On July 12th, about five days after Israel began to bombard Gaza with the airstrikes of Operation Protective Edge, I arrived at the Israeli-operated Allenby border terminal to cross into the occupied West Bank. Followed by ten hours of detention, interrogation, and some humiliation, I was denied entry by the IDF. My long-anticipated plans to return to Beit Sahur – to learn, do research, and assist a friend’s community development project for the next two months – were dissolved by two magavniks, who sent me back to Jordan without a legitimate reason and at my own expense.
While this experience is hardly unusual among Palestinians or Arab Americans at an Israeli border, American Jews and non-Arab travelers are typically granted the privilege of entering Israel and the Occupied Territories. I previously took advantage of this privilege, entering and leaving Israel through Tel Aviv multiple times. However, in the words of one of the soldiers who detained me at Allenby: “These smolanim – they’re worse than the Arabs.” The following account, like every account of a privileged foreign tourist or aid worker denied entry into Israel, is indicative of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians – and the measures that the IDF will take to uphold that oppression.
Even at 8:30AM, shortly after the bridge to the Allenby border crossing opens for the day, about 200 sweaty travelers already stand in a winding line, waiting to proceed through Israeli security. As I scan the crowd of weary faces and Palestinian passports, I consider that I’m probably the only non-Arab traveler in the crowd. My gaze through the open-air room lands on a giant blue banner beside the security line. The banner appears to simply read, “Welcome!” in English, followed by its translation in Hebrew and Arabic below it. But upon a closer look, I notice a striking difference: the Arabic script reads “Welcome back”; The Hebrew reads: “Welcome home.”
Silently watching the family in front of me for guidance, I place my luggage on the conveyor belt, hand my passport to an Israeli soldier, and walk through a metal detector. Just beyond this typical security checkpoint, the rest of the terminal is less organized: people are scattered among numerous small seating areas, unmarked doorways, and a lonely snack kiosk. As I slip my shoes back on, a magavnik in plainclothes – wearing a striped polo and a kippa – quickly instructs me to sit down and “wait for a security check,” pointing to a chair beside the moving luggage.
Meanwhile, the other travelers are gathering their luggage and continuing into the next room. I had expected this; I’d mentally prepared myself for a particularly thorough interview by Israeli officials, consistent with my three previous trips to Israel. I’d visited the West Bank for a similar purpose just six months prior, but had entered and departed via Ben Gurion Airport, instead. I try to divert my thoughts from that last encounter I had with Israeli security, hoping I will be subjected to a less intimidating interrogation this time.
The anonymous magavnik, holding my messenger bag in his gloved hands, asks me to open it for him. As I unzip my bag, he says, “That’s enough,” and dumps its contents on a steel table. Another Israeli in plainclothes – a short, pear-shaped woman – leads me into one of the small, unmarked rooms. As another unidentified magavnik enters the room, she begins with the usual first question: “What are you doing in Israel?”
“I am visiting some friends in Beit Sahur – ”
“What’s that?” the pear-shaped one interrupts.
“It’s a village near Bethlehem, where I’ll be taking an Arabic course and doing research.”
“Where will you stay while you’re in Israel?”
“In Beit Sahur, with a Palestinian-American family.” She continues to repeat the same questions a few times, with slightly varied phrasing. I explain that my contact in Beit Sahur, Daniel Bannoura, attended university in the U.S. That’s how I met him. I explain that I’ve stayed with the Bannoura family during previous trips. I point to my passport, which has somehow ended up in her hand.
“See – I was here in January. I came to Israel with my mother, through Ben Gurion. We stayed in Jerusalem, Haifa, Tel Aviv…I also stayed in Ramat Gan…”
All of these details are innocuous – I have nothing to hide from her. Besides, I’m certain they already have this information. But I couldn’t have anticipated what she did next. She pointed indiscriminately to the crowd of travelers outside the doorway.
“That woman – she told us your mother is Jewish, but your father is Arab. Where is your father from?”
I stare at her in disbelief. They already know – or should know, since this is my fourth time subjecting myself to Israel’s invasive border control interviews – where my parents are from. And while I feel it shouldn’t matter what my parents’ ethnicity is, I know that it does matter to Magav. More importantly, it could affect my freedom of movement, or whether I’m even permitted to enter Israel.
“What? No! Who are you talking about?” I look towards the crowd, but she interrupts me again, angrily snapping her fingers in my face.
“Look at me! Don’t worry about her.”
She’s lying to me. She knows that I’m traveling alone, but she’s trying to manipulate me, to elicit an emotional response. I look into her eyes as I try to remain completely calm. I begin to respond in Hebrew, but the other magavnik demands, “English.”
“My father is from Colombia. He moved to the States when he was young. His Sephardic surname is my surname. He died in 2009, as I’ve mentioned before. My mom’s from New Jersey. We are not Arabs.”
She asks me several more mundane questions about the purpose of my visit, but seems dissatisfied with my consistent responses. Eventually, she instructs me to return to the luggage area, where the man had been inspecting the contents of my bag. But she keeps my passport with her.
For a brief moment, the man gives me a sympathetic look as I re-pack what he had dumped on the table. A petite woman in an IDF uniform, even smaller than myself, leads me into a tiny room – the size of a closet, with a curtain. She speaks softly, politely asking me to remove my dress so she can search. I stifle a nervous laugh as she pats me down with gloved hands. This gentle strip-search is probably the least humiliating procedure I’ll endure today.
