“What is the purpose of your stay in Israel?”
For outsiders, the Israeli occupation of Palestine starts at Ben Gurion Airport.
If you are Israeli, welcome home. Go through customs, get your luggage and be on your way to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa or any number of Jewish settlements that you might call home. If you are Palestinian and live in the West Bank, you are probably not here. Even though it is only a 45 minute taxi ride to Jerusalem and from there an even shorter bus ride to Ramallah, Ben Gurion Airport is in Tel Aviv and Tel Aviv is in Israel—to be here, you need a travel permit from the Israeli authorities, which is difficult to obtain.
If you live are Palestinian and live in Gaza, you are definitely not here—even though geographically speaking, Gaza is even closer to Tel Aviv than the West Bank.
If you are a prospective Jewish settler making Aliyah to an Israeli settlement with your family of five or more, you are given the first installment of a government subsidy allowance of $14,000 in spending money in cash. If you are a Palestinian foreign national coming to visit your family or your homeland, you are interrogated about where your family is from, held for a few hours, and eventually given a shorter visa to make sure that it is only a short visit.
If you are not Israeli, but Jewish you are most likely welcomed to Israel, and told to have a good time in the homeland. Maybe you are here on Birthright—an all expenses paid guided tour of Israel for any Jewish or half Jewish foreign national who has never been to Israel. Often, the hope is that you will fall in love with Israel—or another Jew—and then move back, and make Aliyah. If you get busy before you come to Israel and come back with your family of five or more, you will even get the government subsidy in cold hard cash. If you are not Palestinian, but Arab, you are very likely pulled aside for interrogation based on your last name or your physical appearance—often, after several hours of interrogation about your travel experiences, heritage and knowledge of the Arabic language, you are granted entry, though it is often on a shorter visa. In some cases you are denied entry, deported and given a ten-year entry ban based on your Arab heritage and possible affiliations with Palestine alone makes you a “security threat” to the state of Israel.
I happen to be one such “security threat.”
Let me tell you a little bit about myself.
I am 22 years old. I am a little bit less than five feet tall and weigh about 95 pounds. I have never been arrested and have no police record whatsoever—not even for Occupy Wall Street or underage drinking. I recently graduated from university where I made good grades and participated in many things outside of school. I live in Brooklyn, New York with two roommates and make a living as a nanny, a French tutor and a freelance writer. I have an adorable cat named Beyoncé.
I am American, with an American passport. I am French Canadian on my father’s side and Lebanese and Greek on my mother’s side. I look fittingly racially ambiguous. I have been taken for everything from Iranian to Italian to Puerto Rican. But here in the Middle East, my Arabic blood runs strong. It makes sense—a few miles away and on the other side of the wall, carbon copies of my Lebanese relatives are bustling around the city center of Ramallah selling fresh-baked Arabic “Pita” bread that to me smells like home.
I have been writing about Israel and Palestine for six years. When I was 16 years old, I took my mother to a commemoration of Al-Nakba—or, the “Day of the Catastrophe” in 1948 when Palestinians were first expelled from their land to establish the State of Israel. I saw other Arab-Americans that looked and acted exactly like my family—they ate the same food that we ate and had the same wild black hair and light brown skin tone. It made sense that we looked and acted alike—we’re neighbors, Lebanon and Palestine.
I talked to people. I did my own research. I learned more. I was heart-broken that this horrible expulsion and occupation had happened and was happening to people that looked and acted so much like me and my family. This is where my activism started.
Five years later, I was arriving at Ben Gurion Airport to see Palestine with my own eyes. In the past five years, I had become a journalist—after frustration with the solidarity activist community, I thought that this was the best thing I could do for Palestine.
“What is the purpose of your stay in Israel?”
I had been told to lie—play dumb, smile, look pretty and play the tourist card. If they knew I was going to any territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority, I could get denied entry, banned from the country and deported.
I was ushered into a small windowless office where a woman began asking me questions about my plans in Israel. She called other officers in, and they started speaking rapidly and aggressively in Hebrew—a language I don’t understand. All I could understand was that they were clearly talking about me.
“Your story doesn’t seem true. We’re going to Google you.”
A simple Google search of my name reveals the fruits of my labor writing about Palestine for the past five years. Under normal circumstances, I’m proud of it—but in this moment, I was terrified.
“We know exactly who you are, now tell us the real reason that you are here.”
I cracked. I confessed everything—I was going to live in Ramallah and write articles in the West Bank. They continued to interrogate me, asking me about my heritage, my family history, and what I wrote about as a journalist. They interrogated me about whether or not I spoke Arabic and why I was interested in the Middle East. They kept trying to make me confess that I spoke Arabic at home. This went on for seven hours—between interrogations, I was kept in a green room with others trying to enter the country. All of us were of Arab descent or brown of some kind.
“You know 9/11? This is our every day in Israel. We are living it.”
I smiled and nodded.
“Tell me one good reason why you are not a security threat and I should let you into the state of Israel?”
Eventually I was released, and given a two-week visa under the condition that so long as I am in Israel I do not participate in any pro-Palestinian activities. Being held, interrogated and compartmentalized as a “security threat” was a horrible, humiliating experience but only a taste of how Israeli control over occupied Palestine affects Palestinians. Since the end of 2000, Israel has stopped accepting requests for family unification for Palestinian residents married to foreign nationals, and first degree relatives that do not have an Israeli-issued Palestinian identification card. Lying to the Israeli authorities, and continuously renewing three month—or shorter—tourist visas was one of the few options for keeping families and spouses together. However, over the past year there has been a significant increase in denying entry and deporting anyone who happens to be in some way associated with Palestine or a Palestinian, erasing the Palestinian fabric of the land on which the state of Israel has been created, making it a Jewish-only space.
**For the sake of space, two separate interrogation experiences are included in this article as one. Both experiences resulted in a long interrogation with a two-week visa.