JERUSALEM, JULY 17 -- Stunned by the intensity of U.S. criticism over the treatment here of visiting American blacks and Palestinian Americans, the government has scheduled a high-level, interdepartmental meeting Sunday to review border control practices, Israeli officials said today.
One official complained about "exaggeration" of the problem, which State Department spokesman Charles E. Redman described at a press briefing yesterday as "discriminatory and arbitrary treatment of some American citizens." Israeli leaders were said to be particularly upset over the role of the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Thomas Pickering, in highlighting the situation.
Pickering sent a personal letter to Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres complaining that blacks and Palestinian Americans had been harassed and in some cases refused entry to Israel by airport and border authorities in recent weeks, according to informed sources. Others have been forced to post large cash bonds or had their passports confiscated as a condition of entry.
U.S. officials here and in Washington confirmed that the State Department has threatened to issue a travel advisory warning Americans about Israeli entry procedures if the situation is not reformed within 30 days. Such a move might discourage visitors to Israel and, more significantly, would be an unprecedented diplomatic slap in the face to Jerusalem by Washington.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman said he had "nothing to say" about reports of official pique here over the Redman briefing and Pickering's letter. The spokesman said Israel's policy was to prevent any discrimination, and he criticized what he termed "exaggeration in the coverage of all of this affair."
He defended Israel's right to refuse entry to individuals for security reasons or because of evidence that they intend illegally to overstay the time allowed on their tourist visas.
Israeli officials and Palestinian American sources agree that hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of American passport-holders of Palestinian origin live illegally on the Israeli-occupied West Bank of the Jordan River. Many of them have been refused permission to move back permanently in order to rejoin family members who have West Bank resident status.
Black American tourists are sometimes suspected of trying to join the so-called Black Hebrew group, numbering about 1,500 refugees from America's ghettos. The Black Hebrews, led by former Chicago bus driver Ben-Ami Carter, have renounced their U.S. citizenship and claim ancestral ties to the Biblical Israelites.
Israeli officials consider Carter and his followers a dangerous cult, and in Israel illegally. But they have been reluctant to simply expel them en masse for fear of appearing racist and antagonizing American blacks.