It’s been nine months since Laith Abu Zeyad, an Amnesty International staff member based in the occupied West Bank, was banned from traveling outside of the country and from entering Israel.
After months of rejected petitions, unanswered questions, and painstaking delays, Abu Zeyad is finally getting his day in court — kind of.
The Jerusalem District Court will hear the case to lift Israel’s travel ban on Abu Zeyad on May 31. Due to the ban on him entering Israel, however, Laith will not be in attendance at his own hearing.
“It’s a really strange feeling, that my fate will be decided when I’m not there,” Abu Zeyad told Mondoweiss. “I really hope the ban will be lifted, but i’m not sure how much I can trust the Israeli justice system.”
In addition to not being able to attend his own hearing, the reasons for Abu Zeyad’s travel ban have been kept secret by the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal intelligence agency. From the time the ban was issued until today, the Shin Bet has only cited unnamed “security reasons” for Abu Zeyad’s ban.
“This is not a normal case where my lawyer is aware of the evidence against me and can argue against it,” Abu Zeyad said. “The lawyer has to go in blind, and can only argue that I need to travel for work and personal reasons, but he can’t do much more than that.”
He added that while lawyers representing the Shin Bet discuss the evidence against him with the judge, his lawyer will have to leave the room, again under the pretext of “security.”
Abu Zeyad first became aware of the ban imposed on him in September 2019 when he was denied a humanitarian permit in order to accompany his mother, who was recently diagnosed with cancer, for medical treatment in Jerusalem.
A month later, Abu Zeyad was on his way to Jordan to attend his aunt’s funeral when he was told by Israeli authorities that he was banned from traveling outside the country, and would have to turn back.
“I sat there at the border for hours and at the end of it they wouldn’t even tell me why I was being banned,” Abu Zeyad said.
“The decision by the Israeli authorities to impose the travel ban is baseless. He is a human rights defender who should be protected and not punished. Any suggestion that Laith poses a security threat is simply absurd,” Saleh Higazi, Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International said in a statement.
In addition to affecting his professional life, the travel ban has had devastating consequences on his personal life.
On December 26th, after months of failed applications, Abu Zeyad was finally issued a one-week humanitarian permit to visit his mother in the hospital in Jerusalem. But it was too late.
Two days prior, on December 24th, his mother lost her battle with cancer. She passed away in the hospital without her son by her side.
“Because of this arbitrary ban, I couldn’t be by my mother’s side, even in her final days,” he told Mondoweiss. “I only got to see her when they brought her body back home for burial.”
Abu Zeyad has speculated that he has been targeted for his work with Amnesty International, and a number of very public campaigns he has done for the human rights organization. Still, the ideal of a travel ban seems extremely arbitrary.
“There are so many young, single, Palestinian men in my exact position, who have banned from travelling or getting Israeli entry permits, simply because of the profile that we fit,” he said. “It’s extremely arbitrary, and there is no basis or really justifiable reason they can give, so they just say it is for ‘security reasons’.”
Abu Zeyad said he felt somewhat lucky to be working in the human rights sector, and the resources it has afforded him to fight the ban. “Many other Palestinians are banned for years, and they don’t have a way out.”
“At the end of the day, the only evidence they have against me, is that I’m Palestinian,” he said. “They can ban me from entering Israel, ban me from traveling abroad, and prevent me from visiting my sick mother in the hospital, all because I am Palestinian.”