Israeli officials detained, interrogated and deported five American campaigners trying to enter the country to “observe the conditions under which Palestinians live," according to a U.S. rights group.
The activists were trying to “gain a better understanding of the situation on the ground,” according to the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, which describes itself as a national coalition working for Palestinian rights.
“Upon their arrival [on July 17], a U.S. campaign staffer and four other members of the group — all carrying U.S. passports — were interrogated by Israeli border police about their backgrounds and political involvement,” a statement issued by the organization Tuesday said.
Four of the five were “people of color and Muslim” and the fifth had a long beard, the group added. Americans do not need visas to enter Israel.
A spokesman for Israel's Interior Ministry said three of the five campaigners were denied entry for "security reasons" but did not elaborate on what those reasons were. The U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation did not provide the names of two of the activists so Israeli officials could not provide information on their attempts to enter.
The delegates, who included Bina Ahmad, a New York City public defender, were denied entry into Israel and then put into a “filthy” cell, according to the group. After up to 18 hours they were deported back to the U.S.
“The woman interrogating me called me a terrorist in the main waiting area ... where there were plenty of people around, accusing me of coming to do bombings and threatening to tell the U.S. government this,” Ramah Kudaimi, the group's director of grassroots organizing, was quoted as saying in the statement.
Calls to the U.S. Consulate “resulted in no assistance for the delegates,” according to the organization.
American officials were aware of reports on the incident but could not get into details because of “privacy considerations,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner told journalists Tuesday.
“The U.S. government remains concerned about unequal treatment that some Arab-Americans — receive at Israel's borders and checkpoints,” he added. “And we regularly raise with Israeli authorities our concerns about the issue of equal treatment for all U.S. citizens in ports of entry.”