Israel’s Interior Ministry banned British peace activist Gary Spedding from the country for 10 years, claiming that he was an anti-Semitic liar who might start a riot. Unlike other activists who have suffered the same fate, Spedding isn’t giving up without a fight.
An Israeli court is slated to rule next month on a case involving a British human rights activist who was denied entry into the country, deported, and banned for 10 years, who claims that the Interior Ministry is targeting him for his political views.
It all began on January 9, 2014. Gary Spedding, a 25-year-old British pacifist and human rights activist, arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport for a short visit of a little over a week in Tel Aviv and Bethlehem in order to meet with local activists (myself included) and political leaders. It was supposed to be Spedding’s fifth visit to Israel/Palestine in four years, with the previous four going off without a hitch.
The visits were intended to allow Spedding, who is committed to peace between Israelis and Palestinians, to continue learning about the issue from up close, and talk to people about the relative success of the Northern Ireland peace agreement. Despite his young age, Spedding is a one of the central activists in the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland — the only joint Protestant-Catholic party in Northern Ireland’s parliament.
But upon stepping up to the passport control at Ben-Gurion Airport, Spedding was taken to a small room where he said the security team logged onto his mobile phone without permission and scanned through his contacts, text messages and email, manually copying some of the content onto a notepad. He also underwent a lengthy full-body check, and was eventually jailed before being deported. I was told by the Administration of Border Crossings, Population and Immigration that Spedding had been banned for 10 years because of his activities on social media, fearing that he could start riots in Israel or the occupied territories if allowed into the country. Countless activists have undergone the same procedure, from artists to intellectuals to left-wingers.
Spedding began his legal battle against his deportation while still in detention, and continued to pursue upon his return to Britain. After Attorney Gabi Lasky failed to convince the Interior Ministry to change the decision, Spedding submitted an appeal to the Entry to Israel Law Review Tribunal.
These kinds of bans have become more common over the past few years. Those banned include the likes of Professor Noam Chomsky, the 2012 Flytilla activists, activists from Christian organizations or Palestinian aid groups — not to mention foreign nationals of Palestinian descent, who come to visit their families.
This is just a short list, but it is rare that someone takes these cases to court. The court’s ruling could have potential consequences on the Interior Ministry’s policies vis-a-vis other foreign nationals, whose political beliefs are critical of the government.
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According to the Interior Ministry, Spedding was lying about the reasons behind his visit to the country, had previously volunteered for an organization despite only holding a tourist visa (which does not allow volunteering), entered areas administered by the Palestinian Authority without Israeli approval, and that there is a potential that he could cause a riot.
On the face of it, the ministry’s claims seem serious. Upon closer examination, it is difficult not to laugh at their absurdity. For instance, while searching his phone, the security team at the airport found that Spedding had been briefed on “how to act and what to say at the passport control” in order to enter the country. However, according to the conversation included simple instructions such as “be yourself” or “be polite,” adding that should he be detained, Spedding ought to drink water and read a book.
According to a report by the Administration of Border Crossings, Population and Immigration, Spedding was also hoping to travel to the West Bank village of Bil’in. How did they know? Because after announcing on Facebook that he would be traveling to Israel/Palestine, one of his Facebook friends asked him whether he is planning on coming to the village, a question Spedding did not answer. This is how the State of Israel determined that Spedding is on his way to Bil’in, where he may lead demonstrations and riots.
The report also claimed that Spedding had made anti-Semitic remarks in one of his correspondences. In a private chat with one of his friends, which took place after he was accused by right-wingers on the internet of being anti-Semitic, Spedding joked that he is “looking forward to our anti-Semitic adventure together.” Spedding, who is active in raising awareness over Holocaust Remembrance Day and has organized and spoken at conferences on the Holocaust, was offended by the baseless claim.
Another allegation made against Spedding was that he was involved in organizing a protest against an Israeli speaker at Belfast’s Queens University in 2011. Following the protest the speaker’s car was attacked by people unrelated to Spedding, and whom he tried to stop and later denounced, suffering himself from persecution for supposedly supporting the Israeli speaker. Queens University later officially stated that Spedding had nothing to do with the attack, and since that incident he had already been in Israel three times with no problem whatsoever getting in or out. And yet, the Interior Ministry still lists the incident as a reason for banning him from the country.
The report also includes a summary of Spedding’s interrogation by border security agents, which is full of lies and inconsistencies. It falsely claims, for example, that Spedding stated that he had previously volunteered for an organization while in the country, and includes a quote in which he allegedly stated that he came to Israel in order to meet with “members of Knesset who support the Palestinian people.” While Spedding is in contact with a number of MKs, and did not hesitate to tell this to the agents, he never described them as “supporters of of the Palestinian people.”
In the first appeal, Lasky debunked the state’s claims one by one, emphasizing that while the state has the right to determine who can come in to the country, it does not have the right to act arbitrarily without any criteria. In Spedding’s case, Lasky explains, the decision was unreasonable and disproportionate, and was a result of the Interior Ministry’s objections to his political beliefs and activities.
In its response to the appeal, the state simply reused the same arguments it had brought up earlier, completely ignoring Lasky’s claims. In addition, the state also handed over a folder full of classified material against Spedding, preventing him from defending himself from the claims made against him.
Fundraising for future activities
I first met Spedding in 2013, when he invited me to speak about the Israeli occupation before the Northern Ireland Assembly. He also helped me to set up personal meetings with some of the assembly members to talk about the country’s relatively stable peace agreement, which I ended up turning into an article in Haaretz.
It was clear then that Spedding is a true pacifist who opposes all forms of violence, racism, or oppression. “Gary is one of those souls who you can tell feels it on a personal level when there is no peace in the world, and especially in this country,” says Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg, who met Spedding in Northern Ireland as part of an envoy of Israeli MKs who traveled to the country to learn about the Good Friday Agreement.
“I’m hopeful the court will see that most of the ‘evidence’ the Interior Ministry is presenting is of a heavily politicized nature, taken from right-wing blogs and doesn’t substantiate an actual ‘case’ unless they want to admit banning someone purely because they don’t like their politics.” Spedding tells me.
Spedding explains that his presence in the country is important to him, and that both his ban and the outrageous claims of the Interior Ministry have left an indelible stain. “What makes my case unique is that it was the first time the ministry has publicly admitted they monitored my social media feed and gave that as partial reasoning for my deportation. I hope that if my case is won it might open up a route for other activists to challenge their deportations.”
Spedding’s legal battle against the Interior Ministry is a costly one, and he cannot take on all the expenses himself. He is still a student, and his political activities — whether on internal issues in Northern Ireland or those relating to Israel/Palestine — is done in his free time and on his dime. The legal expenses cost tens of thousands of shekels, and he has been able to fundraise nearly all of the money from friends and supporters, but would appreciate any assistance. You can help Spedding and donate to his efforts through Paypal or with a credit card here.
Dimi Reider contributed to this piece. This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.