Coming and Going: On the issue of borders and fences
This reflection was written three weeks before Hamas’ surprise assault and the onset of Israel’s massive bombing campaign on Gaza. As the mainstream media talks of this “unprovoked attack” and Israel’s “right to defend itself,” it is critical to understand the 75 plus years of unresolved oppression, occupation, death and destruction that has led us to this tragic place. I think it is also useful to think about borders and fences, restrictions of access, and the realities for Palestinians as well as internationals who seek to stand in solidarity. This essay is a glimpse into one aspect of that process. For me, it is also quite shocking that Palestinian militants were able to break down the fences, occupy a major military checkpoint, invade and wreak havoc in Israeli towns, and that the vaunted Israeli surveillance system was caught unawares and unprepared, a deadly mix of hubris and the failure to understand that brutally oppressed people will resist their oppressors however they can.
I have been coming and going from Israel/Palestine almost annually for two decades. Shortly after I finish ordering my plane tickets, I am besieged by waves of anxiety, concerns that I will shlep thousands of miles across ten time zones, only to face deportation or some major unpleasantness at Ben Gurion Airport. Let’s be honest. I am an old white Jewish lady doctor with a famous last name. But I have a public history of activism. I worry even more for my Muslim colleagues or the Palestinian Americans who cannot use that first-world airport. This is especially true for the Palestinians who were born in Gaza, forced to fly to Cairo and take the dangerous, time-consuming journey to the Rafah checkpoint at the intersection of Egypt and Gaza, then pay hundreds of dollars in what amounts to a “legal bribe” to facilitate leaving. But really, all you need is a vaguely Arabic sounding name or brown skin. The traversing of borders can be a moment of uncomfortable insights into power, control, privilege, and trauma.
I have a certain ritual preparation for this particular destination, a taste of what it might mean to travel while Palestinian. Which computer to bring? Apps to delete? Browsers to purge? Photos of demonstrations to remove?
Hide website and social media.
Upload itinerary, email addresses, phone numbers, presentations, book readings, passwords.
Bring happy airplane books that do not mention the “Palestine” word or anything remotely political, and obviously nothing about settler colonialism or apartheid.
It is the beginning of the strange cat and mouse game: trying to enter a country that doesn’t want people interested in human rights, international law, Palestinian women, children, prisoners. It’s a long and troubling list.
BEN GURION AIRPORT
This year, two months before departure, I received a permit to enter Gaza (for the fourth time). I have no idea what airport security knows and whether Israel’s vaunted surveillance system is actually surveilling me. While I am a low level troublemaker when it comes to a Pegasus attack, I start leaving my phone in another room and closing the door when I talk about the upcoming trip. I only discuss the visit on secure websites and apps and keep the details vague. My alibi is that I am a nice Jewish lady, searching for my roots and eager to explore my homeland. I pack a bathing suit for the Tel Aviv beach where I will not sunbath and place the Lonely Planet’s guide to Israel on the top of my clothes before I shut the suitcase. Look credible and if all else fails, just be a tired elderly traveler with a severe fear of flying who is just glad to be “home”. Give me an Oscar.
I wonder if all the massive protests in Israel around judicial reform will distract the gatekeepers at the airport or make them more paranoid. Will the uptick in settler violence in the West Bank and tightening grip of the rightwing government be reflected in more aggressive security measures? Has my website or latest book put me on some do-not-enter list?
This year, after three years of pandemic isolation, I note that there are still extra checks to get on a plane to Israel, but the screening on the Delta flight is now biometric, facial recognition systems powered by AI. The extra screening is “random,” smiling airline staff literally spin a wheel and pull the designated passengers aside. A nod to liberalism? Is that an improvement over what I used to call the “random” Mohammed screening?
Eleven hours later, after a blissfully uneventful flight, the walkway from the plane into the airport is plastered with nationalistic slogans and messaging of the Israel-welcomes- Jews-home variety. Everything is more automated, a machine does facial and passport recognition and magically yields a VISA. An older airport person hands me a piece of paper which I am instructed to hand to another airport person and poof, I am in, dazed by the lack of confrontation or interaction with a human.
