On Saturday, Laura Durkay published a blogpost about getting stopped at the Palestinian border with Jordan by Israeli security last Tuesday. Durkay is a writer and activist from Baltimore who recently traveled to Palestine/Israel on a delegation sponsored by Interfaith Peace-Builders and the American Friends Service Committee (Great Lakes Region). Here is her story.
The Allenby/King Hussein Bridge over the Jordan River is the only border crossing between Jordan and Palestine/Israel that Palestinians with West Bank IDs are allowed to use. This means that although it’s on the most direct route between Jerusalem and Amman, it’s a maze of long lines, bureaucratic hassles and "security" obstacles, a headache at best and a nightmare at worst, just one more of the umpteen million ways the Israeli occupation makes life difficult for the Palestinians. So of course I wanted to go through it.
Crossing from Palestine/Israel to Jordan is a bit slow but nothing dramatic. But crossing back into Israel to catch my flight out of Ben Gurion Airport a few days later turns out to be a whole different experience.
I arrive on the Jordanian side of the border around 10am and get in a long, crowded line that appears to be all Palestinians. I’ve heard there is a "VIP" area for tourists but if the Palestinians have to wait in this line, I’m going to wait in this line.
Jordanian border officials are handing out forms that are only in Arabic. I quickly make a Palestinian line-friend, a young woman in a cute pink hijab who speaks English, who is able to find out from the border official that I don’t need to fill out the form. She offers to help me through the border crossing process, but as soon as that happens an official comes over and tries to steer me out of the Palestinian line to the VIP area. Knowing I’m at the beginning of a long process, I reluctantly follow him, but I feel awful leaving the long line of Palestinian travelers for the tourist area, which is basically empty. I decide that the next time someone tries to segregate me from Palestinians, I’ll try to refuse.
The Jordanian officials are friendly, at least with us tourists, and the exit process is pretty straightforward. By 11:30 I’m over the bridge and into the Israeli security terminal on the other side. Then the real fun begins.
It’s crowded, noisy, kids everywhere, and the Israeli soldiers keep giving us arbitrary orders to back up, move here, move there. I’m waiting with a giant clump of Palestinians to get up to the first passport control station when there’s a sudden commotion somewhere behind me. I can’t really see what’s going on, but the next thing I know all the Israeli soldiers are yelling "Yalla! Yalla! Yalla!" ["Let’s go!" in Arabic] and herding us like cattle through the border control stations into the waiting area on the other side. I see a line of plainclothes dudes with M-16s go racing by toward the terminal entrance. It seems there’s been some kind of security scare and the terminal’s being locked down.
While I’m waiting with everyone else in the pen, surrounded by soldiers who of course are not telling us anything about what’s going on, I make another line-friend, a young Palestinian guy who we’ll call M. M instantly introduces me to his mother and six or seven brothers and sisters. I tell him all the places I’ve been–Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Nablus, Bethlehem, Hebron. "You’re so lucky," he says wistfully. He can’t go to half those places without a permit. I want him to know I understand the injustice of this. "It’s so unfair that I’m not Palestinian and I can go to all these places, while you grew up here and you can’t," I tell him. "It’s okay," he says. "Anyone who loves justice and freedom is Palestinian, so you’re Palestinian too."
Soon after that someone decides the security scare is over and we’re all herded back through to the other side of passport control. Of course the queue is all mixed up now and anyone who was in line close to the windows has to go back to the beginning. "Sport," M mutters as the Israeli soldiers make us all squish back into a big clump together.
Soon thereafter someone decides there must be separate lines for men and women, even though no one has had a problem with everyone being mixed together before this. So everyone is shuffling around again. "Stay with my sisters," M advises. M’s mom and four sisters have squashed themselves together like sardines using some kind of Palestinian line-waiting magic that I can’t manage to emulate with my bulky backpack and messenger bag.
Soon an Israeli soldier notices me, obviously the only white person in the Palestinian line, and demands I go to the tourist line. I try to refuse. "I’d rather stay with my friends." It’s no go. I’m told in no uncertain terms to get out of the 200-person Palestinian line-clump and go over to passport window #1, which is marked "VIP" and has about five internationals waiting at it. I feel horrible, guilty and powerless. Haha. Little do I know my own adventure is just beginning.