I’m then instructed to move on to the larger, adjacent waiting area. Multiple lines lead up to acrylic windows designated for passport control. I don’t even know who has my passport now, since my interrogators vanished with it, so I take a seat and await instruction. I glance around, noting that other travelers are freely using their phones. I take out my own phone, and see that it’s now already 11:30AM. The battery is getting low, but I can’t charge it because I thoughtlessly packed my power adapter in my larger bag, which is still in a separate secure area. I message Daniel, my Palestinian friend who is already waiting for me with other friends beyond the Israeli terminal, in Jericho.
“I don’t know how long I’ll be here…at least another hour. I don’t even have my passport back yet, or my luggage. I’ll keep you posted. I may ask them to call you.”
I waited there for three hours. Occasionally, another anonymous officer would emerge from one of several unmarked rooms, approach me, and ask me more of the same questions while holding my passport in hand. I remained seated, and didn’t dare to ask them how long this could take. After one of the more pleasant (of several) interviews, Daniel messaged me again.
“He called me,” Daniel said, apparently referring to the friendly soldier who had just spoken to me. “Sweet guy. Asked for my ID number. Probably won’t be much longer then, right?”
I hope not, I thought. I had already been detained at Allenby for over six hours. I was hungry, but trying to refrain from going to the snack kiosk, which was virtually deserted on a Ramadan Sunday. I kept telling myself that a magavnik would come to retrieve me again at any minute, and that I might miss them if I left for even a moment.
Around 3:45PM, I found myself sitting at a desk for what I optimistically thought would be my final interview, facing a female soldier and man in a white collared shirt. The man sat at a desktop computer, partly turned towards me, while firmly holding my passport.
“So you plan to study in Israel?” he asked, staring coldly at me.
“I’m taking an Arabic course in Bethlehem. It’s only a few weeks long.”
The female soldier asked me, “Do you study in America?”
I nod, removing my student ID from my wallet and passing it to her. “I studied at Columbia University, in New York.”
The man asked me about friends and family in Israel, apparently poised to search for them in his database. Our conversation was cordial, until he stated, “You need a student visa.”
My face suddenly felt warm. “No. I verified this before – I only need a tourist visa. My return flight is in September. I registered my trip with the State Department.” I used my dying cell phone to retrieve my flight itinerary for him. He glanced at it, and shortly after, they instructed me to wait outside again.
At 5:30PM, the female soldier and the man in plainclothes finally emerged again from the office. But the woman shook her head as she spoke to me.
“We’re sending you back to Jordan,” she told me. “I’m sorry. There’s nothing we can do for you.”
I stammered, frozen in shock. I stood helplessly, searching the officers’ faces as tears welled in my eyes, but they diverted theirs. They still held my passport.
I tried not to cry, but failed the moment that I spoke. “I’ve been here for nearly ten hours,” I began to plead. They only shrugged, looking down at the floor.
“Daniel is waiting for me on the other side, in Jericho. All of my electronics are dead. Can you at least call him for me, to tell him I won’t be there? Otherwise he’ll just keep waiting and worrying. He won’t know what’s happened to me. Please. I have his number written down, right here. Someone called him earlier…”
“No. Whoever was here earlier – they left. We’ll get [your passport] to you in a moment. A bus will bring you back to Jordan.”
Despite forcing me to wait an entire day, only to be refused entry, they managed to escort me out of the terminal in minutes. A soldier led me to a charter bus, with an Arab driver who smiled sympathetically at me as tears streamed down my cheeks. I slouched down into a front seat – the only passenger – and silently sobbed as we departed for the Jordanian security checkpoint, where I’d been just that morning. Completely numb, I caught a last glance out the window at Allenby’s “Welcome!” sign, with its deliberately deceptive translations.
I was still weeping when we arrived at the checkpoint, finally releasing days of anxiety and emotion. Due to huge airport delays and a canceled flight, I had already been traveling for four days, even before I was denied entry. When I’d left my apartment the previous Wednesday, the possibility had crossed my mind that I may be forbidden entry by the IDF. But I couldn’t have been prepared for its implications. I had rearranged my life at home, planning meticulously for the following two months while looking forward to returning to Palestine. I had budgeted every travel expense – now completely wasted. I wept more as I thought of my Palestinian friends who were expecting me – of Daniel, who had asked me to return to Beit Sahur to bake pastries for the coffeehouse he recently opened. I had looked forward to reporting from the West Bank, hoping to support the vital work of the AIC in Bethlehem. All of these plans were arbitrarily shattered by the force that brutally controls the lives of Palestinians.
For the second time that day, I handed my passport to a Jordanian policeman.
“Back so soon?” he asked. Shaking my head, I handed him my passport and flipped to the page where the Magav had twice stamped: “ENTERY DENIED” [sic]. The officers’ eyes widened as he examined the red stamp and emphatically told me, “Five years.” I erupted into tears all over again. Naturally, the Israelis hadn’t informed me of that. A few officers gathered at the desk and kindly attempted to console me.
“You want to return to Jerusalem?” one of them asked. I nodded, too emotionally exhausted to offer further explanation.
Another officer chimes in. “Many of us, you know – we are Palestinian!” he tells me, smiling sincerely. I wipe my eyes, looking into his, and around at the group that had gathered at the desk.
“I’m from Nablus,” he added. Another man offered, “I’m from Kafr ‘Aqab.”
“I’m Palestinian,” he repeated to me. “But I’ve never been to Palestine.”