As I entered Palestine recently, I saw for myself how Palestinians with American, British, and even Brazilian passports are being turned away from the West Bank and back into Jordan by the Israelis. These are Palestinians with family in the West Bank, or even who themselves were born here, and they are not being allowed a simple visit with their loved ones. And don’t forget the parentheses: under Israel’s “law of return,” any Jewish person from anywhere, with no connection whatsoever to the land aside from ancient and biblical claims, can “make aliya” and start the process of becoming an Israeli citizen simply by showing up at one of these border crossings or the airport.
Picture this scene: Inside a huge adapted warehouse on the Israeli border with Jordan, air-conditioners blast noisily against the below-sea-level heat of the desert valley. The sound barely suppresses shouts of raucous children and the buzz of nervous chatter and conversation from a crowd of a hundred or so gathered inside the building.
A family of seven, two sons of about 12 and 14, three daughters of about 8, 10, and 16, and their forty-something parents, try to maintain their ground in this disorganized mass of would-be visitors to the West Bank. Rows of metal seats face sets of passport control booths staffed entirely by young uniformed, apparently Ashkenazi Jewish Israeli females who, from behind glass, roll their eyes, shout, point and grab at documents presented by submissive and hapless Palestinians. Between the seats and the booths is a no man’s land into which, at lengthy intervals, uniformed and armed Jewish Israeli males burst into the crowd from a side door (exposing a large Israeli flag in the room behind) carrying sets of stamped passports, and calling names at escalating decibel levels, until their voices crack with irritation.
Within the crowd, I and the family of seven spend more than three hours in a sort of nervous aerobics, jumping up from chairs when passports appear, diving into the crowd, milling about aimlessly when the passports aren’t ours, bumping into fidgeting children who disperse, gather, and shriek. After two hours I can recognize American, Jordanian and West Bank passports from a distance by their color and engraving, though I continually think that the one marching across the room in this or that official’s hand is mine, or that I’ve heard my name shouted in some other corner of the room to which I must tumble over people to reach.
With me is a 70-year-old Palestinian man, whose yellow Brazilian passport I’ve noticed since we met on the Jordanian side at 9 am this morning. I’ve helped him with his bags when possible. He’s blind in one eye and frail, but determined to visit the village of Azzun in the West Bank to see his extended family. Arriving at the head of the line for passport control after a long wait, he explains that he can’t fill out the visa, that he can’t read it and doesn’t know what to write. The official rolls her eyes and puts her head down on the desk when he asks for her help. He is fortunate, however, to get help (and the loan of a working pen) from a Palestinian-American in her mid-fifties who is waiting to the side of our “line.” This woman, who I learn is from Milwaukee, fills out the form for him. When he returns the completed form to the chaotic counter, the questioning begins from the young officials:
How long are you going to stay in Israel?
“How long? How long will you let me?” His grandfatherly smile and unusual Brazilian/Arabic accent succeed in gaining a rare, sympathetic expression from his questioners. He continues: “I would stay a month, a year, my whole life if you let me!” For this bold and reckless remark, he gets a smile fout of the young women behind the counter … but is it just me or do I detect a smirk within the smile?
Around 2 pm the building has closed to new applicants for visas. The family of seven, the woman from Milwaukee, the Brazilian, two German tourists (who dress alike and, bizarrely, say they have walked here from Germany), and two young couples remain in the thinning crowd, as do I. Aside from the Germans and myself, everyone else’s passports have made tantalizing appearances only to be spirited away again with some rationalization. Minutes crawl by, confusion mounts. Finally, a lanky border policemen with a shaved head, who we have all taken note of for his commanding and pushy behavior, appears with a stack of passports and begins shouting out our names. We gather around him, awaiting the verdict. Everyone is denied entry. Everyone, except for the Germans and me. Our passports are not in the stack and remain unmentioned.
I notice that faces have drained of their color. People suddenly look like they’ve been up all night. The shocked, and rejected, individuals make their cases. The border policemen entertain no appeals. With a warning wave of the finger to repel the crowd, he disappears into the room with the Israeli flag.