On previous trips I have been abruptly peppered with questions: What do you plan to do in Israel? Do you have relatives here? Who are you visiting? Phone number? Address? How do you know them? Do you plan to go to the West Bank? What is your paternal grandfather’s name? etc, etc. I have been asked to recite a Jewish prayer, name my rabbi and synagogue, chastised when I didn’t have one, asked what traditional foods are eaten on Yom Kippur (trick question-you fast). I have been scolded when I couldn’t produce all my old sim cards, which Israeli security apparently still had. My Muslim friends have been pulled aside and aggressively questioned, repeatedly x-rayed, patted down, possessions wanded and obsessively searched, computers temporarily confiscated, and sometimes their bodies strip-searched. With x-rays, wands, trained dogs, and advanced surveillance, I can’t imagine that Israelis are actually safer when officers go through the underwear and pill bottles of every person whose name starts with Abu. But the messaging is clear: you are not welcome here.
This year I lucked out. Israel applied for the VISA waiver program with the US and is on extra good behavior during a 90 day trial period. One of the requirements to be granted favored status (so that citizens do not need a visa to enter) is that citizens (ie. Arab Americans) cannot be discriminated against at the border (of Israel). Cynical as I am, I am heartened by the fact that airport officials are able to behave decently when they have to.
Everything went smoothly until the sherut driver dropped me off in East Jerusalem and started yelling. How had I offended him? Perhaps he was angry that an American was staying at the Jerusalem Hotel, a graceful Palestinian mansion built over 120 years ago and converted into a historic hotel run by a Palestinian family? Too much history or cavorting with the “enemy”?
The “border” with Gaza is especially fraught because it is an imposing military terminal surrounded by walls, guard towers, and a no-man’s-land, tasked with maintaining a strict blockade. Palestinians rarely get permits to leave, and internationals and Israelis rarely get permits to enter, so there is no first-world pretense that this is a remotely welcoming place. The Israeli Erez military terminal exists on the northern edge of Gaza. That checkpoint is followed by the Palestinian Authority and then Hamas passport control.
After a day of anxious pre-border rituals, I took a long taxi ride southwest from Jerusalem, through miles of agricultural land, old tanks memorialized along the highways, past the only intentional Jewish/“Arab” community of Neve Shalom/Wahat Salam and a famous kibbutz called Yad Mordechai, named for Mordechai Anielewicz, the leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The past merging with the present. I was part of a small group invited by two human rights focused NGOs who provided us with an English-Arabic-Hebrew- speaking “fixer,” a Gazan lawyer who seemed to know all the players on each side and cheerfully led us into the correct lines, (pointing out the VIP bathroom), and provided us with the required papers and emotional support to ease our VIP entry. As we each passed into a small, locked, enclosed space in front of an Israeli soldier in a larger bullet proof box, we were painfully aware of several rows of weary Palestinians waiting, punished for some unknown transgression.
The last time I did this, I was made to stop and sit in the waiting area while various computers and supervisors were consulted. I was accused of forging my passport because I couldn’t be as old as my birthdate indicated. Finally I showed them my driver’s license, reassured them that 1948 was a very good year, and everyone chuckled and let me pass. This time I also got the longest interview, which centered around confusion over my lack of relatives in Israel. How could this be? I explained that all my Polish, Russian, and Austrian relations took the boat to Brooklyn. Finally the official remarked, “That is very strange,” and let me pass while I smiled sweetly and channeled strong and angry.
The lawyer piled our luggage onto a wheelie as we made our way through the maze, but instead of walking the three-quarter mile caged corridor through the no-mans-land as I have done in the past, we were instructed to get in a bus that drove us a short distance to the Palestinian Authority (PA) checkpoint. There we were invited into the office of the head of passport control where he informed us that he was cousins with one of the folks at one of the NGOs that had invited us. (It is all about connections.) While sitting behind an important looking desk under a photo of Mahmoud Abbas, he gave a little speech about helping internationals and patients get in and out of Gaza. He served us small cups of strong coffee, then we all shook hands and got back in the bus, heading to the Hamas checkpoint. Various bits of paper exchanged official hands. The Hamas officials decided they did not need to interview us, so we continued in the bus to the end of the crossing and met the waiting staff and cars from our host organization. Since the Israeli government and Hamas are not on speaking terms, the PA is sandwiched between them in a dry, sandy setting that feels more third world than first.
Getting out of Gaza was a much bigger deal. I cried most of the way to Erez, painfully aware of the people who had shared their lives with me, cooked fabulous meals of maqluba and barbecue, and walked by the Mediterranean Sea under the watchful gaze of Israeli warships. I had listened to fathers who had lost children to Israeli bombings, (collateral damage), and women undergoing painful divorces from men totally defeated, humiliated, hopeless, addicted to tramadol and to beating their wives, (another form of collateral damage). I had talked with students eager to continue their educations outside the Strip or to find a job in a place with a 70% unemployment rate for university graduates. These people, unlike me, could not get out.
