Never Surrender: A Palestinian-American recounts harassment and discrimination during trip to Israel/Palestine

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Moe Diab

I am a 25-year-old Palestinian-American. I was born and raised in San Diego, California. I was raised to be proud of my Palestinian heritage and culture, and to be conscious of the daily Palestinian struggles and oppression, due to the Israeli occupation. My American upbringing instilled in me an appreciation for freedom, liberty, justice and equality. However, I never truly understood the significance of universal human rights in my daily American life, until the Israeli authorities stripped these so-called inalienable rights away from me.

In the summer of 2004, I traveled to East Jerusalem to visit my family. This was not my first time visiting; however, it was the first time in my life I ever felt like a vile unwanted intruder. I was visiting my family on the land where my ancestors thrived for generations, the origin of my culture and traditions, my roots. Regardless of the sentimental attachment I felt, I was treated as a dangerous trespasser.

Prior to this visit, I thought that I had already experienced the worst racial discrimination possible following 9-11. I went to bed on September 10th 2001, a normal American kid and woke up the next day labeled a “terrorist” Arab. I was targeted, teased and threatened; however, local law enforcement handled the situations in a reasonable manner, on most occasions. My epiphany began upon my arrival in Tel Aviv at Ben Gurion airport and continued throughout the duration of my visit. What shocked me the most was the fact that it was not the high school bullies and prejudiced civilians carrying out the racial discrimination and harassment towards my family and I, on the contrary, the Israeli authorities were systematically administering it!

After traveling for over a day, we arrived in Tel Aviv absolutely exhausted and anxious to see our family. The second I stepped foot off the plane, I immediately noticed there were two different sets of airport procedures. I noticed the passport control lines appeared to be racially segregated. Initially, it may have been my lack of sleep leading to my presumptions, however, after waiting in line for over an hour to have our travel documents stamped, we were detained and escorted by a security official to a special screening room. All the while, other non-Arab passengers proceeded to claim their baggage and meet their loved ones after passport control.

It was in the special screening room that I first felt a real hostility radiating from Israeli security officials, it made me angry. It wasn’t even so much the idea of being racially targeted to undergo another body and luggage search, despite the fact that my luggage hadn’t been touched since it was searched prior to boarding the flight in America. It was an aggressive, condescending superior-like attitude by the security personnel who conducted our screenings that enraged me. The way they spoke down to my mother like a criminal– I clenched my fists. With each additional disrespectful word and baseless insinuation directed towards her, I felt closer and closer to losing control. Fighting back the urge to defend my mother’s dignity, took everything in me. Within minutes in that room, I was sweaty all over, every muscle in my body was tense, and my fists were beginning to cramp from holding them so tightly.

Following additional security checks, my family was separated and questioned individually for hours. I was worried about my mother. They asked invasive intimate questions about my relationships, social networks, and other matters that was none of their business. Then I was hit with a barrage of aggressive personal questions and comments:

“Why did you come to Israel? You have nothing here.”
“This is the land for the Jews. Why do you visit if this is not your land?”
“Let me see your cell phone! Who did you contact before you got on the plane?”
“Log into your email account!”
“Where does your family live? What is their address?”
“We know what you have done, just tell us who is helping you!”
“I can sit here all day until you answer my questions, I know you are lying.”

No matter how calmly and honestly I answered the questions; the security officer always cut into my responses by degrading them with another comment or question. I later realized this technique of systematic questioning was used intentionally to emotionally assault my pride and dignity in an attempt to break my will. It felt inhumane.

