Palestine

A Surreal Experience – Leaving Palestine Through Ben Gurion, Israel

It was time to go home. I had mixed feelings about leaving Palestine. On one hand I wanted relief from the heavy burden of  the illegal occupation, flashbacks of all the stories I had heard, injured people and injustices I had witnessed first hand, the paranoia of always being watched. On the other hand I had grown attached to this beautiful country and its Palestinian people so loving and welcoming, most of all I didn’t want to leave my newfound friends. I felt we had bonded through our mutual empathy and respect for all human life. Nevertheless it was time to go and I knew I had to be focused, mentally prepare myself for leaving through Ben Gurion airport in Israel, from what I had heard and experienced myself coming in, leaving was going to be an equally unpleasant  experience.

I left for the airport with a group of other volunteers who were on the same flight as me, we travelled from Palestinian territories in a minibus together, which meant it had Palestinian number plates. On arrival at Ben Gurion airport in Israel, I could see the vehicles with Israeli number plates in front of us, being allowed through the gates to the airport without any questions, but when it came to us, we were pulled to one side by Israeli soldiers. Not only did they ask our driver questions at the window, they actually came into our minibus to look at us and ask us where we were going. It was a tension filled moment as the driver had his papers checked, we weren’t sure if it was better to talk or remain silent, so we didn’t talk unless spoken too. What did it remind me of? – Apartheid in South Africa, I could not believe I was actually experiencing this in my life time, this blatant racism is an everyday occurrence for Palestinians. We were asked where we were going and then allowed in, there was no doubt we were being watched and monitored already on our approach to the airport.

Israeli and Palestinian vehicles have identifying number plates

The airport control tower was reminiscent of the watch towers I’d seen throughout occupied Palestine and it made me feel very uneasy. I felt intimidated, which was strange for me to feel at an airport as I usually enjoy going through them and I have been to quite a few, usually I feel airport security are there to keep me safe, but in this scenario I was the one being made to feel like the threat to safety.

I entered the airport and joined the queue for my airline with my friend and almost immediately security personal approached us and told us to join another queue, I didn’t know why, they didn’t even check my passport or even ask me where I was flying too, they simply looked at ME, this was the racial profiling I had been expecting. The queue I was now in was three times as long and moving very slowly, luckily I had got to the airport early, but not too early. There was a sign in front of the queue to, ‘leave luggage unlocked’ they were very transparent about going through all luggage, even checked in luggage would be searched. It really does feel you have to give up all your privacy rights is you ever want to get through his airport, if you refuse you will only be rejected. The sad thing was that I had bought a few souvenirs from Palestine, but I was advised to ship these home and not carry them in my luggage as they would be taken and destroyed, I’m talking about plates and key rings., nothing threatening at all but it seemed that any sign of being in Palestine was forbidden and looked down upon.

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Checked in and hand luggage is asked to be kept unlocked to be seached.

Eventually my turn came and I was asked a few questions, I felt like my answers were irrelevant as my passport was going to be taken anyway, and indeed it was and returned to me with a yellow sticker and a barcode. I didn’t see anyone else have their passport taken away as I was in the queue. You receive a number 1-6 when leaving through Ben Gurion. I had done some research before traveling, these were indications of your perceived threat level / suspicion to Israel – 1 being the lowest and 6 being the highest, and to my surprise I was given a 6. My friend had a 3 (she did not have a Muslim name on her passport).  She was allowed to go through straight to the gate, I was told to wait there and someone would come to, ‘collect me’. I had no idea what was in store for me, I thought it was ridiculous but I remained calm and confident, I was not guilty of anything and I was not prepared to be treated as though I was, I was going to stand my ground no matter what was going to happen. I put everything I had seen out of my mind not to feel any anger in this situation, after all these people were just doing their job, I had to remain civil. I was taken to another queue…

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Yellow sticker security system at Ben Gurion. 6 = Suspected high security threat level.