There was the short taxi to the Hamas checkpoint where we wandered into this cavernous room, workers lining up, unclear who wanted to see our passports and how to get the important slip of paper that led us to the next bureaucrat. We were repeatedly swarmed by men offering to help with our luggage, desperate to make a few shekels, hunger in their faces. Then to the PA checkpoint, another taxi, another bureaucrat, another piece of paper, another swarm.
The Erez military terminal is banal in its particular form of cruelty and dehumanization. At the start, all suitcases, bags, passports, money, shoes, glasses, (I failed to understand they said sunglasses, so everything was a tad blurry after that), are heaved into large plastic containers and placed on a conveyor system which disappeared into the hungry bowels of the terminal. We had previously obtained a permit to travel with electronics so now we were able to leave with them. Palestinians cannot travel with computers and cannot use suitcases with wheels. You know how dangerous wheels can be. Most cannot even use this checkpoint and are forced to leave from the south, via Rafah, a much more challenging and time-consuming effort.
With only the clothes on our backs, we proceeded through the maze, x-rayed, spread-eagled, instructed to place feet just outside the footprints marked on the floor as if to suggest even the smallest detail is taken to a new extreme. All of this was controlled by soldiers on the second floor of a separate building with a glass window, looking down on us. We saw large clusters of men, workers, women in hijabs, waiting, squatting, sitting on the ground, some in metal cages, waiting, waiting. I can only imagine what this is like for the sick Gazans, some of whom are children unable to travel with their parents, in pain, frightened, weak, seeking high level medical care in Israel or the West Bank. Bureaucratic torture comes to mind.
At the last stop we joined those who had gotten through, to wait and wait and wait. Every now and then the conveyor would spring to life and a plastic tray would emerge, seized by an official or his buddy who communicated with nods, finger gestures, and loud yelling. Palestinian workers clustered around trays filled with shoes, grabbing to find their pair. There is something about standing around barefoot for 30 to 40 minutes without any form of ID or for that matter glasses, that felt particularly vulnerable. And enraging.
At one point, the officials started yelling more seriously and we were all herded into another section of the terminal for unclear reasons, the yelling being done in Hebrew. Then we were herded back to the conveyor belt for more...waiting. Finally I spotted my suitcase askew in the tray, open, every pocket unzipped, like a plucked chicken with its guts torn out. More empty suitcases, more waiting, and then…a jumble of underwear… Yours? Mine? When it seemed the various pieces of personal belongings, computers, and phones had emerged, (and what was done to them???) I was faced with repacking everything while dealing with a gut-level revulsion that some strange sweaty hands had rifled through my stuff to create maximum chaos.
I was advised by friends to be sure all liquids were screwed tight as they are often left unscrewed, the better to leak into the suitcase while traveling. I also had the previous experience of one traveler’s belongings ending up in someone else’s stuff, (I remember a lost wallet), so there was a certain anxious frenzy trying to assess if everything was accounted for. To say this process was time-consuming, demeaning, and humiliating does not do it justice. To say that the same Palestinian men with permits in construction or agriculture in Israel or NGO employees go through this every time they leave, is appalling, a clear act of power and control that has little to do with security.
Our final stop was passport control where there was no one in the ISRAELIS/FOREIGNERS section, as people in that category are about as rare as unicorns. A (probably) Ethiopian Israeli soldier went to find an official (see racism and job assignments) who efficiently processed our departure. A video in Hebrew, (which few can understand here), of a handsome curly haired soldier man explaining the rules of the checkpoint, played over and over in the main waiting area as if his sincere face, casual posture, and handsome body could reassure anyone trying to pass or make this place any less ugly.
But that is the purpose of this whole exercise. Several years ago, an official actually sent me back to Gaza to return a forbidden bag of za’atar, as transporting spices was forbidden. Who knew? Then I was x-rayed five more times on my attempt to return; when I refused the sixth x-ray, an official gestured, “Then go back to Gaza.” At that moment I was strongly tempted, Gazans were infinitely more hospitable, my nerves frazzled, and my rage about to explode. All this was after I was forced to pour out the gallons of water, bought in Israel, that I had taken into Gaza and not used, followed by a big fight about keeping my Trader Joe’s chocolate bars, (they make a nice gift in the winter when things do not melt). I was so fierce the guy let me keep the chocolate, (it was not on the forbidden list), my inner wonder woman pushing the nice Jewish grandmother up against the surrounding barbed wire and automatic rifles.
