Posted on July 19, 1999 in Washington Watch

American citizens of Arab descent travelling to or residing in Israel, the West Bank or Gaza often encounter violations of their rights.

Arab Americans are sometimes harassed as they seek to board Israeli air carriers in the United States. They experience demeaning and humiliating interrogations upon entering and departing Israel or the Occupied Territories or at checkpoints. Some Arab Americans have been arrested and have complained of being denied due process or of being brutally treated during interrogations.

This is not a new issue. It has been a problem for decades. I first wrote a lengthy complaint outlining reports of such Israeli violations of Arab American rights in 1982. In this document, 30 Arab Americans testified to “strip searches and other forms of harassment…being interrogated by security officials for several hours or being placed under surveillance…” etc.

Much of this has remained the same, despite the fact that in behaving as it does, Israel is in violation of its treaty obligations to the United States.

In a 1951 U.S.-Israel “Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation” each of the two parties agree to provide for and guarantee the rights of each other’s citizens. Specifically the treaty stipulates that U.S. citizens travelling to Israel shall be permitted to “travel freely; and to reside at places or their choice, enjoy liberty of conscience… and be protected against unlawful molestation of every kind” and be “guaranteed the most constant protection and security.”

Unfortunately, the treaty has not been respected or enforced. In December of last year an Arab American who was held in an Israeli prison for six weeks was released. During that time he was abused and denied due process. No charges were ever presented against him.

Another Arab American, Anwar Hamdan who was born in the United States, is currently being held in an Israeli jail. He, too, has so far been held for six weeks and no charges have been filed against him.

In these and other similar cases of Arab Americans arrested and denied due process in Israel, the normal response from the United States Department of State is that when in Israel, Arab Americans are subject to the laws and practices of that country–this, despite the provisions of the 1951 treaty.

In fact, the U.S. State Department issues a “Consular Information Sheet” which provides U.S. travelers guidance on what they can expect when travelling to other countries. In the section that deals with “arrests” the document reads:

    U.S. citizens arrested for security offenses, and U.S. citizens arrested in the West Bank or Gaza for criminal offenses may be prevented from communicating with lawyers, family members, or consular officers for lengthy periods. The U.S. Consulate General and the Embassy are often not notified of such arrests…. U.S. citizens arrested for security offenses may be subject to mistreatment during the interrogation period of their cases. They may be detained for up to six months at a time without charges.

All this is simply stated without comment or protest!

Even more disturbing is the fact that the document advises Palestinian American citizens who once resided in the West Bank or Gaza that upon entry into Israel that they “are subject to the same regulations as other resident Palestinians”–meaning, in other words, that their U.S. citizenship is not, in effect, recognized by Israel!

Having been repeatedly frustrated by efforts to secure the protection of Arab American rights, we resorted to make the issue public.

On the day before Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s arrival in the United States, we issued a release calling on Israel to “Protect the rights of U.S. citizens of Arab descent.” After listing a broad range of Israeli violations, our statement concluded with “These practices must end. Israel has treaty obligations to the United States and is honor bound to protect the rights of all U.S. citizens.”

At the press conference immediately following Barak’s meeting with President Clinton, an Arab reporter directly challenged the Israeli Prime Minister with our petition.

Barak, caught off guard, responded, “I’m ready to look into this problem. We have no intentions to humiliate or to intimidate any Arab citizens, be it Israelis, American or other countries.”

It is important that Arab Americans insist that Barak address the issue, precisely because some anticipate that under his administration there may be some forward movement in the peace process.

As we witnessed six years ago after the signing of the Oslo Accords, the expectations of peace prompted many Arab Americans to travel to Israel and the Occupied lands–many for the first time. Some went to visit family members, some to explore the Holy Land, while others went to seek out ways to invest in building the Palestinian economy. It was as a result of this increase in travel that we began to receive more frequent complaints of harassment and violations of rights.

With expectations once again being raised, the problems may once again grow, unless they are resolved.

It is, of course, disturbing to Arab Americans that we must struggle not only to protect our rights, but also to have our rights recognized. It is a lesson we have learned–through hard experience.

Whether it is in defending our rights in the United States to participate in U.S. politics and to receive appointments to government posts or in defending our rights as we travel abroad–in the end, only our efforts will succeed in securing these rights. It is a struggle we are determined to win, because it is a struggle we cannot afford to lose.

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