I was told by the senior security officer to stay seated and instructed not to say a single word while he left the room to continue interrogating my mother. My luggage was being searched again, this time for explosive residue. There was a moment when the female security official was searching my luggage, after the supervisor had left the room, I could have given her a piece of my mind but I knew surely she would break and radio her supervisor to make an example out of me. But something strange happened I’ve thought about many times. I felt the tension in the room ease as soon as her supervisor left and it occurred to me the intimidating supervisor was making us both uncomfortable. Watching her across the small interrogation room, she seemed more relaxed. Her posture and expression changed. She picked up my boxers, turned to me smiling and said, “these are cute!” in a playful, sarcastic tone. At that moment I imagined this young woman, who couldn’t have been more than a few years older than me, sensed my frustration and sympathized with me on some human level. But why would she be complicit with this blatant racist system if deep down she knew on some level it was wrong? Her comment threw me off. On one hand, I felt at any moment I was going to burst into a verbal defensive, my blood was boiling, my muscles were tense, it was against all I believed in to stay quiet while being dehumanized. On the other hand, I made it through the first stage of questioning without giving them a piece of my mind, and here was this young Israeli woman, as guilty as the rest of the security officials by complicity, allowing me to believe she was sympathetic, convincing me, deep down she hated complying. On reflection I think she was making an attempt to normalize the situation. She allowed herself to humanize for a moment and it seemed obvious to me she felt guilt when she realized I wasn’t going to respond or smile back. She failed at her attempts, much like racial segregation couldn’t be normalized during the African American civil rights movement. The only way to normalize racial segregation and oppression is by ending it through a system of equality and justice. The only way she could satisfy her inner resistance is not only by refusing to comply with the apartheid system, in essence be neutral, but also to voice her opinion against what is being done in her name.

After hours of individual harassment, we were finally released to go meet our family. I would be lying if I said that was the end of the discriminatory treatment. As we drove from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, I was shocked to see the Wall for the first time. The construction of the Israeli Apartheid Wall began just two years prior to my visit and the intentions were already obvious. As we drove alongside of this twenty-five foot high concrete abomination with an abundance of trenches, barbed wire, electrified fencing with numerous watch towers, electronic sensors, thermal imaging and video cameras, unmanned aerial vehicles, sniper towers, and roads for patrol vehicles, I felt imprisoned within a police state.

During our drive home and throughout my trip, I was in complete disbelief each time we were questioned at checkpoints by kids my own age. Having a 17-18 year-old point an automatic assault rifle in my face, while aggressively snatching my American passport, gave me a deeper sense of how reckless Israel is with Palestinian life, in a way that penetrated my psyche. I started thinking about how feelings of superiority must begin early on in life, through prejudicial injurious rhetoric, then solidified when teenagers are handed military-grade automatic assault rifles and are required to dominate unarmed Palestinian civilians. Is it really the best idea to brainwash kids into believing they are racially superior to their co-inhabitants, then hand them lethal weapons to police their so-called “inferiors”? No! We have already seen the outcome to this type of catastrophe and it’s not a distant memory; but this is precisely the reason Israel forces teenagers to serve in their military. A conscious adult is more likely to question unjust acts and feel remorse for terrorizing innocent civilians. A growing number of Israeli citizens are refusing to serve in the Israeli Military. Is it a coincidence that the majority of those whom refuse to serve are well into their twenties and early thirties? I don’t think so; the majority of teenagers are not capable of making rational, consequential decisions. Between my mood swings, rash decisions and occasional angry outbursts at 17, I was in no way mentally prepared to be given a gun and handle the responsibility attached. In fact, more 17-year-olds commit crimes than any other age group, according to recent studies by psychiatrists, the same age as many Israelis entering the military. But being in this environment was making me more reflective about who I was, my life, and Palestine.

After my eye-opening experiences with the Israeli military occupation and numerous racially segregated checkpoints, it became obvious to me that the Apartheid Wall only reinforced Israel’s strangling system of permits and checkpoints, where Palestinians are harassed, degraded, humiliated, detained, beaten, and even shot.

