet “is committed to the letter of the law and understands the sensitivity and delicacy that this issue requires,” she said.

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.

It said its questioning is part of an effort to track organizations and activists working to “convince Israelis and Palestinians to travel to sites with a high potential for friction, and to engage in violent actions there against Jewish residents and the security services” — an apparent reference to activists who arrive in Israel to participate in protests in the West Bank. “Past experience demonstrates that this violent activity can lead to far more serious incidents that have the potential to present a significant threat to the safety of the area’s residents, Palestinian and Jewish alike, as well to the security services and the activists.”

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 last month.

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.

Author Peter Beinart waits to speak at an event November 14, 2012, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/ David Goldman/File)

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.

Prime Minister Benjamin 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.

In the Shin Bet’s Thursday statement, it said an internal inquiry following Beinart’s detention concluded that questioning him was “an error in professional judgment on the part of the relevant official in the Shin Bet, and resulted from the circumstances of his arrival,” an apparent reference to the Hebron visit. The agency added, however, that “the questioning itself was conducted lawfully under the authority granted to the Shin Bet under law.”

After Beinart, a prominent Iranian-American author said he was also questioned and threatened by the Shin Bet two weeks earlier, while entering Israel from Jordan with his family.

In a series of Twitter posts, Reza Aslan likened the interrogation to those in “police states” and said he decided to share the experience after Beinart disclosed his own questioning.

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)

Aslan claimed interrogators threatened to keep him detained in the country while sending his family away and accused him of hating Israel and denying its right to exist.

Though it acknowledged Beinart’s questioning, the Shin Bet denied Aslan’s claims, calling them “unfounded.”

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.

Last month, in an unusual move, the Shin Bet publicized the number of people it said had been denied entry since the beginning of the year. The number was 250, the agency said.

However, the figure included those whose entry was rejected because of links to terror groups or suspected involvement in espionage.

Most of those who were stopped by the Shin Bet at the border crossings “were Muslims, or were in the process of becoming Muslims,” according to a report on the Shin Bet figures from the Kan public broadcaster last month. They arrived from Arab countries, Europe and Africa, the report said. Most were reportedly questioned in Arabic, and the reasons given for their ban included involvement in terror and espionage. A minority were Christians.

The high figure may also be due to the steady rise in visitor entries to the country in general. According to July statistics published by the Tourism Ministry, a record number of tourists visited Israel in the first half of 2018. Some 2.1 million tourist entries were recorded between January and June, the most for any half-year period.

The findings, compiled by the Central Bureau of Statistics, reveal some 1.8 million tourists entered Israel by air — including 63,000 via Ovda Airport near Eilat — 73% more than last year. About 243,000 arrived through land crossings.

The Kan report did not specify if those turned away were attempting to enter Israel on tourist visas.

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