Twenty-eight-year-old Laith Abu Zeyad, an Amnesty International campaigner, never really thought that working for a human rights organization would turn him into a controversial figure.
At the heart of this controversy lies none other than a question of his true intentions as an Amnesty employee. If you believe the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security service, Abu Zeyad poses such a grave security threat that it warrants barring him from entering the State of Israel.
In contrast, Chen Bril Egri, head of Campaigns for Refugees and Asylum Seekers at Amnesty and a colleague of Abu Zeyad, argues that he is a gentle soul who wouldn’t hurt a fly.
“Laith is not a political person at all outside of what he does for Amnesty,” she recently told Zman Yisrael, the Hebrew sister site of The Times of Israel. “He doesn’t even have a Facebook account. He is so kind that when he found out that there was a Shin Bet warrant against him he didn’t even understand what it was about.”
According to Bril Egri, Abu Zeyad, a resident of the Palestinian town of el-Azariya, north of Jerusalem, had applied for an entry permit to Israel so he could accompany his mother to an east Jerusalem hospital.
“He was refused but they [Israeli authorities] didn’t give him a reason. He asked me to find out what happened so I made a few phone calls and found out the Shin Bet had barred his entry.”
“Laith, in his naïveté, arrived at the checkpoint, introduced himself, and asked to speak with the Shin Bet officer on-site to understand what was going on. They laughed in his face. He was told there was no one there he could speak with, and to leave his contact information — someone will get back to him. Naturally, he hasn’t heard from them since,” she said.
Abu Zeyad is not the first Palestinian to find himself on the Shin Bet’s blacklist and doubtless won’t be the last. What Amnesty International regards as the banality and randomness of his case, however, are why the NGO plans to use it to call global attention to the situation.
According to Amnesty’s data, there are currently 500,000 Palestinians who cannot enter Israel on the Shin Bet’s orders. Bril Egri says many of them work with human rights groups “and they are also barred from traveling outside the West Bank to the United States or Europe, which prevents them from talking about what’s going on here. Laith isn’t the only one.”
Bril Egri said the organization plans to launch an international campaign “over Abu Zeyad’s persecution.”
“We take what has been done to him very seriously, to the point where Amnesty’s secretary general [Kumi Naidoo] is involved. As far as we are concerned a red line has been crossed,” she said.
“Amnesty is a veteran human rights organization. It doesn’t only work against human rights violations by Israel, but against human rights violations in general — including those committed by the Palestinian Authority. In fact, the only time Laith has ever been detained and questioned has been when he was documenting human rights violations by the PA,” she noted.
“The Palestinian police arrested him when he took photos at a demonstration. They questioned him, he got a beating and they released him. The PA doesn’t like human rights organizations either,” said Bril Egri.
In person, Abu Zeyad come off as a soft-spoken and calm individual, who weighs his words carefully. He says he still fails to understand how and why he suddenly became such a serious security risk that the State of Israel has found it necessary to issue not one, but two different warrants against him: One preventing him from entering Israel proper, and another barring him from leaving the West Bank.
Looking out of the windows of Amnesty International’s Ramallah headquarters, it’s possible to see Israel’s coastline. Abu Zeyad said this reminds him of his childhood, and trips he used to take with his father, a former driver for Israeli home appliance company Tadiran, to the beach in Tel Aviv.
“Since I started working at Amnesty two years ago, I had a work permit in Israel, so I traveled freely to meetings in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I also attended a workshop we did in Haifa. Until last May I could go anywhere in Israel,” he said.
In other words, if Abu Zeyad harbors the kind of nefarious intentions that prompted the Shin Bet to label him a “serious security threat,” he would have had plenty of opportunities to realize them.
He graduated from al-Quds University in Abu Dis, in east Jerusalem, in 2014 and completed his master’s degree in human rights at the London School of Economics in 2015. He was hired by Amnesty’s London office soon after that, and when he returned to his parents’ home in el-Azariya later that year, he began working as a campaigner for the local Amnesty office.