Shortly after I get in this line, a woman approaches me and asks to see my passport. She’s about my age, wearing skinny jeans and a frilly, kind of femmy shirt. It takes me a second to realize she’s a plainclothes Israeli security officer. I didn’t notice her before. For all I know she watched me refusing to get out of the Palestinian line and this is what made me suspicious enough for a passport check. Maybe the soldier told her to check me. Or maybe it was just random.
At the passport window I get some basic questions about what I was doing in Jordan and where I’m going in Israel. One of the border guards is from Haifa and I chat with her about what I should see there. They’re not hostile, but at the end they keep my passport and give me a form to fill out. "Wait over there and someone will come talk with you," they say, which means I’m getting extra questioning. I’m not at all surprised; I expected to get some extra questioning. I go sit in the waiting area, which has a mix of internationals and Palestinians, and fill out the form. I think it’s around 12:30 pm at this point. I don’t know how long this will take, so I take the chance to eat the roll I brought and drink some water.
There are lots of people waiting–families, old people, little kids. Some kids are waiting by themselves while their parents are being questioned. Directly across from me is a boy, maybe fourteen, who’s watching his two younger sisters, one of whom is asleep. He keeps shifting her around carefully between his lap and his sister’s, so patiently, waiting calmly while his mother or father is off being strip-searched and interrogated somewhere. I try to offer them some cookies but they don’t want to take them.
Eventually Skinny Jeans, the woman from before, shows up and collects my form. I’m taken to a different waiting area, inside passport control–the one we were all herded into some hours ago. In this waiting area everyone except me is Palestinian.
More waiting. I can see the table where they search your bags. I watch a middle-aged man wearing a dishdasha stand at the table as they take every item out of the huge plastic bag he’s carrying–unfolding all the clothes and dumping them in a pile, carelessly unwrapping things carefully wrapped.
Everyone in this waiting area knows we’re all waiting to be interrogated, and there are little subtle winks and nods of solidarity. A woman who looks old enough to remember the Nakba lights up a cigarette right under the "No Smoking" sign. Good for her, I think. No smoking in an Israeli border terminal is just cruel.
While I’m waiting, I think how unbelievably grateful I am to myself that I took the time to find the DHL place in Amman and ship my computer with 1,000 photos from my trip and my notebook full of notes from all our meetings back to myself in the States. My still camera is safe; there are only pictures of Amman on there, but I heartily wish I had thrown my video camera into the DHL package as well, because it has video from the Friday protest in Bil’in. I take out the camera and consider deleting the video, then get defiant and decide they’re not going to make me delete it out of fear. I have a right to have that video. It wasn’t illegal for me to be there or to film that protest. Besides, I know I also have tons of political literature in my suitcase that they’ll find if they search, so deleting the video is not going to save me from suspicion. I do take the battery out of the camera and leave it in a separate part of the bag. Not that this will stop them if they really want to find it, but I don’t feel like making things easier for them.
Eventually Skinny Jeans reappears and I’m taken to that back room that exists in all Israeli border installations, the interrogation room. It’s an office, just an office, one of several off a narrow, grungy hallway. It looks so ordinary, but the atmosphere is chilly. For the first of many times that day I think about everything I just learned about the Stasi. There are so many similarities I wonder if there’s been some cross-training. Or maybe all repressive systems just converge to the same point if they last long enough.
"Put your bags on the table." I’m being spoken to only in commands. Skinny Jeans’s demeanor has totally changed. We’re on her turf now and she has to establish dominance right away. I don’t know for sure that these people are Shabak, Israeli secret police, but it wouldn’t surprise me. They sure act like secret police. They behave like people who spend their days making other people feel afraid and powerless.
"Do you have anything in your pockets?" I had put my phone in my pocket, hoping to hold onto it in case I was separated from my bags. "Turn it off, take out the battery and leave it in your bag." So, right away I’m being isolated and controlled. No contact with the outside world allowed. I’m not actually scared–I know the worst they can do to me is nothing compared to what they do to Palestinians. But it sure is creepy as hell. I can imagine Skinny Jeans doing this, and worse, to people with a lot less privilege, a lot more to lose, and a lot less hope of escape.
