Ben Gurion detention guard tells humanitarian worker she is being deported for ‘trying to change Israel and make it free of racism’
I arrived at Ben Gurion Airport’s passport control shortly after midnight. At the passport control counter a white paper was put into my passport and I was told to go to a room on the right hand side of the hall, escorted by a security officer. I arrived in a room of mainly Russians. I waited my turn until my name was called. I was then met by a stern woman. She looked at my passport, typed things into her computer and then said “What were you doing three months ago?” I looked at her confused, “I don’t know.” She responded, “Okay, what were you doing in Ein Hijlah.” I had been questioned twice previously at Erez border crossing with Gaza about the same issue. So I said, “You have this information, I went there February 1 to drink tea with people.” She pulled up another document on her computer, “It says you were there with the Palestinian people and the Orthodox Church.” I said, “Yes.” None of this was new given my previous questions at Erez, so I then showed her my appointment receipt for the Ministry of Interior to extend my visa. She responded that my visa was fine, but there was a security concern.
After an hour and half I was transferred to another room. There I sat waiting. No Israeli personnel spoke to me. I just sat waiting. There were other people in the room waiting with me: a woman who was born in Iran but living in Brussels, a man from Denmark with his girlfriend, a gay couple from France, a man from Egypt, and again a few Russians. Every so often a group a Russians were brought in and then escorted out a few moments later. The people waiting with me were all slowly brought for interrogation. From 1:30 a.m. until around 5:00 a.m. I waited. Then my interrogation began.
I was met by a short and severe man. His eyes were piercing. Though he was looking straight at me, he didn’t see me. I don’t think he really saw anyone. His questions began as usual: “Where do you live? What do you do? Who do you work for?”
I responded, “Jerusalem; development worker; international aid organization.”
He asked, “But what do you do?”
I responded, “I mainly do office work. Helping my supervisors and writing reports.”
“How many times have you gone to Gaza?”
“I don’t know. I went in November, December, January, February, March, and May this year. In total 7-10 times.”
“If you are an office worker why do you go to Gaza.”
“To assist my supervisors.”
“What do you help them with?”
“You tell me you do office work so why do you go to Gaza.”
“I told you I help write reports, I go to Gaza to help my supervisors compile information for reports.”
“Who do you meet there?”
“The Near East Council of Churches.”
“What do they do?”
“Vocational training like carpentry and welding.”
“Who is your contact?”
“What is his family name?”
“I don’t remember.”
“You don’t remember?”
“Honestly I don’t remember.”
“Do you have his number?”
“No. My supervisors have it.”
“Give me your phone.”
He found three “Issas” in my phone but none of them were Dr. Issa.
“Who is this Issa?”
“He is a tour bus driver.”
“And this one?”
“Same guy but different number.”
“And this one?”
“An olivewood carpenter.”
He found someone in my phone named “Khaled Gaza.”
“Who is this?”
“He is a driver.”
He found another name but I did not know who it was, so I told him it was a work phone that gets passed down from staff to staff.
“I don’t’ think you are telling me what you do?”
“What do you mean?”
“You say you compile reports and go into the field.”
“Give me a full description of what you do.”
“I compile reports, I assist my supervisors, and when people from the Mennonite Church come I show them around. Listen I feel like I have done something wrong but I don’t understand what.”
“I am here to decide whether you are a good person or a bad person.”
“Is this your only phone?”
“You said it was a work phone, you don’t have a personal phone?”
“So if I search through your bag, you are saying I won’t find another phone?”
“No. it’s the only phone I have.”
“Have you ever been in trouble with the police?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean.”
“I have been given a speeding ticket while I was here.”
“You know that’s not what I mean, have you ever been arrested.”
“Never here or in Canada!”
“If I call my friends at Erez will they tell me a different story?”
“No. I have never been arrested.”
“What do you plan to do when you go back to Jerusalem?”
“I plan to pack up my stuff and leave.”
I showed him my ticket home for August 1. He then took my colleagues’ phone numbers, my numbers, email address, etc. I then went back to the waiting room. It was about 5:45 a.m.
By 10:00 a.m. only the woman born in Iran, the Egyptian, and I remained in the waiting room. We were given sandwiches and water twice at that point.
By 11:00 a.m. it was only me and the Egyptian.
