a sign with the name of the airport
Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv (Photo/Flickr-NataschaM CC BY-NC 2.0)

In defense of a Palestinian activist mistreated in Israel

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I am a pro-Israel advocate — and I stand up for Ahmed Alkhatib, a Palestinian-born San Franciscan who faced degrading treatment at the hands of Israeli security and was denied entry to Israel and shunted back to the U.S.

Alkhatib told his story in a recent op-ed in J.

Ahmed Alkhatib

At age 16, Alkhatib applied for political asylum and became a U.S. citizen. He graduated from the University of San Francisco and now runs an organization advocating for an internationally controlled airport in Gaza. The concept isn’t wacky. Politicians and commentators on both the left and right in Israel have endorsed it.

Alkhatib planned a trip to Israel in April to visit his sister, who received a scholarship to Hebrew University, and his mother and father, who are in Israel for medical treatment for the father. Alkhatib also planned to meet with Israelis and Palestinians to discuss the proposal for an internationally controlled airport in Gaza.

Recognizing that travel to Israel for a person of Palestinian background, even a U.S. citizen, could be difficult, Alkhatib did the right thing and contacted the Israeli Consulate in San Francisco. As he relates it, the consulate gave a green light: Alkhatib could travel to Israel to see his family and meet with Israelis and Palestinians to talk about his proposal.

On social media, he shared with friends he was going to Israel. Within 24 hours, 200 people “unfriended” him and many sent hate mail. They are pro-Palestinian and accused him of betraying the Palestinian cause by using the word “Israel.” But he went forward with the trip.

He describes that on arriving at Ben Gurion Airport, he was taken aside and his U.S. passport was seized. He was questioned aggressively, subjected to a strip search and forced back on a flight to the U.S. despite the go-ahead he had received in San Francisco. Degrading treatment aside, he lost thousands of dollars in hotel bookings and the like.

I waited before penning this piece. I was expecting and hoping the Israeli government would submit a response in J. There could be another side to the story and I wanted to hear it. Or perhaps the episode was a snafu for which Israel apologized. So I waited. But the government didn’t respond.

For two decades, I have poured my life into defending Israel, advocating for Israel, lobbying members of Congress and U.S. senators to support a strong U.S.-Israel relationship and giving money to support pro-Israel causes. At every turn in the road, I advocate for Israel. I try to move the needle of public opinion in Israel’s favor, an often challenging task in the Bay Area. Taxi drivers, people I meet in a bar, friends — whenever possible, I make known I am Jewish and care about Israel, and I say why. I stand up to the “Palestinian narrative,” which casts Israel as evil, a colonialist, oppressor and illegitimate.

Which makes Mr. Alkhatib’s episode all the more upsetting. He is not an extremist. He is precisely the kind of person Israel should embrace. He acted with courage and alienated hundreds of his anti-Israel friends. He advocates an idea that is entirely within the ambit of mainstream proposals for dealing with Gaza.

He speaks in a moderate tone at the polar opposite of the demonizing and vilifying voices that go for Israel’s jugular at every moment. “I will not be hateful or bitter,” he says. “I forgive the Israeli officers who treated me badly. For their attitudes and behavior to be different next time, I know that ceaseless, committed grassroots Israeli and Palestinian efforts towards mutual respect and understanding must prevail.”

Israel has real threats to deal with coming from all directions: An Iranian vow to annihilate Israel; Palestinian terrorism, incitement to hate and rewarding of terrorists; rockets aimed from Gaza and Lebanon; ferocious invective against Israel in the United Nations; anti-Semitic propaganda directed at the Jewish state in Arab media and textbooks and in mosques.

So with all this, Israel should lunge at the opportunity for friends — people willing to accept it and treat it with the respect it is due. Ahmed Alkhatib appears to be exactly one of those people. He deserved better treatment.

Adam Cole
Adam Cole

Adam Cole is a lawyer and writer in San Francisco.