I seemed to be the only one who could speak English in this queue, most people were speaking Russian, the Israeli airport staff were having problems communicating if it wasn’t in Hebrew, Arabic or English with mostly everyone else. Our bags were scanned, my coat was taken for extra scanning, we had to empty everything out. It was a very high tension environment, I could see some even more heavy duty X-ray scanners nearby. Suddenly the man next to be began to have a panic attack, I asked him if he was ok, ‘I can’t breathe’ replied gasping for breath, with no one around acknowledging what was happening, I called over an Israeli security officer for help. He just looked at me with little concern and asked, ‘Are you together?’ I said ‘no’, in any other situation I would have tried to be more helpful to ensure the person was ok, but in this case I thought it would be best to back away, I couldn’t afford to have any false associations. I really felt for this man, no one really helped him or looked concerned, instead he was made to finish a drink he had on him, even though he could hardly breathe. There was no compassion, or concern. I guess it could have been an elaborate ruse to trick security or distract from something, you never know.

Next we had to take everything out of our hand luggage for another very through check and I mean EVERYTHING. Every single pocket lining and seam was searched. I was made to sit while I was asked what everything was, and to switch on my camera for them to have a look through it. Then I was asked in a very serious tone if I had any weapons or dangerous items on me, and of course I didn’t. I was then informed I would need to be, ‘body searched’, I dreaded these words, was it just a dress up for, ‘strip search’? I only had 10 mins left before my flight was due to leave, I was hoping this would work in my favor. I was asked to step inside what I would call a ‘box’ at the side of the area, not big enough to be called a room, there was just about enough space in there for the two women and myself, we kept brushing each other as they began to search me. ‘Take off your top and shoes’ I complied, my shoes were taken to be scanned for traces of explosives, they were covered in mud from working in the Palestinian fields, even though I had tried to wash them some still remained, I was hoping I wouldn’t be asked about this. I was dreading being asked to take any more off, but I didn’t want to show it. Knowing I may be subjected to this I had purposely worn several layers of clothing, which I think they found a bit strange.

I was thoroughly searched multiple times, all the seams in my clothing, my hair, inside my ears, I really was trying to work out what I could possibly hide there. Then suddenly the metal detector went crazy because of some metal in my jeans, the both looked at each other as though they had found my concealed weapon, I was dreading being asked to take them off so I frantically tried explained that it was the metal on my jeans and I could quite obviously not have concealed anything as there was no space. I informed them it was almost time for my flight to leave. They took a minute to speak to each other in Hebrew and said they would call the plane and let them know I was running late, but I didn’t see any calls being made, they decided to let me go without saying they were done I was pretty much left, I retrieved my top and my shoes, picked up my coat which had been x-rayed and re-packed my hand luggage then quickly moved on. It felt as thought they would have kept me up until this point no matter what and I would have been there longer if there had been more time. No questions were asked, I was very surprised but I felt as though they just wanted me out of the country as soon as possible as though I was very unwelcome there, it was a weird feeling.

I still had to go through passport control and the queue was extremely long, I didn’t think I was going to make it, I asked the airport officer he told me to use the machines which of course I couldn’t because I’m not an Israeli citizen! I looked around and saw a Jewish women with a British passport in her hand, she has to be on the same flight as me I thought, so I approached her and said I was concerned we were going to miss our flight, she was there late because she had been shopping in the duty-free. She was a very confident lady and she told me to stick with her and we jumped the queue together as she announced we were going to miss our flight if people didn’t let us through, I was grateful for her help. I spoke to her briefly on the other side, she seemed to be a lovely woman, who had never been stopped or questioned and was having a very relaxing experience, I was having the exact opposite. I told her about my extra search and she was very surprised, she had never heard that happen to anyone before. The differences between our experiences was very interesting,

Passport Control

I had made it to the gate, where I met my other friends, we had all had different experiences. Everyone else had seemed to have had a military escort to the plane, whereas I was just left to make my own way and if I hadn’t jumped the queue I would never had made it. Others were stripped down to their underwear and others were even asked to remove theirs. You could see they were in physical shock from this experience, I felt really angry for them, now months later they still feel traumatized from it. I believe the Israeli authorities want to make entry and exit into Israel a very unpleasant experience for anyone they suspect of humanitarian work, so they do not want to return.