She directs me into her office and I sit down across the table from her. There’s a redhead woman who sits down next to her, but doesn’t ask any questions. I think maybe she’s training. This is too weird. It’s liked I’ve walked into one of my own screenplays. This is a scene I would write, but now I’m in it.
"Where is your other passport?"
Uh-oh. This was not the first question I expected.
I have two passports. It is completely legal to have two valid US passports, but if you get a second one, it’s only valid for two years. So anyone who bothers to check the expiration date can tell that I have another passport, which I didn’t bring because it has a Gaza entry stamp on it.
"It’s at home, in the US." You’re not required to have both passports with you when you travel.
"Why do you have two passports?"
"I travel a lot; sometimes I need to send one off to get visas."
This is true, and is one of the reasons people get two passports. During the period I was in Germany, I had to send off my other passport to the Jordanian embassy to get my Jordan visa. But I can tell Skinny Jeans doesn’t believe me.
"Have you been to Lebanon? Syria?" These I can answer confidently "no." "Gaza?" I knew that was coming. Here I have to roll the dice. Do they know I’ve been? If they do, and I lie, that will make things worse. If they don’t, and I admit it, that won’t exactly make things better. Although everyone whose advice I trust has advised against lying to Israeli border officials, everyone also knows that you can’t exactly tell the whole truth, because people have been denied entry just for saying they’re going to do charity work in the West Bank. It’s no use knowing that I haven’t done anything illegal under international, or even fucked-up Israeli, law. It’s no use knowing that I haven’t committed a crime–because in their minds, I have. Because any contact with Palestinians, any solidarity with Palestinians, any seeing-of-Palestinians-as-human-beings is a crime in their book, and therefore a security threat.
For better or worse, I decide to take the risk and say "no" to the Gaza question. I think I can always backpedal, play dumb and say something like, "Oh, I thought you meant on this trip." At this point I still have some hope that I can get out of this quickly by playing the ignorant tourist.
She goes through the sheet I filled out in the waiting area, which has lines for all my contact information. I’ve put down my parents’ home number and my school email. "Write your cell phone number for me." I write it down–they have my cell phone sitting outside; it’s not like they can’t get it. "That’s your school email. You must have another email." I really don’t want to give Israeli security my email address. When I stall she turns up the hostility, using that barking, commanding, dominant tone of voice that all Israeli police state functionaries must learn in training. "Do you think this is a game? Don’t you know why you’re here? What do you think will happen to you if you don’t cooperate with us?"
I write down my email address. It’s a disgusting feeling, having to submit, even on a tiny thing like this. I know this is just a power game on her part–I’m on top and you’re going to do what I say. I think about what this game must be like if you’re Palestinian, when the Israeli side is backed up by physical violence and the prospect of a long prison sentence, when the information they want is much more serious than an email address, when it could mean someone’s life. I think about how these games of dominance and submission are played out a thousand times every day all across the Occupied Territories, at checkpoints, in house raids, at permit offices, in detention centers–the micro level of oppression.
More questions. My parents’ names–man, they love this one. Where did I go to school? What did I study? Have I ever studied Arabic? Somehow she can’t believe I only studied history in undergrad. Who did I stay with in Jordan? What did I do there? What did I do before that, in Israel? Where did I go? I avoid mentioning any places in the West Bank. I say I was on a tour with Interfaith Peace Builders–she makes me write the name of the group on her notepad–and now I’m traveling on my own. For some reason this is very suspicious. Why did I go off on my own after the rest of the group left? Suspicious!!!
Some of the questions are really ridiculous. But whenever I question her questions, she gets angry and hostile. I think at one point she actually says "I’ll ask the questions here!" just like in a bad cop movie.
"Do you have Twitter? Do you have Facebook?"
I’m caught off guard by this question and reflexively answer "No," before it occurs to me that this is a really dumb thing to lie about, because if they’re asking they probably know; hell, they’re probably already following me on Twitter. But all I can think is that if I say yes they’ll ask me to log in, and I would refuse to do that, and that would be just as suspicious.