At around 12:00 p.m. they took me for interrogation again. It was a different man. He wanted to know where I lived, my supervisors’ names and numbers and any close personal contacts I have. I gave him my colleagues’ names but said that most of my friends were internationals. He said, “Okay.” Then he asked about my previous education.
I asked, “Do you have an update on my situation?”
“Can you tell me what it is?”
“But my embassy is asking me.”
“We know. They have called us.”
I returned to the waiting room. By 12:30 p.m. the Egyptian was given entry to Israel.
At 1:30 p.m. I was taken back to the original waiting room. I was told by an agent there, “I am from immigration, and the security here at Ben Gurion has given me the recommendation to not allow you into the country for security reasons and I am going to follow through on that recommendation.”
“But what have I done?”
“I don’t have that information.”
She then took my photo and my finger prints.
“But when can I return?”
“You are banned from the country for 10 years. If you want to overturn it you can appeal to an Israeli Embassy.”
At this point I lost it. I said, “I have followed all of your rules and you can’t even tell me why I am being deported!”
As I was escorted to a new security room, I said to my guard, “This is ridiculous! I followed all of your rules! At Ein Hijleh it was your soldiers that gave me permission to enter. When I go to Gaza, who gives me a permit? You give me the permit. Not only do you give me a permit in advance, when I enter I have to go through your checkpoints. If you don’t want me there, don’t give me the permit! I followed all of your rules for four years and you are deporting me. If this can happen to me, who can live in this country?”
They went through my stuff and gave me a pat-down. They then made me wait again. After an hour I was put in a vehicle and driven to a detention facility at the airport. All of my belongings were put in a separate room and I was only allowed to bring a book with me. They then allowed me one phone call and put me in a room with a bathroom and five bunk beds. There were bars on the windows looking out over the highway to the airport. There were usually five to seven people in the room with me. Most were Russian women. In the room down the hall was a Russian family. Another room held a young woman with her son who looked to be about 12 years old. In addition to the Russians in my room there was a woman from Sri Lanka and one from Korea.
The woman from Sri Lanka was 57 years old. She had spent the last eight years working in Israel providing support for Alzheimer’s patients. She had previously had a work permit but was waiting for her most recent employer to help her renew it. Two weeks ago, the Israeli police had arrested her and put her in prison. She sat in prison for two weeks awaiting deportation. In prison she assembled cardboard boxes alongside women from Russia and Africa. Many of the women had children with them. She said to me, “For eight years I took care of the Alzheimer’s patients. I took care of them and loved them. And now this is how they treat me, like I am a criminal. There is something wrong with this country. They are racist.”
I was given a warm meal when I arrived a few hours later a bologna sandwich. At approximately 8:00 p.m. I was given a medical examination by a doctor (mainly to check my blood pressure). Although a scary experience, I was told it was routine.
While in the detention facility I had the opportunity to converse with several guards. The first guard was a young woman. Upon entering the facility another male guard had made comment about how beautiful she was.
As we sat outside I said to her, “You know that is sexual harassment. This is your work space. He can’t treat you like that.”
She smiled nervously and brushed it off saying it was normal and fine. I told her, this is not normal and not fine and in Canada she could write a report against him. I then asked why I was not allowed to take a pen into my room.
She said, “It is the rules. I know it is ridiculous but these are the rules.”
I responded, “You know, that is what I experienced living here the past four years. Everyone told me they were following rules. No one was thinking and this scares me.”
She smiled as if she understood.
I continued, “You know, 50 years from now your grandchildren are going to read what happened here in Israel and they will be disgusted that everyone followed the rules without thinking. We need to think otherwise we will get stuck doing lots of evil.”
She smiled nervously, seemingly understanding what I was saying.
The next guard I met was a 22-year-old man from Ethiopia. I asked him if he liked his job. He said no. He hated his job. I asked if there were children ever held in the facility. He looked sad as he said yes. I asked if Israel treated him well. He said no, because he is from Ethiopia. We talked about Ethiopia and I mentioned I had gone to an Ethiopian church once while I was here. This made him smile.
The third guard was an Arab who thought it was “cute” that I knew Arabic. I said, “What are you doing working here?”
He said it was his job. I said, “But the occupation! Colonization! How can you do this to your people?!” He said that my politics were wrong and that Israel was a great state and any Arab in Israel would tell me this.
