Saturday, April 14, 2012

How I was almost denied entry to my own country

Yesterday, I was almost denied entry to my own country, Israel, or so I was led to believe. Now, Israel is the only country of which I am a citizen. It is where I was born, and it is the only country that has ever issued me a passport. So an interesting question would have arisen had Israel's immigration authorities actually denied me entry, namely: where would they deport me to? But that is a hypothetical question. More interesting, I believe, is to examine what happened to me yesterday at Ben-Gurion International Airport outside of Tel Aviv, why it happened to me of all people, and how is it that the State of Israel allows itself to treat some of its own citizens as if they are enemies of the state.

I would like to preface that my story is by no means the harshest I have read or heard of. Virtually every Palestinian citizen of Israel goes through much more humiliating experiences every time she or he departs and enters the country. This is well documented in both mainstream media, as well as in a series of excellent posts on the 972 blog, e.g. this one by Lisa Goldman. Also, I am a fairly regular joe. I mean, yes, I am something of a political activist, and I have been politically active to some extent pretty much since I was seven years old or so, but I am not as hard core as some other people, who have been through some real "interesting" ordeals at Ben-Gurion Airport, such as Lihi Rothschild whose story was also published in 972 and later picked up, along with those of three other Israeli activists, in Haaretz. And hell, even I have been through worse, but in a foreign country, not in my native land.

So here's what happened to me. I live in Philadelphia. As of May 2011 I have been a permanent resident of the United States (I have what's known in common parlance as a "green card"). I usually come visit my family in Israel twice a year, once in the winter and once in the summer. A few days ago my mother, who lives near Tel Aviv, fell ill and I decided to come visit her on short notice. I booked a round trip on US Airways between Philadelphia and Tel Aviv for ten days. 

Now, in the last two years or so, I have made a habit of expressing solidarity with the Palestinian people on my flights to and from Israel. Initially, I would dawn a black-and-white keffiyyeh, the traditional checkered headdress worn by Palestinians. Typically, I would get asked for my passport upon disembarking the plane at Ben-Gurion, then once again at baggage claim.
Another thing I did once was to wear a t-shirt that reads "Free Palestine" in English and Arabic and shows an image of a Palestinian flag. I had purchased the t-shirt in the Old City in East Jerusalem. It triggered the exact same reaction from Israeli security personnel. Once they would see my Israeli passport with my very Hebrew name, they would let me go.

This time, I wore both the keffiyyeh and the shirt, but I'm pretty sure that wasn't what caused the following to ensue. Incidentally, in none of these cases, including on this last flight from Philadelphia, there were no incidents whatsoever stateside. This time around my economy class ticket was even upgraded to business class free of charge "despite" my garb. But when we landed in Tel Aviv, I was first asked for my passport at the top of the stairs following disembarkation, as expected. I was let through upon a quick inspection. When I reached passport control, however, it seemed as if something had appeared on the officer's computer screen, which caused her to summon two additional officers to have a look. They weren't concerned so much with what I was wearing, but rather with whatever was written on the monitor.

One of the officers who was summoned escorted me to a small waiting area and asked me where I lived and what the purpose of my visit was. I told him the truth, that I lived in Philadelphia and I came to visit my family in the Tel Aviv area. He asked me whether I had a green card and when I told him I did he asked to see it. I made the mistake of giving it to him. I say "mistake" because for the purpose of entering Israel I am nothing but a citizen of Israel and any other status I may have in other countries is totally irrelevant. In fact, I may have violated a U.S. federal statute by surrendering a U.S. government-issued document to an official of a foreign government, but that's another story. He asked me to wait and went to a back room. 

After a few minutes, the officer returned and asked me to tell him "the truth" about the purpose of my trip. I repeated that I was visiting my family. I could have told him about my mother being in the hospital, but I decided it was none of his damn business. He said it would be easier if I just told him the truth, and I insisted that I indeed had told him the truth. He asked if I intended to visit the West Bank and I told him I did not. Then he asked me, "in that case, why are you wearing that shirt?" – to which I responded, "in order to show solidarity with the Palestinian people, and that's all I'll tell you." Then I reminded him that given that I am a citizen of Israel, he did not have the authority to prevent me from entering my own country. His response was interesting: "This week, I have all sorts of authorities that you don't know of." Then he told me that I was "delayed," (מעוכב) which in Israeli legal parlance means "not exactly under arrest, but not definitely not free to go." Since I was not in possession of my passport, I was not able to pass through to baggage claim anyway, so I tweeted that I was being "detained," even though that probably wasn't the proper legal terminology.

A few minutes later, a different, female officer came back with my passport and green card. My passport had been stamped with an entry stamp. She told me I didn't have to stand in line again, just to go through to claim my luggage and proceed through customs. Since I had been waiting for a good half hour, my single piece of luggage was making its umpteenth round on the carousel. I picked it up, then went to the currency exchange counter to buy some sheqels, but before I reached the customs hall, another officer stopped me and asked to see my passport, again. there were several other officers huddling around him. One of them asked me if I was alright. I was handed my passport back and exited the terminal. Before hailing a cab, I decided to change into a more "neutral" shirt and stow the keffiyyeh, until my flight back.

So why me? Over the last year or so, I have had more of an online presence than ever before. I know that my tweets (@urihoresh) have been read by several people in the Israeli army and government. Prime Minister Netanyahu's spokesperson in Arabic, Ofir Gendelman has actually blocked me from following him a few months ago. I have also been supportive of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement and have written about my experience attending its national conference in Philadelphia earlier this year. Is it that I am "too friendly" with like-minded Palestinians, and that I care deeply about the fate of hunger-striking administrative detainees? Is my vocal outrage over the honoring of Israel and its ambassador to Washington at Philadelphia's "Equality Forum" too much for "The Only Democracy In The Middle East" to handle? To be honest, I feel like the kid in The Emperor's New Clothes when I point out that Israel "pinkwashes" its war crimes by telling the world what a gay garden of Eden Israel is (it's not, but that's not even the issue).

I am due to fly back to Philly on flight US 797 on April 22. I am writing this to assist Uzi Tal (I'm sure that's not his real name, but that's the name the one officer gave me) and his colleagues in their endeavors to keep our skies safe. I'm not sure what shirt I'll be wearing, but you'll recognize the keffiyyeh, I'm sure.

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