Then the political questions start. "Where is Bil’in?" I say it’s in the West Bank. "Where?" "I don’t know exactly–I couldn’t point it out on a map." This is the truth–I’ve only been there by bus and taxi. Yelling commences: "Don’t lie! You think we don’t know when you’re lying? We know!" The way she says lying, she makes it sound like I’ve killed babies, like it’s the worst crime you can commit, lying to an Israeli border official. They don’t actually ask me if I’ve been to Bil’in, so I don’t say that I have, but I know they’ll eventually check my camera and find the video. Oh well. I had the chance to delete it and I decided not to, so there’s nothing I can do about it now.
"What do you know about Gaza?" I try to say some very general things. "What do you know about the Flotilla?" Again some general things about there being a clash and some people being killed; I try to sound as neutral about it as possible. "Who was killed?" "I think they were Turkish activists." "You think? You know. Try a little bit harder to remember." Holy shit. This is turning into a real interrogation. Skinny Jeans is on a major power trip. It’s so surreal. Now I’m pretty sure I’m in trouble and I’m just trying not to dig the hole any deeper, not to directly contradict things I’ve already said, and most importantly, not to get anyone else in trouble along with me. But the problem is that once they suspect you of one thing, everything you say is suspect, so even if you’re telling the truth they don’t believe you. The other problem is that the more she shouts at me, the more I feel like digging my heels in and not telling them a damn thing. I figure I’m probably already screwed, so why the hell should I cooperate?
From an intelligence-gathering perspective, this is a really stupid strategy. If you’re in the business of getting accurate intelligence, you need to be able to reliably separate truth from lies, and you need to give the person you’re interrogating the confidence that if they tell the truth, you’ll believe them and back off. Otherwise they have no incentive to do so. Skinny Jeans gets an epic fail on both these counts. Which reinforces my belief that the primary goal of what they’re doing here is not intelligence-gathering–and certainly not "security"–but intimidation and punishment. In other words, state terror.
Skinny Jeans brings me back out to the reception area. There’s another woman there; I’ll call her Backup. They go through all my stuff. There’s a couch in the waiting area and I must sit. It’s low and I don’t like that I can’t really see what they’re doing with my stuff. I experiment with standing up. "Sit down!" They take everything out of my messenger bag and my backpack. They unwrap every souvenir and go through every piece of paper. Everything is suspicious. Why do I have an Israel/Palestine guide book if I was on an organized tour? Apparently extra knowledge of the places I’m going is not allowed. Why do I have the Lonely Planet for the whole Middle East? Interest in other countries: not allowed. A flyer for alternative tours given by an Israeli? Suspicious! A note from a friend in Jordan? Suspicious!! A keychain in the shape of historic Palestine? VERY VERY SUSPICIOUS!!! Backup (holding up keychain): "What is this?!" Me: "It’s a gift." "Who are you going to give it to?" "I haven’t decided yet." "You don’t just give this to anyone!" I have a keffiyah in one of my bags. "What’s this?" Skinny Jeans says like she’s just pulled out a crack vial. "It’s a scarf." Fuck you, I think. It’s a fucking scarf.
Skinny Jeans and Backup take me back out to the main part of the terminal and make me retrieve my suitcase that’s gone through the x-ray machine. At the bag search table they take everything out of my suitcase with the same malicious abandon I saw them use on other people’s stuff. I know they’ll find the keffiyahs and Palestine flag bracelets I bought in Hebron and all the literature and posters I collected from our various meetings; I haven’t tried to hide them. They’re particularly aggressive about the material from the Civic Coalition for Defending Palestinians’ Rights in Jerusalem, one of the groups that’s supporting the Sheikh Jarrah families. "What is this?! A tourist doesn’t have this kind of thing!" Once they unfurl the Boycott Israel poster I think the casual-tourist act is pretty much done for. "You knew we were going to question you and you prepared," Skinny Jeans says, again with such accusatory venom that it’s almost a little bit funny. Well–I think but do not say–you are questioning me, so obviously the preparation was warranted.
"Put your stuff back in the suitcase." I take the time to fold every item of clothing, not rushing, not meeting her eyes. It was folded when she took it out; it’s going to be folded when I put it back in.