The Amnesty campaigner suspects that the seeds of his ban began in January 2019, when Amnesty released a report titled, “Destination: Occupation,” in which it castigated tourism websites Airbnb, Booking.com, Expedia and TripAdvisor for promoting tourism in settlements in disputed territories such as the West Bank.
“By listing properties and attractions in Israeli settlements, digital tourism companies are profiting from war crimes,” the report stated. The companies’ “promotion of Israeli settlements in the OPT [occupied Palestinian territories] as a tourist destination also has the effect of normalizing and legitimizing to the public what is recognized under international law as an illegal situation.”
Soon after the report came out, Airbnb said it would delist some 200 settlement homes from its website, but the ensuing backlash by Israel, Jewish organizations worldwide and several states in the US, as well as lawsuits filed against it over the decision in Jerusalem, Delaware, and California, eventually caused the website to reverse its decision.
Tourism Minister Yariv Levin said at that time, “Nothing will change the simple historic truth – the land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel. We will fight this despicable anti-Semitic decision. We will not tolerate any boycott of Israel or parts of it.” Public Security and Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan likewise slammed Amnesty, saying that it was “cooperating with the anti-Semitism, anti-Israel boycott campaign.”
As an Amnesty campaigner, Abu Zeyad represented the organization in the media with regards to the controversial report. Most likely, he said, that was the moment he became a security hazard.
“In May, we were told that our entry permits to Israel, which were always renewed automatically, will no longer be renewed. This didn’t surprise us — after our statements against Israeli ministers we figured something like this could happen. We were told that we were no longer recognized as an international organization so the permits won’t be renewed,” Abu Zeyad said.
“Any attempt to figure it out met the same reply — we have to get Amnesty’s registration settled — a procedural thing. In late July I traveled to the US through Jordan. I got back on August 7 and there was no problem with it.”
“On September 5, my mother, Zubeida, was diagnosed with stomach cancer. On September 8, the hospital here gave us all the necessary medical documentation to start urgent care at Augusta Victoria Hospital in east Jerusalem. I applied for a one-time entry permit on humanitarian grounds so I could take her [to the hospital] and I was refused. The officer that denied my request didn’t explain why. We hired a lawyer and appealed but it was denied. We weren’t given a reason,” he said.
Things were further complicated when in late October, Abu Zeyad tried to accompany his father to a family funeral in Jordan.
At the Israel-Jordan border crossing, he was told that not only was he barred from entering Israel, he was now also barred from going to Jordan.
This meant he was effectively imprisoned in the West Bank.
Abu Zeyad informed his lawyer about the situation and the latter said they could file an appeal.
“He explained that an appeal against the ban on leaving the [Palestinian] territories is different than an appeal against the ban on entering Israel, that each order could have a different reason or it could be the same for both — there’s no way of knowing,” he said.
The appeal over the directive barring Abu Zeyad from leaving the West Bank was filed on November 5 and the state has eight weeks to respond, so things remain in limbo.
Other attempts to find out why Abu Zeyad is the subject of two orders limiting his movements so drasticallly have also proven futile. At no point has he been called in for questioning by Israeli authorities or given any explanation.
“They could have questioned me so many times — every time I applied for a permit to enter Israel. But they never did. I was just informed that I can’t leave [the West Bank],” said Abu Zeyad.
In an attempt to understand the reasons for the orders barring Abu Zeyad from entering or leaving Israel, Zman Yisrael contacted the Shin Bet and inquired about the security reasons for which he was banned from entering Israel and going to Jordan, as well as whether those reasons were related to his work in Amnesty. Zman Yisrael further inquired whether the measures taken against Abu Zeyad followed Erdan’s directive to take action against Amnesty personnel, or if they were related to any concrete suspicion against him.
