‘There is no humanity here,’ says Sumaya, my new-found friend.
‘I guess that means we’ve had it then,’ I reply, and I try to laugh so that she realizes this is an attempt to lighten the mood, but the laugh comes out dry and hoarse and I can hear the wobble in my voice as I say the words.
I’m annoyed at myself, and I want to tell her – a feisty, young, beautiful-looking Palestinian – that I’m not really the pathetic, anxious individual I’m currently coming across as.
But I’ve been in this holding pen alone for three-and-a-half hours, without food or water, and have, already, in that period of time, been hauled out five times for interrogating (the first couple of times, I’d describe it as questioning; after that, it became worse) by four different people.
On top of that, I came in on a night flight, landing at 6am on Sunday, so I haven’t slept since Friday night, and I’d find that upsetting at the best of times. In this situation, the lack of sleep has led me to make some appalling slip ups during the questionings.
Sumaya and I are being held at Tel Aviv airport, Israel. She’s just come in on a flight from New York, with the aim of making it to Ramallah to edit a newsletter being started by Palestinian friends. Originally from Gaza, she knows she has no chance of being allowed in to that brutally-punished strip of land, even though her family lives there, so instead she comes to the West Bank to do her bit against the occupation. This time, she tells me, she has no intention of leaving.
Thinking only of my stomach, I ask her if we’re likely to get any food or something to drink. ‘No,’ she replies. ‘There is no humanity here.’
My first questioning had seemed pretty straightforward: ‘Are you Muslim?’ asked the uniformed woman with the blue eye shadow. ‘What is your father’s name?’; ‘Where was he born?’; ‘What was his father’s name?’; ‘Where was he born?’; ‘Why have you come to Israel?’; ‘Are you going to the West Bank or Gaza?’.
The woman had even apologized for having to ask the questions. It all put me in the wrong frame of mind…I thought this was going to be ok, and I relaxed.
Sumaya opens her hand luggage, which is stuffed full of granola bars and oatcakes, and offers me one. Bloody hell, has this woman been sent to me from heaven??
‘They do this because they don’t want Arabs using their airport,’ she says. ‘They want to make it so difficult for us that we stop coming through here. You’ve got to hang on. They’ll let you through in the end.’
I quickly realize that I can’t eat the granola bar because of the anxiety knots tying and untying themselves in my stomach. The combination of that plus food gives me the runs, and I depart hastily to the toilet.
When I return, Martin, the leader of the Surrey-based ecumenical observer group I’d met on the plane (which intends to stay in the West Bank for a week and whose members have all got through customs) is in the holding pen. He’s been allowed in to give me my bag, and also brings me a baguette and a bottle of water. I tell him briefly what’s happened so far. ‘Welcome to the occupation,’ he says wryly, and then he has to leave.
Possibly the worst questioning was with the man in plain-clothes. He was young and wore a black t-shirt. Fit and strong, he made sure his attitude was one of intimidation. When we walked into a tiny metal room, the door clanged shut behind us, and then it was just me and him, and a desk between us. I considered the possibilities of assault. Focus on the questions, focus…
‘We know you’ve been in Israel before’; (I’ve never been: ‘No I haven’t,’ I say); ‘You’ve been here before, just tell us the truth’; (‘I’ve never been to Israel’); ‘Don’t lie to us, or we’ll stop being nice to you’; ‘Why is your passport so new?’; ‘Who have you been communicating with in the West Bank?’; (‘No-one’); ‘We know you’ve been communicating with people in the West Bank. Tell us who they are’; (‘I don’t know anyone in the West Bank’); ‘I know you’re lying. You’ve got one more chance to tell me the truth. I might look nice, but I’m not’.
And so it went on. My tongue kept sticking to the top of my dry, dry mouth, and I tried not to cluck every time I unstuck it. My lips were dryer than I ever thought it possible for them to be, and I worked hard to control my shaking. Was I shaking because I was tired and hungry? Maybe. I hoped it wasn’t fear. That would just make me cross.
Sumaya has just come back from her second interrogation with the woman we call The Bitch. She is another one of the plain-clothes squad, in a khaki t-shirt and jeans and I’ve also done two rounds with her. By now, nearly four hours after she arrived in the holding pen, Sumaya and I are laughing and chatting, and I know I can cope for however long this takes, regardless of the constant, anxious churning in my stomach.
But Sumaya comes back from this interrogation furious. ‘How dare she? How dare she?’ she fumes. She goes over the details of her questioning with me, angry, raging.
‘I’m Palestinian. Why aren’t I allowed into my own country?’ she demands. ‘We have no control over our own airspace, our own borders. Why do I have to beg the Israelis for a visa to enter my own country? When are we going to stop being herded in and out of the West Bank like cattle?’
