By Amira Hass

Tags: Israel news

Three Christian pilgrims – all U.S. citizens in their 30s born in Eritrea or Ethiopia – were expelled from Israel last Thursday, just hours after landing at Ben-Gurion International Airport. The individuals were reportedly denied entry into the country after one of them told Israeli officials she was acquainted with an African refugee, who authorities discovered had not been granted asylum in Israel.

Johannes Bayu, director of the African Refugee Development Center, told Haaretz that two of the pilgrims, a man and a woman, had already gone through passport control and were waiting to claim their baggage when officials called them back for further questioning. They had learned that the third member of the group, in reply to a routine question at the passport control window, knew an African asylum seeker in Israel.

Bayu said an Interior Ministry inspector looked up the refugee’s name

and discovered that he did not have an Israeli identity number – an indication that he had not been granted asylum.

In an attempt to prevent the pilgrims’ deportation, Bayu enlisted the services of attorney Smadar Ben-Natan. He also traveled to the airport in an unsuccessful effort to post bail to let them in. Bayu said an Israeli who had heard about the matter offered to post bail for the pilgrims himself. (The ARDC director later asked another lawyer to intervene, after Ben-Natan was rendered unable to continue working on the case.)

Ben-Natan told Haaretz that an Interior Ministry official at the airport told her the pilgrims had been denied entry because “they had come to visit a refugee.”

The attorney insisted that these were not appropriate grounds for barring entry, but was told that there were other reasons for the authorities’ decision, which was reached after several hours of questioning.

The Interior Ministry, says Ben-Natan, refused to consider the possibility of releasing the individuals on bail, maintaining that the decision could only be overturned by court order.

Bayu said the three individuals all work in the United States, and that as U.S. citizens who have lived there for nearly two decades would have no reason to relocate to or seek asylum in Israel. He also cast doubt over whether border control and ministry officials would have shown the pilgrims the same treatment had they been white.

After being deported, Bayu said, the three U.S. citizens – who had planned to stay in Israel for about two weeks – were barred from entering the country for 10 years. His organization is considering filing a petition with an Israeli court over the ban.

The Interior Ministry issued the following response: “These are three tourists who arrived here to visit an asylum-seeker (not a refugee, according to them) living in Israel for an extended period despite his undefined status.

“Given this, and in light of the fact that their stated motives for the trip changed several times during questioning, substantial suspicion arose over their reasons for visiting Israel. They were therefore not permitted to enter Israel. The three individuals flew home the same night.”

Also on Thursday, three Swedish women of Palestinian origin who had arrived in Israel as part of an educational group were deported, while four Jewish members of the same delegation were allowed entry. All belong to a group that promotes Jewish-Palestinian dialogue in Stockholm schools.

Haaretz asked the Interior Ministry several months ago for figures on the number of foreigners denied entry to Israel last year as compared to the year before – figures widely believed to be on the rise. The ministry has yet to respond to the request.