Two Australian Palestine solidarity activists, former NSW Greens MP Sylvia Hale and Jews Against the Occupation activist Vivienne Porzsolt, were released from immigration detention by an Israeli court on July 13. The court ordered they not be deported.
The judge ruled that while they had not broken any rules, they had a limited time to apply to the Israeli Defence Force to visit Bethlehem and Ramallah in the West Bank. The pair had told immigration on entry to Israel that they wanted to visit Palestine.
Activists are hailing this decision as ground breaking: more than 100 Palestine solidarity activists have been deported in previous days from Tel Aviv airport for requesting to visit Palestine.
As NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge said: “This case has set a precedent with the court holding that simply because a person wants to visit Palestine is not sufficient basis for them to be deported from Israel.”
The pair had taken part in the Freedom Flotilla 2 to Gaza, which was stopped from leaving Greece. So they decided to participate in the “Welcome to Palestine” initiative and accepted an invitation from Dr Mazin Qumsiyeh in Bethlehem to visit. Bethlehem is the sister city of Marrickville, where Hale was a councillor before being elected to parliament.
In an outrageous act, the Israeli authorities deported more than 100 international activists who had flown in to Tel Aviv asking to visit Palestine.
Hale and Porzsolt were preparing for a hostile reception and they got it. “For the alleged crime of saying ‘We want to go to Palestine’, we spent 36 hours in reasonably unpleasant and frustrating detention, were threatened with deportation, and have spent about $4000 on legal fees,” Hale said.
But Israeli human rights lawyers took up their case. “We’ve nothing but praise for our lawyers — Omer Shatz and Iftah Cohen. They were really delighted — and surprised — at the court’s decision, possibly even more than we were.”
Hale told Green Left Weekly that the Australian embassy has also been helpful. However, she said the same could not be said about Israeli immigration officers.
“Our requests to speak to lawyers and consular officials, for showers and food were constantly brushed off with ‘in a few minutes, soon’ … When we complained about the delays and banged on our cell door, we were threatened with handcuffing.”
She said Israeli prosecuters had argued that their cries of “Free Palestine”, “We want to go to Palestine”, and “Free Gaza” had caused a disturbance. “But, as the judge pointed out, we had received no prior warnings that shouting slogans was a forbidden act, and in any case we did not refuse to cooperate thereafter.
“We did, however, not go completely quietly.
“We were refused permission to reclaim our luggage from the baggage carousel and were assured that it was completely safe. However, when we were finally taken to retrieve it, my backpack was missing. We spent a ludicrous 90 minutes searching for it, with a police officer vainly assuring me that we were going to be deported and that my pack would be sent on after. I refused to budge, they threatened to drag me. The pack was eventually found in Lost Property. The whole thing had a Keystone Cops air about it.
“With the baggage eventually retrieved, our bags were thoroughly searched and we were closely patted down. In all, it took from 4.30am, when we arrived in Tel Aviv, until about 8am when we landed in the detention facility.”
The court gave the pair only 24 hours to apply for permission from Israeli authorities to go to the West Bank. They are worried that the politicised bureaucracy may again stymie their efforts to visit Palestine. For example, the interior ministry have them a visa for Israel for only 48 hours.
Porzsolt told GLW: “We are concerned that the minister of the interior is trying to subvert the decision of the court by making it practically impossible for us to go to the West Bank.
"It would mean that the Occupied Palestinian Territories really don’t have a separate status from Israel under Israeli law. But if it means we have 48 hours to get into the West Bank and then apply for another Israeli visa when we come back, that would be great."
Both Hale and Porzsolt say that the precedent that their case has set is very important.
“Anyone may now go to Israel and then request entry to the West Bank. We anticipate possibly thousands of people availing themselves of the opportunity, and wonder just how the Israeli authorities will deal with that!” Hale said.
Keep the pressure up on the Australian government to insist that these two courageous women have the right to visit Palestine.
The Israeli Embassy can be contacted on (02) 6215 4500 (press 8 for English then 2 for the ambassador’s office).
Contact Kevin Rudd’s office: Telephone: (02) 6277 7500; Fax: (02) 6273 4112; Email: email@example.com