Remembering and reflecting upon my experiences during this visit infuriates me on so many levels. Witnessing my family swallow their pride, while holding on to their dignity each time they were racially targeted for questioning or a car search, brought pain to my heart. My cousins only worried about my comfort, they were strong and composed because they didn’t want me to realize so much was out of their control. This was their reality, how could they be so selfless? This was their normal daily life but nothing was normal about it. It’s not normal having to constantly worry about your children being targeted and harassed. It’s not normal to have a constant fear of military assault, losing loved ones, random arrests and indefinite illegal detentions. No matter how calm my family remained, I could always see the frustration and resistance in their soul, through their eyes. They are not accepting the occupation as the norm, they are simply living through it, doing what they can, as best as they can, until equality is restored and justice is served.

And discriminatory treatment towards me, as a Palestinian-American, is not only demeaning; it’s completely disrespectful towards American-Israeli relations. Even more infuriating is that fact that the U.S. government has done absolutely nothing to stop American citizens from being discriminated against and harassed by Israeli officials, regardless of the thousands of reports filed. As an American a significant portion of my tax dollars is given to fund Israeli military, security and economic structures, the same military that racially profiled me, harassed me, detained me and said they could care less if I was American. Israel does not respect the citizens of the United States; regardless of the billions of dollars in aid we provide them annually. How foolish of me to assume that as an American, Israel would treat me with more respect than my family, given our “Unbreakable” military alliance and generous economic contribution, which funds their illegal military occupation. However, I have little to complain about compared to the daily discrimination, humiliation and abuse endured by Palestinians entrapped and oppressed by their constant violent encroachments.

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Moe Diab

After returning from my trip, I had the words “Never Surrender” tattooed across my back. At the time, I didn’t realize precisely why I had the desire to permanently scar my flesh with those words; it may have been my subconscious hinting at me to pursue action for my unsettling experience. In fact, those words would penetrate deeper than my skin. Those very words pierced my skin, engulfed my soul, and fueled my intellectual resistance. I just knew that something changed in me after that trip. I didn’t think the same. I didn’t even talk the same way. I perceived the world differently. I began to evolve into the human rights activist I am today. In the years following my trip, I came to learn that knowledge is far more powerful than any military force. By educating myself, I am able to educate others. By spreading awareness, I am awakening the sleeping conscience of neutrally compliant individuals. Knowledge is the most dangerous threat to an unjust system of oppression.

Regardless of the anticipated difficulties I may face, I plan on visiting my family in Palestine soon. So what if they detain me and question me again? It’s their way of instilling fear in the hearts of those wishing to visit their beloved homeland and families. Of all people, the Zionist government should know, as Palestinians we will not give up our right of return after 65 years of occupation, especially considering Zionists claim that same right after more than 2,000 years. I’m sure the intimidation, harassment, and vile treatment deters many Palestinians from returning home, but not this one. If there is one thing that Americans and Palestinians have in common, it’s that we ‘Never Surrender’.

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This is an incredibly inspiring story, great thanks for sharing it with us, Moe. For me, it is a reminder of how important the American lens is for our work. This piece has a thoroughly American voice, in the vein of Huck Finn and Richard Wright and Saul Bellow, but for the new international age. It causes me to reflect on my own childhood indoctrination in superiorities, of a few varieties! And this passage reminds… Read more »

Strong, very strong. Stay strong, the zios supremist will not prevail.

Alex has an article up on the new thinking originating from the Israeli right. I wonder if that doesn’t come in at least some part from a realization of the power of “Never Surrender” and the respect that engenders in people that view the world in narrow power v. power terms. Perhaps a shift from deadly enemy to worthy adversary, with shifting more to come. Just thinking out loud… but interesting developments all around this/your… Read more »

““Why did you come to Israel? You have nothing here.” “This is the land for the Jews. Why do you visit if this is not your land?” “Let me see your cell phone! Who did you contact before you got on the plane?” “Log into your email account!” “Where does your family live? What is their address?” The airport incident occurred seven years ago when Moe would have been 18 years old. A remarkable memory… Read more »

i was really impressed when i heard moe’s 2 hour ‘crash course’ radio interview on Hanif J Williams Show

and then the more i looked the more impressed i was with his activism, plus he appears to have quite a following….understandably.