Last week, US congress members Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar were barred from entering Israel. Though Israel cited its 2017 law which prohibits entry of any person or affiliate that supports the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against the state, Israel makes it notoriously difficult for anyone who has interest in, or is supportive of, Palestinians to enter.
Human Rights Watch director of Israel/Palestine, Omar Shakir, tweeted at representatives Tlaib and Omar that they are, “in good company,” citing the variety of academics, lawyers, and human rights defenders that have also been denied entry into Israel. Shakir himself is facing deportation for his work in human rights.
“If anyone has any suspicion that [a traveler] supports Palestine or is going to see Palestinians,” Sameer Qumsiyeh, 30, told Mondoweiss, “they will reject them from entering. Because they don’t want them to see.”
“That’s actually proof of the power of travel.” Qumsiyeh is a filmmaker from Beit Sahur, a Christian village in Bethlehem. His documentary Walled Citizen, set for its local premiere this fall, is about how travel could be used as a tool to build bridges between people.
Moreover, Qumsiyeh’s film illustrates the pain-staking and dehumanizing reality of a Palestinian traveller. The heavy travel restrictions and lack of freedom of movement for Palestinians, “is about not wanting people to reach each other and in [the Palestinian] case to not wanting people to see our reality,” Qumsiyeh said.
“If Palestinians had more access to travelling, they would travel more and people would see them more and listen to their stories,” and this is what is so threatening to Israel.
The Palestinian passport is one of the weakest in the world, with only 37 countries allowing visa-free access. In comparison, US passport holders are able to travel to 116 countries visa-free. Traveling for an American citizen is a privilege often taken for granted. Where Americans can simply purchase a flight ticket and leave, Palestinians must go through a gruesome visa application process.
“Most of our visas get rejected,” explained Malkon Marizian, 31, from East Jerusalem. Being Christian, Marizian is able to have the church help him with applications. Most of his opportunities for travel were only in group settings organized by the church. “But when I applied on my own, even to Egypt and my mother is Egyptian, I was rejected because I am a Palestinian.”
“This is related to our status,” Malkon indicated. “It is all related to the occupation.”
Getting a visa
All foreign embassies and consulates are inside the state of Israel, which for East Jerusalemites like Marizian, does not pose a problem. But for Palestinians living on the other side of the separation wall, it poses the first obstacle in the desire to travel.
When Ahmed*, from Hebron, was 18 years old and fresh out of high school, he had a dream of studying in the US. He set an interview appointment at the US consulate in Jerusalem in pursuit of a visa. “At that time, I got interrogated by the Israeli intelligence,” Ahmed told Mondoweiss. “They wanted me to work with them and I refused.”
“They knew I wanted to go and that I had an interview at the US consulate in Jerusalem,” he continued. “They denied my permit and I couldn’t go to my interview.”
“It’s funny because I’ve never thrown a stone on a soldier,” Ahed said in his lighthearted nature, adding that he was never politically involved in any movement. For him, this experience showcased, “how stupid the system works and how fragile they are… They try to control you by using your desires against you.”
Despite being born in Jerusalem, since this interrogation Ahmed has never been able to receive a permit to return. Six years later, now 23 years old, Ahmed has finally received a visa to visit the US. “I didn’t get a permit, so I had to go the other way,” he cites having to cross the apartheid wall illegally in order to go to his visa appointment at the consulate. “It was a bit nerve-racking. It wasn’t 100 percent safe, but it worked.”
And there is a physical price to this process. “The visa application is around 600 ILS,” Ahmed calculated. “And then the guy who fills out the form, he took like 150 ILS,” referring to third parties that people often use to help ensure everything is done correctly. “And then getting into Jerusalem, the whole smuggling thing, it was around 750 ILS.”
Palestinians do have the option of applying for a temporary, non-citizen Jordanian passport that helps traveling to certain countries as well. Ahmed is a holder of this Jordanian passport, but “it will cost you like 200 dinar, which is like 1000 ILS,” he pointed out. “And you have to go to Jordan.”
“That’s where the fun starts,” Qumsiyeh said sarcastically. “This is the most complicated part of traveling, a part from the visa process – you have to go to Jordan.”
Getting to Jordan
Being from East Jerusalem, Marizian is allowed to travel from Israel’s Ben Gurion airport. But Palestinians in the West Bank only have the option of flying out of Amman, since Israel destroyed Palestine’s airports nearly two decades ago and later instilled the current permit regime limiting access to Israel.
And going to Jordan is not easy. The only passage allowed for Palestinians is the King Hussein bridge from Jericho in the Jordan Valley, which is not open 24/7 and closes for both Jewish and Muslim holidays and operates under half-days every Friday and Saturday. Travellers go through three separate crossings – Palestinian, Israeli, then Jordanian – using three separate busses and pay respective entry and exit fees.
“In an average day, to cross the border it takes about three to four hours. It’s too crowded, it’s not smooth. It’s too complicated,” Qumsiyeh detailed. Palestinians wishing to travel must leave, at times, multiple days before their flight to accommodate this border crossing. “Sometimes it takes 10 hours [if] they ask you to go to a separate room, which is the interrogation room,” he added, having to go through this experience himself.
Qumsiyeh cited a character in his film who went through the chaos of the bridge crossing to not only be denied entry into Jordan, but banned from trying to reenter for five years. “He has an American girlfriend, so he can’t visit her and she was denied entry here because she is in a relationship with this man.”
The mental cost of travelling as a Palestinian far outways any monetary measurement. “It’s an identity crisis,” Marizian pointed out his exceptional case of being an East Jerusalemite, whose Israeli-issued ID designates his nationality as “undefined,” and the struggle of explaining this to ignorant border control agents.
Though still marginal, Marizian recognizes the benefits he has holding an Israel ID.
In East Jerusalem, we have a better chance… especially [versus] those in the West Bank.”
“And when you look at Gazans, they are way worse. They are looked at way worse than any of us,” citing the now 12-year-long blockade trapping Palestinians in what has been called the world’s largest open-air prison.
‘A psychological game’
Marizian described the irony of Israel making it difficult for Palestinians to travel. To him, the strategy has always been, “to build up suffering until people want to leave… If they are in prison, then they will want to leave. It’s a psychological game.”
This puts Palestinians between a rock and a hard place, since other countries make it difficult to acquire visas out of fear of them overstaying. “You are living in a place where you are rejected and when you want to leave this place, you are also rejected,” Qumsiyeh said incredulously. “So what should I do? It’s like your very existence is not welcomed. They would prefer if you just didn’t exist.”
*Name has been changed to protect privacy