Back to the interrogation room. Backup makes me put the battery back in my phone and turn it on. I notice the holder for the SIM card is loose and wonder if they’ve copied it. She starts going through my call records. "Who’s this?" It’s the local cell phone number of one of our delegation leaders. Then they find the local number of a friend from the US. "This is a Palestinian cell phone number! Who is this?! Where are they?!" Backup is really yelling, standing over me as I sit on the couch, being as intimidating as possible. For the first time I get really scared because I don’t want this person to have any trouble with Israeli security. So I just keep repeating that I don’t know where they are now. Now Backup and Skinny Jeans are going at me together. Skinny Jeans: "You’re lying to us! Don’t you know what can happen to you? We’re not just talking about you’re not getting in, we’re talking about you’re going to prison!" Skinny Jeans takes my phone, still camera, video camera, and every piece of paper from my bag and disappears down the hall with them. Backup yells: "You’re not getting in! All we’re figuring out now is what to do with you!" Then they make me sit in the hallway.
In the hallway I start going over everything I’ve said. I’m fucked, I think. They’re going to deport me. First trip to Israel and I’m getting fucking deported, and probably banned for ten years for good measure. I shouldn’t have lied. Why did I lie about fucking Twitter? That was really dumb. Maybe I should have dropped the whole casual-tourist act right away when they asked about my second passport, I think. But it’s not that easy to switch tactics when you’re under pressure. And I can’t imagine things would have gone that much better for me if I’d led off with, "Yeah, I’ve been to the West Bank. Wanna see my video from Bil’in?"
In another part of my brain, I recognize that this is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing right now. This is that part of the interrogation, where they put you somewhere isolated and don’t tell you what’s going to happen to you next, where they let you stew and start second-guessing everything you’ve said and imagining the worst-case scenario. Which is exactly what I have been doing.
I tell myself over and over that they’re just trying to intimidate me; that these are the consequences for standing with Palestinians and I knew that when I came here; that I’m a thousand times safer than any Palestinian who’s been through these same rooms. I know they can’t actually send me to prison. The worst they can do is detain me for a few days and then deport me. I don’t want to be deported but there’s nothing I can do about it now. I can’t unsay anything I’ve said. I can’t stop them from looking through the email and contacts on my phone. I can’t control their actions. All I can control is what I say. I decide whatever is going to happen to me will happen and the most important thing at this point is not to implicate anyone else.
In the hallway with me are the man in the dishdasha, the one I saw having his bag searched, and a mother with two little boys. The man looks exhausted and sits hunched over. I think he might be praying. The woman gives me a pale smile. Her kids are fidgety and bored, but they don’t cry. Palestinian kids learn about waiting early.
At one point a young, blonde female soldier comes into the hallway. She does a double-take when she sees me. "What are you doing here?" she asks. "Good question," I shoot back. But if I’d had more time to think about it, I would have looked at the man and the mother with her kids and asked, "What are any of us doing here?"
Waiting. The man goes in for questioning and comes back out; the woman goes in for questioning; I wait. It’s around 4pm now and all I’ve eaten all day is some cereal at breakfast and that little roll. I’m starting to get dizzy with hunger. I’m not going to ask them for shit, but I know I have Oreos and water in my bag. Finally I get up and knock on the door of the interrogation room. Someone new answers it: a woman with bad skin and a dress that looks like it came from the Dress Barn. I tell Dress Barn I’d like to get my water from my bag. "You’ll have to wait just one minute; there’s a woman in there." I look past her and see a curtain has been pulled over the couch area, where my bags are. I realize the mother is being strip-searched in there.
I eat my Oreos and drink some water–not too much; I don’t see a bathroom back here–and feel a bit better. I try to share the Oreos with the kids but they won’t take them. After some time, Dress Barn comes out and says, "You can sit outside. You’ll be more comfortable out there." I have to stifle a laugh at this one. But I’m not about to argue; outside there are bathrooms and other people.
Things are better in the outside waiting area. I begin to hold out a sliver of hope that I’m not going to be deported. I think that if they were going to deport me they’d want to control my movement the whole time and wouldn’t let me out into the outside waiting area. But I don’t let myself get too hopeful about anything yet. I recognize a Palestinian guy wearing a Germany World Cup jersey who’s been there as long as I have. "Still here?" he says. He gives me that sardonic smile that says we’re all in this together.