We boarded our flight. The majority of the people on our flight were Ultra-Orthodox Jews, coming to the UK to attend a family wedding. They did not acknowledge our presence at all, I’m not talking about a smile I’m talking about not even being looked it, I felt so invisible, like I wasn’t a fellow human being, it was just a very strange feeling but it echoed what I had seen in Palestine.

As I got to my seat, there was a Ultra-Orthhodox Jewish man sitting in it, I got his attention and said, ‘excuse me I think you are sitting in my seat’, he literally jumped up, tried to avoid all eye contact with me and immediately informed the air stewardess who was also female, that he could no longer sit in the seat, as it would be next to a woman (me). I was tired, I had been through a lot I just wanted to sit down at this point and not have any more drama but I couldn’t until this was sorted. I asked my friend a few seats down to swap with the man, but then he said he couldn’t sit there because there was a woman in the next seat, then we found another seat, but another man would have to move, but he said he couldn’t move because then he would be sitting next to a women! It was actually so ridiculous, we had all paid for randomly selected seats on this budget airline, it was comical and we all did burst into laughter.

Just to make a point, a Muslim woman once refused to sit next to my brother on a flight from Asia because he was male, I ended up having to sit next to her. I was extremely annoyed, because we were flying to the UK were there is mass integration what was she expecting to do when she got there?! She tried to talk to me several times, and I was not in the mood for conversation at all.

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Full flight home

We must have spent at least 10 minutes trying to shuffle seats so everyone was happy to sit down, eventually a Jewish man offered to sit next to me, I thanked him. He was a gentleman, even though I just wanted to listen to close my eyes and listen to my music, I could tell he wanted to have a conversation and I didn’t want to seem rude. He told me he was visiting his daughter who was an ‘Olah’, I had to ask him what that was, he said it meant she had taken dual citizenship in Israel as well as the UK. My heart sank thinking she was probably now living on one of the illegally built luxury settlements I had seen on occupied Palestinian land. It also dawned on me that after spending some time talking to this man, he was actually a lovely man, and maybe he did not know about what was really going on? But how could he not? I couldn’t be certain what he knew and what his thoughts on the matter were, I decided I was not going to try to find out either, it wasn’t the time or the place. I told him I had been visiting the Holy Sites of Jerusalem and didn’t go into too much detail.

Our flight was very turbulent, yet half of the people on the flight refused to sit down, there was a group of Jewish men at the front, standing and praying. Now I have no problem with people exercising their faith, but there was a blatant disregard for flight safety here, the seat belts sign was on and everyone was being asked to sit down, in my heart I felt that if they had been Muslim men it would have instantly been seen as an act of terrorism. We live by a lot of double standards in our society. The man I was sitting with told me he had been on several flights from Tel Aviv but never seen anything like this, we laughed about it.

Eventually the pilot made an announcement demanding people sit down or said he would be forced to call the British Aviation Police on landing. No one listened. It was absolute chaos, the flight staff were literally shouting at people and it make it even more strange I could see a man in the front rows making balloon animals and passing them around! The air stewardess had been working for 11 years on this route and said she had never had a flight like this. She was constantly being called for assistance and couldn’t even walk down the aisle as people were constantly in the way, I did feel bad for her but she dealt with it in an amazingly professional manner!

As we landed we were not allowed off the aircraft until the Aviation police actually came to ‘escort’ certain passengers off the plane, it turns out someone had tried to charge their mobile phone using the control panel and they had contacted ground control. I thanked the staff as I left the aircraft, I was happy to be home.

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It was a very surreal experience, a somewhat comical end to a very serious period of time I had spent in Palestine, but it was as intricately layered with emotions as is the situation that’s going on there. It took me months to process what I had seen and felt to accept it and to return to my own reality. I spent about a week trying to avoid anyone who wanted to hear about my trip, because I just couldn’t express how I felt or knew how to describe it, really deep feelings were stirred up in me. I don’t think I will ever be the same person again and now I feel as though I have the confidence after experiencing what I did to stand up for what I believe is right. No one will ever take that away from me. It is true what they say, once you leave Palestine, you leave a part of your heart there and I know I will be back in Palestine one day (iA), there is still much work to be done, and one day Palestine will be free.

Our flight even made the newspapers: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4227922/Orthodox-Jewish-men-cause-bedlam-easyJet-flight.html

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