Then she kind of collapses in on herself, totally defeated. ‘You have to be strong,’ I tell her, remembering her words to me several hours previously. ‘You’ll get in eventually.’
The second time I was in with The Bitch, I completely messed up. Thinking it would help me get in, I told her I had a friend who was traveling in Israel, which I do, and that we were going to meet up and travel together. She asked me for his email address, but I didn’t want to give it to her, so I said I couldn’t remember it. The Bitch softened and implied that if I could prove the existence of an Israeli friend, they’d let me go. ‘Do you have his email address in your email contacts list?’ she asked. God, I was tired. What harm could giving someone an email address do? ‘Yes,’ I said.
She turned her computer screen towards me on the desk, and pushed the keyboard in front of me. ‘Give it to me,’ she ordered. Suddenly my stupid brain clicked back on. ‘What are you doing??’ it screamed at me. ‘Get out of this.’
I entered the details of an old Yahoo account I’d stopped using years ago, opened it, pretended to look through the contacts list, and told her my friend’s address wasn’t in there. She took the keyboard from me and typed ‘Israel’ into the search bar. Bizarrely, three reports I’d emailed to myself in 2006 came up – one on young offenders in the English prison system, a second on funding for women’s refuges, and the third was a Housing Corporation report on overcrowding amongst Muslim children in the London borough of Tower Hamlets.
She seized on the third one. ‘What’s this? What’s this?’ she demanded to know. I told her and sensed her anger at having been denied the prize – the proof she was looking for. Despite the situation, I felt a rising giggle at the absurdity of it all and quickly suppressed it. Then total fear struck as I realized what she’d discover if she managed to get into my current email account, including the link to this blog.
During our first questioning, The Bitch asked me if I’d ever done voluntary work. I said I’d done some stuff with homeless people years ago in England, but she was unimpressed. ‘We know why you’re here,’ she told me, ‘But we want you to tell us before we send you back.’
Why was I there? To work with children in a Bethlehem school, to live with a Palestinian family (a couple and their four teenage daughters) and share their lives for three months, to witness the reality of the occupation. It’s hardly the stuff of revolution, but every human rights sympathiser, every international observer that is allowed in weakens Israel’s iron stranglehold on the West Bank, even if only symbolically, interrupts its systematic crushing of the Palestinians and refuses to let the name of Palestine die on the world stage.
Just a few miles from where I sat for 14 hours in that holding pen, convoys of lorries carrying emergency medical aid, food, rebuilding materials, even children’s toys and musical instruments, are regularly denied entry into the sealed-off Gaza Strip, where 80% of the Palestinian population lives in poverty amongst houses that have been destroyed, power plants and sewage-treatment centers that have been shelled, hospitals and schools that have been bombed, and farmland that has been uprooted by Israel’s bulldozers. Treated like animals, the Palestinians are not allowed out and humanitarian aid is not allowed in.
My pen was nothing like the open pen they are trapped in, and I was eventually given my freedom. During the hours and hours I spent in there, Palestinians other than S came and went. Some were kept for several hours, others only for an hour or two. At one point, every chair in there was occupied by men, women, teenage children, whose faces displayed nothing but patience. This was the narrative of their existence, and they bore it with dignity. For me, used to the freedom to roam at will, it was a tiny, shocking insight into the tactics of humiliation and control, tactics the Palestinians of the West Bank face daily at any one of around 600 checkpoints that control their movement. Checkpoints where they start queuing at 2, 3 or 4 in the morning in order to make it to work, where 69 women on their way to hospital have been forced to give birth since September 2000.
Somehow, in the Israeli mentality, allowing me in to work with children would have been an unthinkable concession to humanity.
After 11 hours, I was taken for questioning by the Ministry of the Interior. More relentless interrogation, more psychological mind games and then I was told that my story didn’t add up and I would be deported.
I was photographed, finger-printed, and a copy of my passport taken. There was a bag search, body search and yet more questions.
For the final two hours before my bmi flight back to London, I was escorted by two armed guards if I wanted to go to the toilet and a close watch was kept on me in the holding pen. Then finally it was time to go. Two different armed security staff put me into a van and drove me across the tarmac to the plane. I was taken up the metal steps by one of the guards and we waited at the door of the plane for a few minutes until some security clearance came through on her radio. And then, for the first time since it was taken from me at 6 that morning, my passport was returned to me. I boarded the plane and went and sat in the seat allocated to me at the very back. For the first time also since that morning, I was free from surveillance and control. It felt weird.
I opened my passport. The stamp inside it said: ‘Ben-Gurion Airport: Entry Denied’.
And, with that stamp, the human rights of Palestine were denied once more.