After a while Dress Barn comes out and sits down next to me in the waiting area. I realize she’s playing the Good Cop in this little drama. "Tell me about your trip to Gaza," she says right up front. Okay, so they know about that. I tell her when it was, that I went with CODEPINK, that it was coordinated by UNRWA, that we met with youth organizations–all information that’s publicly available. "What organizations did you meet with in Gaza?" Here I stop, partially because I’m too tired to think back through every group we met with, partially because on principle I just don’t want to give them any information about Palestinians. "I’m not going to list every organization we met with," I say. If they really want to know they can read my damn blog.
"Things will be a lot better for you if you start telling us the truth. If you don’t say anything, we’re going to assume the worst." She’s not very good at being the Good Cop.
After another while Skinny Jeans comes out and demands the battery for my video camera. I lie and say I shipped it back to the US with my computer. I know this won’t hold up long but I just can’t help being belligerent around her. She’s so horrible, the kind of person I hate most of all, the kind of person who has to make everyone acknowledge their power. I bet she fucking loves this job. I have a bad habit of getting into fights with people like her. "I saw a battery in your bag. Go and get it and put it in." "Oh, maybe I have a backup," I say blithely.
She goes away but soon I’m brought back into her office. "Explain the video on your camera." No point in hiding anything now. "It’s from Bil’in. I was there last Friday." "Did you participate in the demonstration?" "No, I just filmed it." "You walked along with the demonstration–you don’t think that’s participating?" "I just filmed it. There were other press people there." "Who did you go with?" "I took a taxi there." "What organization did you go with?" "No organization. I went by myself. Anyone can go there." "Who was with you?" "I’m not going to tell you who was with me," I say calmly. Oh, I like this so much better, just being up front about what I’m not going to tell them.
"What is ISM?" Ah. So we’re on to this. "International Solidarity Movement," I tell her. "What do they do?" "They do nonviolent human rights work in support of the Palestinians." "How do you know that?" Seriously??? "I read their website. It’s not a secret." "Are you here to work with ISM?" "No. I’ve never worked with ISM," I tell her, truthfully. Frankly it is really stupid of her to think this. If I’d already gotten into Israel with no problem through the airport, why would I leave and come back through one of the toughest borders? What does she think, that I went to Jordan for training or something? I’m not the PA.
Back on the couch. Backup comes out with my phone. "Who are the people in your phone?" "They’re my friends." "Who do you know in ISM?" "I don’t know anyone in ISM," I say. Of course I know loads of people who’ve worked with ISM in the past. She asks again, louder, as if asking louder will make me answer the question. "I don’t know anyone in ISM."
More waiting in the outside waiting area. Soon Dress Barn comes back out to get me. She has a notepad in her hands and I know exactly what she’s going to ask. She takes me back inside and we sit together on the couch. How interesting. The couch is a hostile space when they’re standing over you and a "friendly" space when they’re sitting next to you.
She puts the notepad in my lap. "I want you to write down all the names of people you know in ISM." I knew it! I look her straight in the eye and say, "Absolutely not." It feels awesome. I don’t care if they deport me, I think. I’m not writing a single name on that piece of paper and there’s nothing they can do to make me. I fucking win, assholes.
"What organizations are you part of?" Dress Barn asks. "I’m not part of any organizations," I say. For perhaps the first time in my political life, this is actually true. I’m not formally a member of anything right now. Dress Barn starts trying to psychoanalyze me. "You’re kind of a loner, aren’t you? How are you going to effect change all by yourself?" Perhaps she has actually forgotten that being a member of a political organization is not illegal in the US, the way it is in the Occupied Territories.
The only good thing about the interrogation area is that there’s a water cooler–I do not trust the tap water here. I manage to fill up my water bottle before I’m sent back to the outside waiting area. Another long wait. It’s getting late and I suspect that even if I get out of here, I won’t make it onto the last bus to Haifa tonight as planned. But otherwise I’m feeling okay. Whatever happens now, I think I have conducted myself all right.
After a while a new person comes to get me. He’s the first guy I’ve encountered, kind of chubby, with a noticeably friendlier demeanor. He brings me back into a different office, marked Ministry of the Interior. There’s a huge Israeli flag on the wall.
