It is midnight and I’m staring at the Hebrew letters on the cappuccino machine in the between-interrogations waiting room at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv.
A young woman is sitting next to me. Her arms are wrapped around her legs as she nervously rocks back and forth. When she turns towards me, her eyes are red and I can tell she has been crying.
“Where are you from?” I ask.
“Denmark,” she replies, then adds in a whisper, “But I’m Arab. My parents are Palestinians from Lebanon.”
“Me too,” I whisper. “I’m Lebanese. This happened to me last time I was here—stay strong and keep smiling, habibti.”
I will never forget the first time I was interrogated at Ben Gurion International Airport. I was caught lying at the border—as everyone is instructed to do when going to the West Bank. The reason for this is that the Israeli Border Control is notorious for turning away anyone who claims that they intend to visit the West Bank—or in their words, “the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority.” If it is suspected that you might intend to visit the West Bank—particularly if you look Palestinian—you are almost always interrogated, and often given a shorter visa than the typical three-month tourist visa.
I was asked whether or not I spoke Arabic and if I had family “in Israel.” I was held for a total of seven hours in a dark room, and then finally given a two-week visa.
I will never forget the rays of January sunshine that I squinted into after those seven hours were finally over. I will never forget the breathtaking countryside on the shared taxi ride to Jerusalem. I will never forget arriving in Jerusalem, and the kind professor from Abu Dis University who felt sorry for me, leading me behind the buildings to the Arabic bus station—which was tucked away, of course. I will never forget seeing the crowded bus station for the first time—not organized or scheduled like the Israeli bus station less than half a kilometer away—and the older Palestinian women who looked like carbon copies of my Lebanese relatives.
I will never forget seeing the Wall for the first time and the “Free Palestine” graffiti scrawled on it, even on the Israeli side. I will never forget crossing Qalandia checkpoint, leaving manicured, first world Israel for the West Bank—Intifada rubble piled around the checkpoint. Men sold live chickens on the street in the shadow of the 14-foot concrete Wall—or “separation barrier”—with larger-than-life portraits of Yasser Arafat and Marwan Barghouti.
I will never forget going to the store in Ramallah, and smiling with delight when I saw the food my grandmother and aunts made being sold in the supermarket. I will never forget smelling the freshly baked bread, which smelled like home, and realizing that people who looked like me—Arabs—belonged here, though the Israeli authorities at the airport might make you think otherwise.
I still can’t tell this story without crying.
I didn’t expect to come back to Israel or the West Bank so soon—and certainly not to Ben Gurion Airport. But when I was invited to the Media in Conflicts Seminar (MICS) in Herziliya—a conference aimed to expose North American and European journalists to a multitude of Israeli perspectives on conflict reporting—it seemed like an opportunity to better understand Israel and strengthen my reporting on the region as a whole. Of course, afterwards I planned on using my visa to see friends in the West Bank.
I knew the conference went against the boycott of Israel. But I also knew that if I ever wanted to report in the region I needed to understand more about Israeli perspectives. As a reporter, I believe in being fair.
But this time I didn’t get a visa—not even two weeks. Next time I saw the Palestinian-Danish girl, whose name I never learned, I was covered in security tags with a broken suitcase that had been ransacked by the Shin Bet. I was being deported and banned from the State of Israel for 10 years. I later learned that even though the conference facilitators called the Israeli Director of Population repeatedly on my behalf, the immigration and border control were intent on deporting me.
It started with my record of lying at the border the first time. Then—in order to stay three months, the normal length of a tourist visa—I’d gotten an appointment at the Ministry of the Interior to renew my visa, and a document saying I was legal until my appointment—a whole two months. But at my visa appointment the clerk ripped my document, making it look like I had overstayed my visa. These were the first two strikes against me.
The third—and final—strike was that I refused to give the Shin Bet officer my Palestinian contacts when he requested them. It didn’t matter. He still took my phone and took down the contact information for any remotely Arabic-sounding name and told me I was to be deported and banned for “not cooperating.”
Although it is unclear how many potential visitors are banned from Israel each year, it is clear that this is a frequent if not daily occurrence and most often affects those of Arab descent—those seen as most likely to be visiting the West Bank.
As I was about to be escorted by two Shin Bet officers to my plane, one of my interrogators asked, “So, you are a journalist. Are you going to write about our Passport Control?”
I shot him a smile. “Yeah. You should check it out sometime.”