The woman from Milwaukee tells me, still in shock, that she had just come from Israel a few days before, visiting Jordan briefly for a wedding. Now, Israel won’t let her back in to catch her return flight to the US from Tel Aviv next week. A seemingly highly educated woman with an image to maintain even among a crowd of strangers, she finally loses her resolve and becomes frantic with any passing official, until her bags are gathered up for her and she is escorted out of the building.
The same fate befalls the elderly Brazilian man, who suddenly seems even older, more helpless and more bewildered than before. As he is led away, he can only mutter, “This is a big problem for me … There is no telephone here … This is a big problem for me … How can I return to Jordan?”
The first of the two young couples is more successful. Somehow, they beg for and receive what I think is a week’s visa on the special intervention of the bald border policeman. On learning their changed fortune, their pleas turn to shouts of overwhelming joy and gratitude toward the border policeman. For the first time he smiles broadly - I read this as not-very-well-concealed pride over what he feels is a grand gesture of goodwill on his part. They enthusiastically offer him food from a bag, which he declines with a firm grace. He is above bribes and conflicts of interest, after all.
The family of seven, who I’ve learned from one of the sons are citizens of the UK, soon enter into quiet, polite negotiations with an official in her early 20s. The negotiations are led by the distinguished looking father in his expensive looking suit, and supported by the longing stares of his young sons and his wife and daughters from behind their hijabs (headscarves). The negotiations end negatively. The official flits away in what by now is a cliched drop-and-run maneuver, leaving the family standing silently in the middle of the open floor, not knowing which way to go, not ready to turn back but with no option forward. The father shows no change in expression, but the children all look like they’ve lost pints of blood.
Lastly, the second couple is still vainly appealing every official who walks by. The bald border policeman will only offer them dismissive gestures as he marches past. A soldier with dark curly hair and a friendly face listens sympathetically but explains he can do nothing. The minutes crawl by between appeals. Only the young couple, the Germans, and I remain now, an hour after closing time. The Germans are asleep; their heads tilted back at identical angles against the sticky wall behind their metal chairs. They are both wearing green, long sleeved, button up shirts, stained white from sweat and tucked into khaki pants without belts.
Suddenly, my passport appears in the hand of a young male security officer in plainclothes who I haven’t seen before. He calls me into another room. Gesturing for me to sit in one of yet another row of metal chairs, he eyes my passport while speaking into a transmitter bulging beneath the shoulder of his polo shirt. I am searched thoroughly, including inside my pants and shirt. We locate my luggage, which was taken away in an initial processing that seemed painfully long at the time but now seems inconsequential. As it’s closing time the staff all join in searching my bag, wiping it’s surfaces with a white fabric that tests for explosives, checking again for explosives, checking yet again for explosives on the bag inside my larger bag. Unpacking everything and checking the seams, they open my unopened contact lens solution, shake my dental floss, put their hands through my dirty underwear (while wearing gloves). When it’s over, to my astonishment, they tell me to repack my bag, collect my passport from the booth: I am free to enter.
I can’t believe it after seeing everyone else around me denied entry. Who am I? Just some Euro-American … These people have family here.
The best reason for people to be admitted entry to the West Bank - being Palestinian - has become the reason why they are being denied entry. As Ha’aretz recently reported, Palestinian Americans, and presumably Palestinian-British and Brazilian too, are now being denied entry by the Israelis as policy (see Ha’aretz, July 10th, 2006).
The closing scene for today was at 4 pm. Entry visa in hand, I find the second young couple standing alone by an empty bus, headed back to Jordan. Tears quietly streak down the young woman’s face, and the man, probably feeling the masculine urge to “do something,” pulls open the cargo bay of the bus to load their luggage, only to be shouted away by Israeli guards. I tell them “I’m so sorry for your situation,” but I regret my words, imagining that my saying anything at all must make matters even worse, somehow.
Ben Sharpton is an activist with “Boston to Palestine”, and teaches sociology courses at Emerson College.