He asks me where I’ve been and I go through the whole itinerary truthfully. It feels way less skeezy in here than in Skinny Jeans’s lair, but I know I still need to be careful. He asks me about my plans for the rest of the trip. I tell the truth: that I have no plans to go to the West Bank, that I’m just going to Haifa and Tel Aviv, that I have a flight out of Ben Gurion Airport in two days’ time. "Why did you lie to security about going to Bil’in?" he asks me. I decide honesty is best here too. "I thought if I told the truth you might deny me entry. You guys are very suspicious about anyone showing support for the Palestinians." "Yes, yes, they’re very suspicious," he says–as if he’s not part of the exact same system–then mutters something about Israel’s security blah blah blah. "Anything else you want to tell me?" he asks at the end. Aha! I’ve got your number, Mr. Nice Guy. "No," I say.
At the end of it all, he tells me that the condition of my entry to Israel is that I sign a piece of paper saying I’m leaving in two days and I’m not allowed to go into "areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority," which is vague enough that it could mean anything from Area A to the whole West Bank. I have no problem signing–I am more than ready to get away from the Israeli police state in two days, and even more ready to get the hell out of this stupid border. As I’m signing the paper it occurs to me that I really am being let in. I’m not being deported, denied entry, or sent to jail. Which means all those threats Skinny Jeans and Backup were screaming at me just hours ago were completely, totally, 100% for intimidation purposes. Amazing.
Filling out the paperwork, making a copy, and getting my passport back–which should take all of five minutes–ends up taking close to an hour. I get some janky visa stamp with the "3 Months" crossed out and "Only Two Days" hand-written in. They’ve held me juuuust long enough that I’ll definitely miss the last bus to Haifa. I wonder if they did this on purpose, but I’m happy for the chance to spend one last night in Jerusalem, which has begun to feel like my home. And of course I’m happy that after all this, I’m not being deported or denied entry after all.
It’s 7:30pm when I finally get to leave the border. I’ve been in the Israeli terminal for about eight hours in total. I buy cold apple juice and nuts from a Palestinian vendor before getting into the waiting service taxi to Jerusalem. That apple juice is the best thing I’ve ever tasted. I don’t even care that it’s hot in the service, I’m just so happy to be out of that wretched border terminal.
We drive with the windows open through the Jordan Valley as the sun is setting. It’s so beautiful I don’t even want to take a picture; I couldn’t capture it. The service takes me all the way to Damascus Gate, which is decked out with magical strings of blue-white lights for the start of Ramadan. It’s so lovely and joyful I want to cry. The hostel is nearly full for Ramadan but they have a place for me. I get falafel on the street and sit alone on the hostel’s cool, breezy roof deck to listen to the last call to prayer of the day echo out across the city. I can see the whole Old City and it’s indescribably beautiful, lit up and full of life. It’s like Jerusalem is welcoming me home. When some French tourists, newly arrived in Jerusalem, join me on the roof deck I say "Welcome" like it’s my city. I feel like it is now. I feel like I’ve earned it.
Afterward I have some time to think about whether there’s anything I could have done differently. Maybe I could have taken a different tack right at the beginning, admitted everywhere I’d been, admitted I’d been to Gaza. Would that have made it better or worse? Somehow I think once they take you to that back room they’ve already decided you’re guilty, and it doesn’t really matter what you say. That’s how it goes in a system where everything but total abject submission to colonialism is criminalized. I think trying to modify your behavior to please the oppressor is always a losing battle. The only way to guarantee an interrogation-free passage is not to support the Palestinians, and I certainly wasn’t going to do that.
In the end, I’m glad I had the experience. Israel tries to segregate everything, to create one experience for tourists that is nothing at all like what the Palestinians go through, and I’m glad I shook those borders a little. I also know my experience was mild compared to what Palestinians endure–just the merest brush with a system that they have to interact with every day–and that it’s one thing to be able to fly away from that repressive system two days later and another thing entirely to have to live your whole life under it. And it just gives me that much more respect for the people who do live under it, who grow up, work, educate themselves, raise their kids, fight, resist just by living their lives in defiance of this system, refusing to surrender or be driven away. I’ll share back rooms and border crossings with people like that any day.