The fourth guard was a young man with tattoos and a shaved bald head. He asked where I was from.
“Where in Israel?”
“Ahhhh… You are from Bethlehem, not from Israel. Do you know you are from Bethlehem?”
“No, I am from Israel.”
“But your house is built on land from Bethlehem. Do you know what used to be there? It used to be a forested hilltop where people would go to relax. So what do you think when you see Bethlehem from your house.”
“I think about the promise given to me.”
“You mean Abraham?”
“But where are you originally from?”
“My father is Syrian and my mother is Moroccan.”
“Does Israel treat you ok?”
“Israel has a big problem with racism. When I was a kid it was bad but it is getting better.”
“So you admit Israel is racist?”
“Ya. We have our problems. Like South Africa.”
“Are you saying Israel is an apartheid state?”
“No, no, no. we are not that bad.”
I then spent time explaining about the colonization of Canada and how I was settler and I had become educated about the situation and he should too. We got into several discussions about colonization, Israel, and Palestinians.
He said to me, “See we Israelis are not all bad. There are different fingers on the same hand. Look you and I are sitting here talking like we are in a bar.”
“Really, this is what you think? You have all the power and I have nothing.”
“Ya, but we are talking and I am treating you well.”
“And if I try and run over that fence?”
“Ya, I will probably shoot you.”
“See, because if you run over that fence I will just let you. You have all of the power. Don’t pretend this is equal!”
He continued, “You are so concerned about the Palestinians, but in Lebanon and Syria they are shooting Palestinians every day, we don’t do that.”
“What? Every day Israel is shooting at Palestinians! Just last week in Ramallah two youth were shot in the back and killed.”
“They were probably throwing stones.”
“So what? A stone versus an M-16? People have thrown stones at me in my life, and I don’t shoot them.”
“If you were in the army you would.”
“This is the problem with the army. They don’t teach you to think.”
“I love the army, it made me smart.”
“It brainwashed you! Do you read? Have you read Malcolm X?”
“Ya I read, do you read anything by Netanyahu?”
“I read last week that he said that Jesus spoke Hebrew but he actually spoke Aramaic.”
He looked embarrassed. The conversation did not progress. In fact, it got worse. He talked about how Jews need a nation state to feel safe. How they were at war with the Palestinians and how shooting rock-throwers was okay.
We talked about my deportation. I asked how I could be a security risk. He said,” Because you speak Arabic and sometimes speak English with an Arabic accent.”
“How does that make me a security risk?”
“Because you are coming to Israel and trying to change it and make it free from of racism.”
“What’s wrong with that? If you did the same thing in Canada it wouldn’t get you deported. This doesn’t make me a security risk!”
These are the guards that treated me with relative respect. However, most were rude, pushy, and tried to deny me my dignity. They ordered me around. At one point when one was yelling at me I stopped what I was doing, stood up straight and said, “Excuse me.” Then she backed down.
The room I was in was dirty and cold and it took several complaints to have them adjust the temperature. I know the only reason they complied was because I was a Canadian. In the end, when people from my room needed something, it was my job to get it. Because of my Western privilege we were given extra blankets, toilet paper and tea.
At around 7:00 a.m. on May 30, I was woken up to be taken to my flight. The car drove me directly on to the tarmac to meet my plane. My passport was held by the flight attendants and all my bags were checked. During my layover in Istanbul I was again escorted directly to the plane and denied my passport. Upon my arrival in Barcelona, two security officers from Frontex escorted me for a criminal check.
They asked, “You have a visa for Israel, why were you deported?”
I said, “Look at me! I am a security risk!”
They chuckled and apologized for having to do the check. I told an officer, “In Israel I followed all of their rules and they still decided to deport me. If I follow all of your rules in Spain will you also deport me?”
He laughed, “No no. You are polite and funny, we will keep you.”
After more than 40 hours I was finally reunited with my passport.
Unfortunately my story is not unique. Many have come before me and many after me will experience similar deportations as they pursue justice or merely identify with the Palestinian people. Moreover, my story does not compare to the struggle of Palestinians who are shot at, imprisoned, or denied basic human rights on a daily basis. Unfortunately their daily stories receive less attention. It is my hope that telling my experience will amplify the voices of the liberation struggle and that one day we will live in a world where working for peace does not get you deported as a security risk.