As I approached the waiting taxi, free at last, a woman in a hijab came running up to me and handed me my jewelry bag. Clearly she had found it in her pile, looked around for a Western woman with funky earrings, and picked me. Good choice. A moment of decency and humanity in a sea of grossness, racism, and inhumanity.
BEN GURION AIRPORT AGAIN
Strangely, getting out of Israel has usually been much more challenging than getting in; it is the final message from the authorities. I have always been up since 2:00 am as flights heading west leave early and travelers are advised to get to the airport three to four hours before. In the past, I once approached the airport with a Palestinian taxi driver with Israeli license plates, we were stopped and the trunk searched; the driver explained they can tell he is Palestinian by his face and the look in his eyes. (See racial profiling.)
After entering the airport I routinely have faced aggressive questioning, jumped on by young attack dogs repeating the same thing over and over. Where are you coming from? Do you have anything sharp? Any weapons? Where did you go? Who did you visit? Why Gaza, there are starving children in Africa. (I have been told that on two occasions, apparently part of the playbook.) Did you work with groups? What groups? I have been quizzed about my knowledge of Jewish holidays. I have been told someone may have put a bomb in my suitcase. I have been questioned forcefully about an embroidered wall-hanging that said “Welcome to our home” IN ENGLISH. I have been taken into a small room with only the clothes on my back and searched aggressively, then escorted to my gate, too dangerous to be released into the general airport population. Strangely, liquids, water bottles, and shoes are not a threat here, but that only speaks to the irrationality of airline precautions.
In 2017, my bags were taken, every zipper and pocket open, all electronics and devices separately x-rayed, all the bags’ contents fondled and swept for explosives repeatedly, prescription creams confiscated, (“Security, it is forbidden.”) There was particular interest in my lumbar support pillow and my computer was taken (“for more x-rays”) for an hour. The process was excruciatingly slow, the staff dawdled, consulted, re-swabbed, there was no sense of urgency or privacy. I felt captive in this tiny hole of paranoia and control, a kind of bureaucratic torment or at least a bureaucracy that wanted me to understand who had the power. (Imagine what they do to less privileged travelers.) For unclear reasons, they confiscated my husband’s new suitcase and gave him a cheap plastic duffle bag to stuff with his belongings. (“We do not explain our procedures. It is for security.”) This was not a home demolition, but it was collective punishment nonetheless; he was punished for traveling with me, a dangerous undesirable. The security agents claimed that his bag would go out on the next flight and show up in lost luggage. Insha’allah. It did. My dangerous boots were re-x-rayed as well as my dangerous body, followed by a vigorous pat down. We had arrived 3 1/2 hours early and got to the gate 30 minutes before boarding.
This year, filled with understandable dread and paranoia, I once again deleted much of my existence and mailed home any threatening material (Palestinian flags, keffiyehs, embroidery, bottles of seeds from a seed bank in Hebron, West Bank). My travel mate and I each paid 300 NIS to take separate taxis to the airport so we would not appear to be part of a group. Heart thudding, my face deliberately blank and smiling, I entered the airport, but once again lucked out. No aggressive interrogations. No obnoxious claims of incomprehensible security maneuvers. No are-you-Jewish-enough questions. The only moment reminiscent of the past was the security person’s determined insistence that I walk through the metal detector multiple times, despite my pointing to my titanium knees which are guaranteed to set off the alarm. I offered to show her the scars. Finally, she vigorously patted me down.
Released into the airport, I saw the typical bastion of bustling modernity, shops, hoards of people, and architectural wonders, but the part that intrigues me is the huge photo exhibit on the wall of the long ramp into the duty free zone and food courts. I always study the topic, framing, and language of these displays, as this is Israel’s final chance at hasbara for all the happy tourists going home to spread the word about the miracles of the Jewish state. There have been exhibits on native flowers, a history of aviation, a tribute to 120 years of Zionism. “For Zionism…encompasses not only the hope of a legally secured homeland for our people…but also the aspiration to reach moral and spiritual perfection.” There is always a heroic, Jewish chosenness, nationalistic tone, filled with struggle, righteousness, and of course, victory.
