This Ben Gurion Or Hell?
By Remi Kanazi
18 July, 2007
who has traveled through Ben Gurion airport in Israel knows that it
is a unique experience. For most Israeli Jews, the experience is comforting,
a quick and accommodating entry into a nation created and developed
for the Jewish people. For Palestinian-Americans and many activists
working in occupied Palestine it is quite a different experience. Most
of these travelers are held for hours and questioned repeatedly; some
of who are stripped naked and in some cases (especially in the last
two years) denied entry.
As I write from Ramallah,
I recall my and my brother's experience in Ben Gurion just one week
ago. After a sleepless 15 hour trip from New York, we arrived at the
airport and went directly to the check-in booth. After waiting in a
short line, a friendly woman asked for our passports, yet immediately
turned sour once she viewed them. We were asked to step aside and after
about 15 minutes a woman from airport security told us to follow her
into one of the detainment rooms. Given the countless stories of harassment
I had heard and read about before my trip, I wasn't so foolish to think
that my journey through Ben Gurion would be a walk in the park. I had
initially anticipated a four hour wait, interrogation, and a thorough
pat down by Israel's finest.
When we arrived at the first
detainment room, several young female security agents asked us where
we were going, about our ethnic background and family history, whether
we had family in Israel or the occupied territories (and if we would
be staying with them), and if "there was anything they should know."
We were then taken to another detainment room, where a few other detainees
were being held. Over the next three hours, several female security
officers came into the detainment room we were being held in to question
us, while at other times we were called into other detainment rooms
for questioning. One African detainee, an elderly black woman, was not
allowed into the country with her husband despite a seemingly innocent
decision to visit her family.
After about four hours, pure exhaustion set in. At this time, we were
taken to a large room with metal detectors, an x-ray machine and a coffee
machine that looked like it wasn't in use. Still, in a token attempt
at friendliness, the security agent offered us a cup of coffee. But
the offer was rescinded once he noted the machine was out of service.
About every ten minutes another
member of airport security entered the room. After about 30 minutes
we were taken into a back room, patted down, and scanned with a hand
held metal detector. After being held for an hour, Sami, who claimed
to be a higher up in the IDF and airport security, entered the room.
He had apparently been called in by regular airport security because
of certain "red flags" we had raised.
Sami didn't look particularly
happy to see us. He started to go through our bags, which had been checked
by every member of airport security that previously entered the room.
He had a determined look on his face as he sifted through my brother's
book on corporate law and became more agitated when he didn't find the
holy grail of information.
After about 15 minutes Sami
looked up at us and told us that "something was missing;"
we were "leaving out part of the story," and he was going
to find out just exactly what that "part" was. He was looking
for what he called the "truth." So I repeated what we had
told the previous soldiers: we were staying our first two nights in
East Jerusalem, we would be traveling to the holy sites (to see where
baby Jesus was born), Haifa and Yaffa (the cities our grandparents were
dispossessed from in 1948), Nazareth and Bethlehem. We told the truth,
but kindly omitted Ramallah, Nablus, Hebron, Jenin, Dheisheh, and any
other intended stops in the occupied territories that didn't involve
conventional tourism. In all honesty, we had only planned out our first
two days in East Jerusalem, which made Sami increasingly annoyed.
Sami put it bluntly, as of
the moment we were called in we were considered "terrorists"
or people intending to "engage in terrorists activities" because
we "lied" to airport security about the intention of our travels.
Sami defined terrorism and terrorist activities as meeting up with the
International Solidarity Movement (ISM), working in "terrorist"
branches of the Alternative Information Center (AIC), and non-violently
protesting against the Apartheid Wall in the village of Bil'in. He was
trying to a strike fear in us that went well passed being denied entry.
It had become a matter of whether he was going to tell the US government
if we were terrorists or not. He claimed that if he told the US government
we were terrorists, it would not only affect us the rest of our lives
(i.e. anytime we tried to get a job, bought a plane ticket, or applied
for a credit card), but it would affect our family, immediate and extended,
in a similar fashion. The explanation was clear: nobody would believe
two Palestinians males over a respected man in the IDF with 40 years
of experience. At this point I started to offer up information that
may or may have not been considered "terrorist activity,"
essentially the plans for our trip, which my brother and I were still
faintly excited about, plans that didn't seem to bring much joy to Sami.
Sami started to go through our phones, writing down numbers and asking
questions about anyone with an Arab, Persian or Jewish name. He was
particularly angered when he saw the name of a well known Jewish activist
who had done extensive work in the occupied territories in my brother's
phone. Ironically, the number in my brother's phone was the number of
a paralegal in New York City, not the well-known activist, but Sami
wouldn't get off the subject for a solid half hour.
After about 90 minutes of intense bullying, Sami concluded we weren't
terrorists. At this point, good old Sami started to warm up, but not
without first telling us what we explicitly weren't supposed to do:
no ISM, stay away from AIC activity, and do not engage in anything that
we would categorize as non-violent activism.
By the end of stay at Ben
Gurion, Sami informed us that we were lucky to catch him on a good day.
He became extremely open and candid in the last 30 minutes. He said
that he may not agree with everything that he does and he may not agree
with the political situation, but he's a soldier of the state, and serving
its interest is his job. While I appreciated his honesty, this type
of rationalization has been used throughout history, justifying war
crimes and human rights violations ad infinitum.
As our seven hour journey
came to an end, Sami began telling us personal stories. I'm not sure
if it was an attempt clear his conscience, but he told us about his
diverse group of friends, which included Arabs, and how his life had
been saved five times, all by Arabs. It was amazing to see how human
and forthcoming some of the "toughest" people in Israel have
become, while at the same time keeping up their walls of discrimination
and oppression, walls that have ultimately been encompassed by a greater
wall of rationalization. For us, it was seven hours of hell in Ben Gurion.
For a Palestinian here, occupation is a reality every day of the year.
is a Palestinian-American poet and writer based in New York City. He
is the co-founder of www.PoeticInjustice.net and the editor of the forthcoming
anthology of poetry, Poets for Palestine. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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