Recently, I travelled through Ben Gurion International airport in Tel Aviv as there are no airports under Palestinian authority and anyone wishing to get into the holy land Jerusalem and surrounding areas of Palestine must pass through Israel’s airport. But the airport is only a fragment of the security measures taken by Israel. Their checkpoints and IDF soldiers are endless and suffocating all over the region, just as their never-ending expanding and undefined state borders.
On the afternoon of June 24th, I got on a direct flight to Tel-Aviv from London and despite being the only visible Muslim, having some strange, perplexed faces directed at me, and being spoken to in two different language to figure out my religion and ethnicity, it was okay. No one seemed to perceive me as a tangible security threat, just odd looking. The Israeli man sat near me on the plane even drew me a map and advised me about where was considered safe and how he was often ashamed of his nationality he did not hesitate, however, to inform me that the capital of Israel was Jerusalem.
It was when I landed in Tel-Aviv and immediately my passport was taken and I was placed in a waiting area with a group of smiling, sympathetic mainly Arabs and Muslims. I waited without my passport or bag before anyone came to see me for about an hour until the first woman called me in and conducted a security check in her office. She asked me about the reason for my trip, information about my parents, grandparents names, where they lived – whether I had visited Pakistan or any Arab/ Middle Eastern countries. Though the questions were often repetitive and I knew I was immediately targeted because I wear a headscarf and have an Arabic name, part of it seemed protocol, and I understood that she was just doing her job.
I was then placed back into the waiting room and waited for what felt like the longest time – I had landed at 9pm on a flight without halal food, it was about half 11 till I was seen again for the second time, I was starving, thirsty and inundated with travel germs.
The second lady also took me to her office and explained there would be some repeated and many questions, but to bear with her because she was just figuring out if I was “a terrorist” and taking care of the state of Israel’s security. This was a phrase I would hear many times throughout the trip because for Israel the term security is paramount but incredibly vague, unknown and used to justify and dehumanise.
I listened and answered every single one of her questions, without stopping to ask why the questions were relevant. From whether I was a terrorist to why, when and how my grandparents immigrated to the UK. To why my parents would allow me – a “young Muslim woman travel alone”. To what sect of Islam, I and my parents followed to searching my phone for any Israeli numbers without formally asking to check my phone or explaining what the need would be, and whether I was legally required to give my phone.
It was during this interrogation of why I had no Facebook app downloaded on my phone, what exactly had I read online, and declaring what was presumed to be my political views with the shrug “but I don’t care” that I realised I was a symbol of everything the Israeli government believed threatened their security. This was not just because I cover my hair, it was everything about me – from my name to my grandparents, what I studied and where because I was considered a Muslim intellectual and therefore threatening. My British nationality and passport, the be all and end all in this game of movement and permission granted accessibility that we play with the Earth and these intangible self-created borders, meant nothing at this point. It was simply that my face, my clothing, my name, what they considered I thought and believe, were all signifiers of conflict. For otherness and for everything they [they = state of Israel] associate with Palestine and how they justify one of the largest injustices taking place today.
But as my interrogator has said, my politics – of justice, compassion and of humanity, did not matter, at this point I too, was more concerned about getting out of the airport and making it to Masjid Al Aqsa for Fajr.
But throughout this interrogation, the rage and resistance I write with now was not present. It was replaced by fear. I knew the only consequence for me would be denied access to the region but they operate to you feel like a suspect and a threat that you know outside of the interrogation is non-existent. I was being manipulated and made to feel discomfort because my presence makes the Israeli government feel fear.
The fear, and my hope that their torture will be seen reported and passed on.
It is this telling and sharing of their perpetuated torture that they fear the most.
I am not Palestinian or Arab but I am a student in a region without censorship, I have the power of sharing and going across borders that Palestinians do not.
My visa which I received some point between 2 and 3 am had the time 11:59pm printed on it – which is a few minutes after my interrogation had finished. long after I had been interrogated.
Make of that what you will – you’ll find in this and other posts about this trip to come many things are vague and do not make a lot of sense but remain unquestioned because there is a perpetuated agenda or torture, surveillance and censorship behind it.
This brings me to my journey home. There is plenty to say about what I saw, heard and felt while I was there, and I say ‘there’ because a part of me still feels fear.
On the way back to airport I shared an Israeli taxi with two others – one was not Muslim but had an Arab sounding surname, the other was half Arab and I was sat in the middle, Muslim, not Arab, wearing a headscarf.
