Tuesday, July 29, 2008

'Check more'

A very common source of worry and discussions for people in the West Bank is departure from Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. All people leaving Israel face a thorough and drawn-out control process. Palestinians with a West Bank ID cannot travel through Israel and instead have to travel over ‘the Bridge’ and through Jordan; and, of course, it’s only those who get permission from the Israeli authorities who can go. If you live in Gaza you cannot leave, not even to visit the West Bank. People like me with an international passport, though, depart via Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. There are many Palestinians who have international passports who also do the same; but leaving is, for some reason, more troublesome than arriving in the country. You risk losing the right to travel to Israel and Palestine indefinitely. There are, apparently, over 100,000 people who have received this unconditional verdict, including, among others, many Palestinians with international passports. For example, Emily’s sister Annemarie Jacir has been forbidden from returning, which is a bit of a disaster as that means that she now cannot visit family and friends and the place where she feels she belongs. Annemarie Jacir had recently shown her film, ‘Salt of the Sea’, at the Cannes Film Festival. The film is about Palestine and was filmed there. Leaving Palestine is thus a widely discussed topic and is a feared aspect of visiting Palestine, for me also.

The usual strategy for international visitors who have been staying in Palestine is to lie and say that they have only visited the holy land, either as a pilgrim or tourist. You should never mention Ramallah or Nablus. If you do, then a two to three hour long interrogation is guaranteed to follow, as well as a thorough search of bags, computers, video films, mobile phones, etc. This is said to not be a very pleasant experience. Many have had their computers destroyed, images deleted and rolls of film exposed during these interrogations. Another minor detail is that you might miss your flight.

The day before my departure, I had met a guy who had had his computer destroyed and all his film exposed at the airport. So I was rather nervous when sitting in the taxi from Ramallah on Sunday morning. I had spent the last three nights at goodbye parties and was comfortably tired, although the hangover was bearable. The taxi driver was once again Youssef, the same driver who had picked me up at the airport six weeks ago. He was very knowledgeable and told me stories throughout the journey about the places we passed by, villages where in 1948 Jewish terrorist groups had driven out and killed entire populations, and other terrible things. I was tired and was trying to be attentive but it was also just sad to acknowledge that the terror that Palestinians live with historically and in the present is becoming normalised, even for me. When I had first arrived here I had been very aware and attentive and noted down everything that Youssef had told me during our drive from the airport to Ramallah. Now I was less attentive. Perhaps my nerves were all directed at Ben Gurion, or simply just numbed by too many horrible stories and experiences over the past six weeks. Of course, the beer and smoke from the previous nights had left their marks too. Perhaps I had also incorporated the Palestinian phlegmatic survival strategy, I don’t know.

When we got close to the airport, Youssef asked me what story I planned to tell them and I said that I’d probably say that I had been looking at culture in Jerusalem, or something like that. He said that it was not very easy to lie, but that I had to tell them when I was going though the first checkpoint outside the airport that I had only been in Jerusalem. ‘Don’t mention Ramallah’, otherwise it would take an hour just to get into the airport. When we got to the checkpoint by the airport, we were taken aside immediately when the security guard noted that I had an Arab driver. First, Youssef told them something about Jerusalem in Hebrew, after which I was asked how long I had been in Israel and where I had stayed. I had stayed at the Jerusalem Hotel and the Ambassador and had been on an amazing cultural pilgrimage over the past six weeks. The security guard took Youssef’s ID and my passport with him in to the security booth but quickly came back out and gave me both IDs and said ‘Have a good journey’. Youssef quickly drove his Mercedes taxi out of the checkpoint, and asked if he could see my passport. I flipped it over so he could see both sides and it turned out that there was a little sticker on the back. Youssef said ‘Quick, take it off — it will dry’ and I peeled the little sticker off easily. Youssef said that it was a note to the security guards in the airport which said, as he expressed it: ‘Check more’. They had tagged my passport because I’d arrived at the airport with an Arab. When I was dropped off outside the terminal, the same thing happened again. Apparently there was security stationed outside the building as well that had seen me arrive with Youssef. I was stopped again before I entered the building and asked where I came from, where I had stayed, etc. I had had to go through a special check already before I had entered the terminal, but it was also a bit lucky as I had not quite yet decided whether I would tell the truth about Ramallah and take the rough ride, or if I should keep up the lie all the way through. However, I was kind of caught in the lie now and I got through the metal detector and the interview without problems. I had spent a long time deleting all traces of the West Bank from my baggage and sent books and presents back home in a separate package from the post office in East Jerusalem. All emails from the past two months were deleted and digital images and video tapes were also in the mail. And I had arrived at the airport four hours before departure.

The next check happened in the line for the check-in where I was waiting to have all my bags x-rayed. A very young girl came up to me and asked me where I had been, where I had stayed, etc. I tried to seem a bit dumb and disinterested and she didn’t delve into any further details. She just put a sticker on my suitcase and bag with all kinds of codes and numbers. The largest number was a 5. I’d already heard that they worked with a security grading from 1-6 and thought that I was pretty fucked. At least a 5 was better than a 6. Most of the people around me had been given a 1 or a 2 but they were either Israelis or Jewish, and I heard that the security personnel were checking whether people could speak Hebrew and knew the Jewish religious holidays. Then they would get a 1 or a 2. There were no 3s or 4s, but I saw a young girl with a 6 who was having her toiletries bag searched. Then it was my turn to have my bags x-rayed, and these got more stickers with big 5s pasted on them. I carried all the bags myself over to a large bench where everyone had their bags searched. When it was my turn, I was asked to open my suitcase and bag and especially my laptop. The girl didn’t really ask me anything while she went through my things with a stick with a little napkin stuck on the end. Every once in a while she would take off the napkin and stick it in a machine that, from what I could tell, was a device for doing a molecular analysis of the traces on the napkin. She was probably searching for explosives. Once again I tried to seem disinterested and didn’t put my things back into my bag until after she had encouraged me to a few times. She was about to put a special sticker on my bag but then looked at me inquisitively and decided not to. I stood there and looked a bit dazed. Then there was the airline check-in although I still didn’t know if I was safe. I could see several normal looking tourists and business travellers around who also had the number 5 on their suitcases which calmed me down. At the same time I saw the young girl with the 6 being taken away by security guards.

It turned out that the first interview and the 5 had been the decisive checks, and I was only superficially questioned when I walked through passport control: ‘Where have you been and where did you stay?’ My hand luggage was once again x-rayed, opened up and swathed with the napkins before I was finally allowed to go to my gate. Approximately three hours had passed with these checks but I was pretty relieved after all the stories I’d heard of people being strip-searched, humiliated and held for an endless amount of interviews. These kinds of interrogations and investigations do not, of course, occur in the open, and for all the tourists the airport just seems like a normal airport. Somewhere deep inside this building, though, there might be people who would have just lost their right to ever come back.

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