x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Israel tramples uncontested on Arab American rights

By banning or harrassing Arab-Americans trying to enter Israel, the government of that country is ignoring its treaty obligations, and giving more evidence of its injustice towards Arabs.

A few weeks ago, a Palestinian-American travelling to the West Bank to visit her family was stopped by Israeli airport officials and ordered to log on to her email account and provide her password so that the Israelis could read her private communications. Security agents told the woman, Sandra Tamari, that she had to do this before she could be allowed to enter the country.

Disturbing? You bet it is. But even more upsetting was what happened when Ms Tamari lodged a complaint about her treatment with a US official. As she relates their conversation:

US official: "Hello. You are being questioned by Israeli authorities, I understand?"

Sandra Tamari: "They are threatening to deport me."

US official: "Are you Jewish?"

Sandra Tamari: "No."

US official: "Have you been in contact with the Israeli government or military before?"

Sandra Tamari: "No."

US official: "Have you been here before?"

Sandra Tamari: "Yes, several times. I am a Palestinian with family in the West Bank."

US official: "Oh, you have family in the West Bank. Then there is nothing I can do to help you. In fact, if I interceded on your behalf, it would hurt your case with the Israelis."

Sandra Tamari: "I don't understand. You are saying you can't speak with them. You have no influence. They are demanding to access my Gmail account."

US official: "If they have your Gmail address, they can get in without your password."

Sandra Tamari: "What do you mean? How?"

US official: "They're good!"

Sandra Tamari: "This is crazy. You mean you know about these requests to access emails and you have no problem with it."

US official: "It is in our travel warning. They won't harm you. You will be sent home on the next flight out."

This story is infuriating on many levels. Israeli treatment of Americans of Arab descent is demeaning and disgraceful - though it pales in comparison with the daily humiliation endured by Palestinians at checkpoints and borders. More disturbing is the acceptance of this behaviour and the cavalier disregard some American officials have displayed to these violations of the rights of their own citizens.

Since the 1970s the Arab American Institute has logged hundreds of complaints from hundreds of American citizens of Arab descent travelling to or within Israel and the Occupied Territories. These people were detained for hours of humiliating questioning; denied entry; turned away at airports and made to buy tickets to return home; forced to surrender their American passports; strip searched; or had property stolen or deliberately destroyed by airport inspectors.

These stories are hurtful and have caused great distress to many. There are many Palestinian Americans who, because of their concern with this treatment, have simply stopped going to visit family.

My organisation has called successive US administrations to task for failing to hold Israel accountable for these behaviours, which are in clear violation of Israel's treaty obligations to the US. In the 1951 US-Israel Treaty of Friendship, Commerce, and Navigation, Israel pledged to permit US citizens the right "to travel freely, to reside at places of their choice; to enjoy liberty of conscience".

Sadly, instead of protecting its citizens, the United States has all too often claimed to be powerless, thus enabling Israel to continue to violate the rights of Arab Americans with impunity. This is unconscionable since it relegates Arab Americans to the status of second class citizens.

Does America's "special relationship" with Israel cancel out the right of American citizens of Arab descent to equal protection by their own government? From the comments of the US official to Ms Tamari, that would appear to be the case. The "travel warning" he pointed out to her specifically notes that "US citizens with Arabic or Muslim names, those born in Muslim or Middle Eastern countries" can be expected to be treated differently by "Israeli border authorities".

To understand just how infuriating this warning is, substitute "Jewish" for "Arabic" and "Jordanian border authorities" for "Israeli border authorities". Then ask yourself what the reaction of the State Department and Congress would be if that were the case?

Would they merely issue a "warning" or "advisory" to American Jews - as if this behaviour were some "act of nature" to be lamented but accepted? And yet this is exactly what happened to Ms Tamari and it is what has happened repeatedly for decades to countless other Arab Americans travelling to and within Israel and the Occupied Territories.

I have been assured by many Secretaries of State that there is but one class of US citizenship, that as Arab Americans people will be protected and that this matter will be taken up with Israeli authorities. They have done so. And yet the systematic discrimination against and harassment of Americans of Arab descent by the state of Israel not only persists, it has worsened.

This is because after the initial protest is ignored by Israel, the US government shrugs its shoulders as if to say "there is nothing more we can do". Well there is something more they can do. They just either cannot or will not muster the political courage to protect the rights of Arab Americans when Israel is involved. And they admit as much with their pathetic travel warning.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa