Palestinian filmmaker denied entry to Israel on “security” grounds


16 May 2003

On Wednesday 14 May, British-Palestinian filmmaker Omar Al-Qattan and his two-member crew from Belgium, Olivier Pulinckx and Cosmas Antoniadis, were denied entry into Israel on grounds of “security.” No further explanation was granted.

The three were due to make a film, to be broadcast on the European Television Channel Arté, on a journey to Palestine by the celebrated British writer John Berger (Booker Prize 1972) and Swiss photographer Jean Mohr, who are currently giving a series of workshops in the Palestinian Territories on photography, art and narrative, co-hosted by the British Council.

Al-Qattan, 39, who also directs the Culture and Science Programme of the A.M. Qattan Foundation, a British charity with offices in London, Ramallah and Gaza, was due to moderate the workshops. The Israeli Embassy Press Office had been informed of their trip and at no time indicated that they would encounter any problems.

The three men arrived at Ben Gurion Airport at 4 PM on Wednesday afternoon. About two hours later (during which time no explanation was given for their continued detention), Al-Qattan was interrogated by police. All questions and enquiries were answered and supported with the relevant documents. At the end of the interrogation, which lasted about half an hour, Al-Qattan was told that he was under suspicion of belonging to a terrorist organisation, in view of the recent involvement of two British nationals in attacks on a Tel Aviv cafe, but that the information he had provided would be checked and, if it turned out to be sound, he and his crew would be granted permission to enter.

The three men were then made to wait until 10 PM (once again with no explanation provided for the delay) before being led to a room where all their belongings were subjected to a thorough search. By then, calls from the British Embassy in Tel Aviv had failed to ascertain what Israeli police intended to do with the men.

After subjecting them to a second search, only half an hour after the first, the men were led away and told that they had been refused entry on grounds of security. Officials refused to expand on the exact evidence pertaining to these accusations and would not explain the charge. Al-Qattan then contacted Lea Tsemel, the veteran Israeli human rights lawyer, who immediately filed a petition to a court in Jerusalem, while the men were led into police custody.

Their petition was rejected. The men’s lawyer advised them that, should they pursue the matter further, there was a chance that a judicial decision might be taken to deny them entry and this would be much harder to overturn than the administrative order they were now facing. The men thus decided to drop the case, fly back and protest their treatment to the appropriate bodies in their respective countries.

This was Al-Qattan’s second visit this year and one of more than twenty-five visits to Israel and the Occupied Territories in the past ten years, during which he has made programmes for various international broadcasters, as well as set up the work of the Qattan Foundation in the Occupied Territories. The Foundation works in the fields of culture and education and has become one of the most well-respected independent organisations in the region, investing in music, the arts, theatre, publishing, resources and training for schoolteachers, as well as building a landmark children’s library in Gaza, due to open at the beginning of 2004. It has worked closely with many international organisations, including the British Council, the French Cultural Centre, the Goethe Institute and Oxford University. Nothing in its activities could remotely be suspected of involvement in violent political action.

There have been many similar cases of arbitrary action by Israeli police in recent months, and particularly in recent weeks, targeting individuals and organisations working with Palestinian civil society. Only last week, the regional representative of the prestigious Ford Foundation, Emma Playfair, who is a British subject, was also denied entry.

The crippling effect of this gratuitous action on Palestinian society, already suffering from two and half years of closure, curfew, collective punishment, house demolitions and economic deprivation on an unprecedented scale, has been very severe and will continue to be so. But this latest incident also seems to be part of a political war which the Israeli government is fighting against the British government and its citizens in response to rising popular support for the Palestinians in Britain, the British government’s (belated) defence of Palestinian rights in their recent lobbying of the White House on behalf of the “Road Map,” and most of all the success of the non-violent resistance movement against the Occupation, led by international (and Israeli) activists, in which British participation has been substantial and often extremely brave, as in the case of Tom Hurndall who was shot in the head while trying to save a Palestinian child from the Army and lies to this day in a coma.

Journalists have also become fair game. Following the shooting two weeks ago of British cameraman James Miller in Rafah, the Israeli Authorities are now refusing to allow foreign nationals into the Gaza Strip unless they sign a (completely illegal) waiver which absolves Israel from responsibility should they be killed or injured.

For more information, please email