A statement by the Shin Bet said: “The order barring Mr. Abu Zeyad from leaving for Jordan is based on significant security reasons. Contrary to the claim presented in your inquiry, there is no connection between his work at Amnesty and the hold-departure order issued in his case. Any attempt to claim otherwise is devoid of any factual element.”
The usual suspect
However, when Abu Zeyad tries to think what could have possibly earned him the dubious title of “security threat,” the only thing that comes to mind is the “Destination: Occupation” report and campaign. “I did most of the interviews for that so you can say I was the face of that campaign,” he said.
The problem, he thinks, is that in the current political climate, taking a critical stance over a debate that has been going on for five decades is enough to render a man like Abu Zeyad a “security threat.”
The current Israeli government is unwilling to hear any criticism regarding the settlements, period
“All we did was ask the tourism companies to present accurate information. That’s all — that they refrain from advertising places they recommend in settlements as ones that are in Israel, rather that they explain that they are in disputed territories. Let people decide for themselves whether this information is relevant to them or not,” he said.
“We were immediately accused of being an ‘anti-Semitic’ organization that was urging tourists not to visit Jerusalem. And we didn’t do that. One of the sites we referred to was the City of David in Jerusalem, which TripAdvisor recommended, so those who attacked us said we were trying to stop tourists from visiting Jewish holy places, so we must be an anti-Semitic organization.
“Naturally, our claims had nothing to do with the place itself or its sanctity. We just raised the question of who runs the site, and whether or not it should be stated that it is in an area that the international community refers to as occupied territory,” he continued.
“The attack on me is part of the attack on all human rights organizations. It has to do with the fact that the current Israeli government is unwilling to hear any criticism regarding the settlements, period,” he charged. “That’s why you see attacks on activists working for large, international human rights organizations as well, like in our case. It’s not just Palestinian rights organizations anymore, that you can say, ‘Okay, they’re biased, they’re one-sided.'”
According to Abu Zeyad, Amnesty international has no clear position on the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
“We don’t support BDS, nor do we campaign for it. The argument over the settlements exists regardless of the calls for a boycott. All we are saying is that Israel should align with the international standard,” he said.
“We haven’t even called on international companies to boycott the settlements. All we asked is that they provide those who come here with accurate information so that they can make an informed decision. We’ve said again and again that we don’t support BDS and that our campaign is not a BDS campaign,” said Abu Zeyad.
But that, he claimed, “Has done little to stop Israeli ministers from claiming that Amnesty supports the BDS movement and that it’s an anti-Semitic organization. As far as they are concerned, if you even mention the settlements you’re a BDS supporter.”
Asked whether it considers Amnesty International to be a pro-BDS organization, the Ministry of Strategic Affairs said it is not involved in this issue. The ministry, which is at the forefront of Israeli government efforts to counter BDS, issued a report in February called “Terrorists in suits: The ties between NGOs promoting BDS and terror organizations.” Amnesty was not discussed in the 76-page report, and was mentioned only once, in a footnote.
According to Abu Zeyad, while paroled security prisoners have long had their movements restricted, Israeli authorities have taken to using the same measures “against people who have never been arrested or interrogated. This has been happening to human rights activists as well.”
“You can never be sure why it will happen or to whom, because they never explain it. We [Amnesty] know of more cases of people who have never been arrested or questioned, and yet they are barred from leaving [the West Bank]. My case is not rare, but I don’t know — nor can I know — how many similar cases there are.”
The most frustrating thing is the fact that no one on the Israeli side is willing to provide a reason for these warrants, he said.
“Not knowing anything, not getting any answers from anyone about why these orders were issued against me, nor knowing how long it will last — it’s very frustrating. Will it end tomorrow morning? Will it last for years? I don’t know,” he said.
The ordeal comes at a time when his family is going through a tough time due to his mother’s illness. “She was hospitalized recently — I live 15 minutes from the hospital, but I can’t go be with her, even though she needs me. It’s a very frustrating, depressing situation,” he said.
A version of this article first appeared in Hebrew on The Times of Israel’s sister site, Zman Yisrael.