This year, (in Hebrew, Arabic, and English), the topic is: “His Life, Our Homeland, 75th anniversary of the State of Israel: A century to the birth of Yitzhak Rabin.” The myth making is full blast: Rabin’s distinguished career from Palmach to Israeli Defense Force to Chief of Staff during the Six Day War, ambassador to the US, Minister of Defense, to Prime Minister. “Fly in peace and come home in peace.” (He is the guy who directed soldiers to “break the bones” of Palestinians, FYI.) Huge photos from his life are intermixed with photos depicting the history of the Israeli state. The exodus ship arriving in Palestine in 1947, the desperate transit camps in 1948 for Iraqi, Moroccan, Yemini, and Iranian Jews, (tents reminiscent of Palestinian camps from the same time). There are a series of military, cultural, and political battles focused on water, war, the rescue in Entebbe, a mix extolling Israel’s place in European culture (Eurovision victory), sports (Maccabi Tel Aviv), religion (Rabin attaching a mezuzah to a doorpost in Katif, a Jewish settlement in Gaza, and Israeli soldiers praying before invading Lebanon), modernity (first woman combat pilot). Ethiopian Jews are rescued, Rabin shakes Arafat’s hand, smokes with King Hussein of Jordan, and sits with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican.
After Rabin’s assassination in 1995, the resilient Israeli people carried on: designated Rabin Square, built the Yitzhak Rabin Center, expanded Tel Aviv as a major urban metropolis, “Innovation, strength, progress, Tel Aviv 2023”. There is no mention of the man who killed Rabin, a violent, ultra-nationalist Jew opposed to the “peace process.” The exhibit announces “We are all one people, all Israelis, and we all share a single fate,” with a picture of a secular couple in front of a giant Israeli flag and fireworks. On the jet way, I see a poster: “Welcome to Israel. Your life will never be the same.”
There are many potent messages in all of these border crossings and in this display. The “our” and the “we” in this nationalistic propaganda are always Jews, despite the 20% of Israeli citizens who are Palestinian and the seven million under occupation who are treated as less than human. The Israeli propaganda machine pitches the story that Israel comes from struggle and always emerges a winner; a peaceful, civilized, European-style nation in a neighborhood of Jew-hating savages; a legitimate, God-given, modern, pro-women democracy that must remain tough and militarily aggressive by necessity.
There are no Palestinians, no occupation or siege, no loud debates between secular and Orthodox Jews. The hapless traveler will never know of the segregated “Arab” towns in Israel, the government’s brutal attack on six Palestinian human rights organizations in 2021, the hundreds of children subjected to torture in Israel’s prisons, the accusations of apartheid or even a glimmer that Israel and its colonial project are a source of international controversy. Aspirations of tolerance, equality, self-reflection, critical building blocks in an emerging democracy in the twenty-first century, are not part of the Israeli mythos.
The actual experience of coming and going also gives the traveler a glimpse into the experience of the often invisible Palestinians. I find predictable control measures manageable. I can plan for them, leave extra time, strategize. Unpredictable control, (see airport or any of the hundreds of checkpoints in the West Bank or the exit through Gaza or Jordan across the Allenby Bridge), is actually more oppressive since there is no way to prepare or predict, thus the control is absolute.
Over the millennia in the Middle East, humans have migrated, settled, built cities and nation-states, invaded each other, been divided up by colonial powers, fought wars, and claimed ancestral territory. Borders, often arbitrary and fluid, solidify until the next conflagration or colonial declaration or international “agreement”. Borders have always been maintained through military might and political power, keeping the desired population in and the undesirables out, often under the guise of “security”.
This is vividly apparent in Israel/Palestine where I, a Jewish activist, can trigger a vigorous interrogation on one visit and sail through on the next. In a more significant example, the Israeli government excluded Palestinian Americans from Ben Gurion Airport for decades and then suddenly changed their policies in search of a political concession from the US. But 70,000 must still pre-apply through the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, (COGAT), the Israeli military authority. As of September 15 in a pilot project, even Gazans with US citizenship can fly into Ben Gurion, although how they will be treated in terms of aggressive security interventions remains to be seen. And the Gazans with US citizenship living in Gaza still need the hard-to-get permits to cross Erez.
At the same time, people born in Gaza desperate for work, are relegated to a nonnegotiable category of exclusion, unless of course their labor is needed in low paying jobs in Israel. Since 2021, thousands have been allowed to cross into Israel where they work without the labor protections or guaranteed health care that Israeli workers enjoy. But that is whole other story, again revealing the arbitrary, oppressive economic and military policies that exist between the powerful and the less powerful when it comes to this heavily guarded line in the sand.