Why did Israel stop me from visiting the West Bank?

15 March 2012

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What does Israel have to hide?

(Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

The standard line trotted out by Israeli politicians is that Israel is the only democracy among a sea of repressive Arab autocracies. Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz claimed recently that “Israeli democracy is alive, liberal and breathing; I don’t know many better democracies in the world” (“Government ministers react sharply to Clinton’s criticism of Israeli democracy,” Haaretz, 4 December 2011).

But what kind of liberal democracy bars human rights activists in an attempt to stifle the truth about its behavior?

My friend and I were recently held and interrogated by the Israeli authorities at the Egyptian/Israeli border for over nine hours before being denied access to Israel for unspecified “security reasons.” However, the true reasons appear to be politically motivated.

We had intended to travel to the West Bank to work with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a nonviolent, Palestinian-led group of activists who work alongside other international and Israeli groups to provide solidarity, document human rights abuses, undertake direct action and provide an international presence in the hope that it will inhibit the violence of the Israeli military in attacking unarmed demonstrators.

The Israeli authorities deny having a policy of forbidding entry to ISM activists. However, in reality, any person who admits to being a member is immediately denied access by the Israeli border authorities, blacklisted and prevented from entering in the future. The Israeli authorities also routinely deny access to other human rights activists, workers with non-governmental organizations and people stating an intention to help any group perceived by the Israeli authorities as being “pro-Palestinian.”

It would have been our second time working with ISM documenting human rights abuses, having visited the West Bank in late 2011, and regrettably we felt that we could not disclose our true reason for going and were forced to claim that we were going to Israel on holiday.

We arrived at the Taba crossing around 7am and so the stupidity began. My friend had been living in Cairo for the past four months and the authorities were very unhappy that she had studied Arabic while in Egypt. Although she is an atheist from a predominantly Christian country, they asked her when she became a Muslim — an incorrect assumption presumably based on the fact that she has spent time in Egypt — while implying that this was in itself a security concern.

Humiliating searches

We were subjected to rigorous personal searches. When my friend was undergoing her personal search she had strip down to her underwear and at that moment they opened the curtains so the rest of the room full of travellers and border employees could see.

They emptied out our bags, swabbed everything (presumably for traces of explosives) and put each individual item through an x-ray machine several times. This process took nearly three hours. Many items of our luggage provoked seemingly unwarranted suspicion. They demanded to know why my friend had a candle, and why had she wrapped a bottle of perfume in a plastic bag.

They were highly suspicious of one of my middle names (Alistair) and demanded to know the “meaning” — it is my father’s name. They insisted on knowing his nationality (Scottish) and place of birth (Edinburgh). Perhaps because “Alistair” contains “Ali” they were concerned it was an Arabic name.

It could have been worse; our interrogators were often rude and disrespectful but they were not overtly aggressive or intimidating. I have heard accounts of people being forced to strip and then interrogated for hours sitting in their underwear and of Muslim visitors being granted access to Israel on the proviso that they leave their phones, cameras and other belongings at the border crossing as collateral.

Nine-hour wait

But after several hours they directly accused us of belonging to ISM, of travelling to the West Bank and attending protests, and after more than nine hours we were denied entry to Israel.

While I recognize Israel’s right to undertake necessary interrogations, searches and measures to ensure its security, it seems clear that the nature of our interrogations were absurd and discriminatory, and the real reason for denying us access was politically-motivated.

What is a self-proclaimed democracy like Israel worried that human rights activists or journalists will discover? Banning peaceful activists and journalists like us shows that clearly some of the work we are doing is valuable and that to some extent, the Israeli authorities are sensitive to foreign opinion and don’t want people to expose the crimes they are committing.

So our passports are stamped “refused entry” and we are effectively blacklisted and currently unable to visit and report on the crimes of a regime that purports to be a liberal democracy. We are bitterly disappointed that we will not be able to visit our friends in the West Bank.

But we are just international activists and would-be visitors; there are millions of Palestinians who have been denied their right to return to their homeland or even visit it for decades. Our experience has inspired us to redouble our activism from abroad and continue to highlight the injustices of a violent occupation that denies human rights and dignity to the Palestinians. The Israeli authorities can try to cover up their crimes like any other common authoritarian and repressive regime but they should know that the truth will continue to come out.

Patrick Keddie is a British human rights activist and freelance journalist who published from Palestine under the pseudonym Alistair George.