As we got closer to the airport we were stopped at a checkpoint, taken out of a taxi in the middle of a smaller motorway, our drivers ID taken and checked, our phones taken and us, separated. Going in individually through a process of being searched, we were asked brief questions and our documents were checked. We were delayed roughly for half an hour and free to go. Our taxi driver charged us an extra 50 shekels and pointed to my headscarf saying “it is because of you”. We had no time to argue, and were already delayed by the stop at the checkpoint. We separated to go to our gates and I got into the Non-Israeli Jewish line. The process of going through the airport in Israel is disrupted at every point with a different member of staff asking the same questions. I was told leaving the airport would be easier – they would want me gone if I was a threat, right? But here, the additional question was asking whether anyone from Israel had given you something. This was initially phrased to be about potential sharp objects, but the more I was asked this question the more I realised why I was a threat leaving Israel.
I had been here, stayed for 7 days and become a threat to the censorship that goes on here because of what I saw and hear. No one had to give me anything for this.
And the threat level was clearly indicated and would be communicated to every member of security that I was checked by. A yellow sticker with a barcode and few numbers – the first being 6 which indicates the highest level of threat on a scale of 1-6, was stuck on to my passport. And as I made my rounds to the various members of security staff still unable to understand Hebrew, their body language, tone and laughter communicated what I needed to know. The security staff would turn my passport around show it to each other to explain their actions, speak in a frantic tone or laugh and then continue.
They searched and X rayed my body, without asking necessary health-related information I.e. pregnancy, they also wanted to remove my headscarf in a public space in the airport and once I objected to that, they searched and scanned every single thing inside my suitcase. Paying particular attention to all electrical things and one of the moments where it was me laughing included multiple members of staff trying to remove the pink plastic casing on top of my laptop, it was scanned a number of times each time, the laptop was held in different directions and angles as if to scan the bacteria and air that lives within the laptop and casing. I told them they were welcome to break the plastic casing if it meant I would get on my flight on time, but they refused and continued a humorous attempt at scanning this laptop and the threatening case.
My suitcase was next, it was emptied onto grey plastic trays and scanned separately, another thing I did not question. After some time, and my flight time only approaching the woman who conducted most of the search came out of a back room with a black zipped side bag with something written about Israel in white, she told me my suitcase needed at least an hour to be checked and I needed to be put on my flight – this suitcase had passed the x-ray scanning I and my things had, it has passed British security, Tel Aviv 7 days earlier, Portugal 2 months prior – but she insisted it would need to be checked again. when I told her, I would need more than this A4 size bag to replace the contents of my 10kg hand luggage she came back with a checked plastic laundry bag.
Much larger and much more visible and humiliating.
It seems silly because it was just a bag and all of my things had been returned but it is the humiliation. From having every single thing in my bag opened and read for inspection (that includes notebooks) to then have to lug around a 10kg heavy laundry bag without wheels. I arrived on the plane late, that too with a ridiculous bag that would not fit in the cabin overhead without help. Everything had been visibly marked with codes and red letters, my things moved and my presence deemed a threat. When I arrived in Stanstead, the airline could not track my bag and border force told me I could write a letter to the Israeli embassy if I felt mistreated, but they too had no knowledge of how to trace my bag.
I returned home with this laundry bag and without my mum’s suitcase.
I returned and remain overwhelmed. And even now, writing this feels partially selfish, a way I can unpack this feeling and the mistreatment, but also because this is only a minuscule percentage of the constant surveillance and targeting Palestinians of Muslim and Christian backgrounds face.
And it has taken me two weeks to complete this and publish it because I still have some fear and feel included in the censorship that the Israeli authorities impose. I have left out details and remained vague in some aspects, trying to stick to facts because even in the comfort of my home and a land where I cannot be silenced, I feel it.
But the people of Palestine want the world to know what they endure daily, and our British and non-Palestinian passports protect us still.
It is a beautiful place with people who are generous without having much to give themselves, full of hope and optimism in a world that only denies them of both hope and optimism, but they are only growing in strength despite everything against them.
Palestine will always be in my heart. And the dehumanisation I speak of will not stop me just as Palestinians will continue despite being one of the most persecuted people today.
And this, maybe selfish, but nevertheless honest piece of writing can provide a small insight into daily life for Palestinians
So, read this to be aware, read this if you or anyone else is planning to travel to the region, you can be prepared for what I was not and feared.
And remember that they want you to feel watched and as though you are a threat but honesty and the pursuit of justice is an obligation – with or without fear and with or without being watched.