Israel has denied entry to a prominent theologian and academic for her alleged activism in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement – the first time officials say a foreign national has been refused entry for that reason.
Isabel Phiri, who is an assistant general secretary with the World Council of Churches in Geneva, was refused a visa at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport on Monday afternoon.
The inter-church organisation condemned the move saying it was based on false and inaccurate information.
While pro-Palestinian foreign activists are often turned away by Israel, officials said it was the first time a foreign national had been refused entry specifically for pro-BDS activities.
Israel’s interior minister, Aryeh Deri, said he had decided against issuing the visa after consultation with the public security minister, Gilad Erdan, who is also in charge of countering anti-Israel boycotts.
In a statement to media, Deri said: “Granting an entry permit to activists such as Phiri would in effect reinforce the wrongful activities she and her peers are advancing and I have no intention of lending a hand to that. I will use any authority at my disposal to avert harm to Israel.”
Erdan said: “The place of the boycotters is outside the country’s borders and we shall continue to do everything possible to prevent them from entering our country.”
Speaking to the Guardian, Tveit said that far from working to delegitimise Israel, the WCC had recognised Israeli statehood in 1948, regarded “antisemitism as a sin” and had no connection to BDS.The claims were denied by Olav Fykse Tveit, the general secretary of the WCC, who accused the Israeli authorities of discrimination by singling out the only African member of the delegation, describing the move as “patently unjust and discriminatory action against Phiri”.
“I am very surprised and dismayed that the Israeli ministry of interior is apparently basing its decisions on incorrect and unreliable sources.” He added that the WCC volunteers and staff in Israel worked as observers and that his organisation was committed to a just two-state solution under international law.
“The accusations made against the WCC and the [accompaniment] programme in the interrogation of Dr Phiri and published in the [Israeli] media today are completely false.”
That programme recruits observers to Palestinian towns and villages to offer a “protective presence to vulnerable communities” and to monitor and reporting rights abuses, he added.
The decision to refuse entry to Phiri is likely to be controversial because of her profile. Before joining the WCC Phiri was a professor of African theology, and head of the school of religion, philosophy and classics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.
The WCC represents churches, denominations and church fellowships in more than 110 countries, and claims to represent more than 500 million Christians and including most of the world’s Orthodox churches, scores of Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist and Reformed churches, as well as many United and independent churches.
Justifying the refusal of Phiri’s visa, Israeli ministers cited pro-Palestinian activities of the WCC which include its accompaniment programme. Under the scheme, the WCC has brought 1,500 volunteers to Israel.
A bill to prevent foreign supporters of the BDS movement from entering Israel is going through the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, although ministers have the right to deny individuals entry on a case-by-case basis.
In a sign of the increasing pressure on BDS supporters both foreign and otherwise, Israel this year refused permission to one of the movements co-founders, Omar Barghouti, who is married to an Israeli citizen of Palestinian origin, to travel out of the country for a speaking tour.
The issues of BDS – a Palestinian grassroots initiative with growing international support – have become significant for the Israeli hard right coalition as prominent companies including Veolia, Orange – and most recently the British-based security firm G4S – have downscaled operations in Israel after public campaigns.the guardian news
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