Israel attempts to portray itself as a vibrant, liberal country that promotes pluralism and diversity, the only democracy in a region filled with tyrants and despots, a young energetic start-up advocating inclusiveness. So why the need for barefaced racial discrimination at its airports?
Following my ordeal at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport last month, I have found myself repeatedly asking this question, replaying the scenes over and over in my head.
After landing on the tarmac at around 7pm local time and exchanging pleasantries with the cabin crew, I made my way towards immigration. I stood in line quietly and patiently and watched immigration officials greet Israeli passengers with beaming warm smiles. It was my turn. I approached the booth to be faced by a young dark-haired woman who had a puzzled look on her face.
The suspicions in the intonation of her questions were apparent.
“Where are your parents from?”
“… and what is your religion?”
With a smile on my face, I responded, “Islam.”
And so the game began.
Although I expected to be profiled and be asked additional security questions, I still felt that I was being singled out, as if I had been found guilty of a crime and now must prove my innocence. The privileges of being a British citizen, born and raised in London and graduating from a British university, no longer mattered.
“Game over for you”
I took my seat in the waiting room. From the moment I sat down I noticed everyone awaiting interrogation had something in common. We were all non-Caucasian, all non-Jewish. We were Black, Asian, Latino and Arab. Being the eternal optimist, I still thought maybe, just maybe, this was a coincidence.
After a few moments an Israeli security officer in plain clothes walked into the waiting room and turned towards Kamal, the young French man sitting to my right. With a smirk on his face, he shouted out, “Was it worth it? Was it worth lying to me? Now you’re not getting in. Game over for you.”
“This is not a game. This is my life,” Kamal responded.
He had saved up for months to make this journey by working on a number of community projects in and around his home city of Strasbourg. It was his first visit and he had his heart set on seeing the wonders of Jerusalem’s Old City. He later mentioned that one of his chief concerns was his Moroccan heritage and what it would mean at Israeli immigration. He now had the answer.
He looked dejected. His hopes, dreams and desires of seeing Jerusalem had been quashed at the whim of an official who seemed to have taken pleasure in doing so. I knew right then that it was going to be a long night.
My turn to be interrogated came. One of the security officers led me into a small office to the left of the waiting room. I had been to Israel before, so I expected the usual round of questioning that comes with anyone with a Southeast Asian complexion.
I sat facing two airport security officers: a pale young woman with red hair, and the young man who had just denied entry to the French citizen.
The woman started with the questions while her male counterpart looked on intently.
“Why have you decided to return?”
“I’m here to perform one of the legs of my pilgrimage. I want to pray Friday Jummah at al-Aqsa.”
“… and you want to go to Gaza, yes?”
“No, I don’t and I know I can’t.”
“You want to go to the West Bank? Who do you know from there? If you want to get in then you need to cooperate with us.”
“I am, to be honest; I’ve been to many countries around the world and this is the only place, the only place where I am pulled to one side for nothing other than the color of my skin and my religion.”
“Yes, well what can I say … we’re special,” she replied.
Small taste of apartheid
I couldn’t believe her audacity. What makes Israel so special? What gives it the right to treat people in this way? Why is it allowed to act with such impunity?
I was receiving a small, a very small, taste of the discriminatory policy of an apartheid state.
After batting away a barrage of rather intrusive yet predictable, tedious and at times irrelevant questions, the woman asked to see my phone.
“So if we see your phone we won’t find anything ‘anti-Israel’?”
“I don’t think you are legally entitled to see the contents of my phone but if it means it will speed up this whole process then go ahead,” I answered.
I had kind of expected this round of questioning. A few weeks before I read an article on Mondoweiss — “‘Do you feel more Arab or more American?’: Two women’s story of being detained and interrogated at Ben Gurion” — on the experiences of two young Americans at Ben Gurion. I had also heard countless other stories where people had been asked to log into their email, Facebook and Twitter accounts.
After what seemed like an age rummaging through the contents of my phone, both officers started becoming flustered and somewhat annoyed until they discovered a text message from a friend recommending me to visit Nablus.
“What is this? You are not being truthful with us. You are hiding something. If you do not give us what we are looking for then you know what that means, right?”
“I don’t understand, I have answered all your questions …”
They wanted access to my emails and Facebook which I was not prepared to grant them. I felt I needed to draw a line.
“You are lying to us. Just like your friend out there, you are going nowhere.”
“What does that mean?”
“Well now you have been denied entry.”
Good cop, bad cop
I felt absolutely furious. They had held me for more than four hours, treated me like a criminal and now denied me entry. There was a sudden rush of blood to the head. I stood up, snatched my phone out of the officer’s hand and launched a verbal tirade. I felt the need to deliver both barrels to show that their attempts at intimidation and subordination would not work.
After waiting for a couple more hours I was approached by an immigration officer. A middle-aged woman with a dark complexion, she was warm, friendly and had a motherly smile. She offered me water and bread, and repeatedly asked me how I was feeling. She reassured me that she was here to “help,” that she was trying to persuade her colleagues on the security desk to change their minds.
I sensed I was being buttered up. I had felt the force of the stick and now was encouraged to accept the incentives offered by the carrot. At this point I was far too tired to even be amused with this rudimentary good cop/bad cop paradigm. After an hour of polite questioning followed by polite answers, we came to a dead end.
“Now, you will be sent to a ‘facility.’”
“What do you mean a facility? A detention facility? Like a prison?”
“No, a facility where you will be held until your next flight back to London.”
“Isn’t that the definition of a prison? A facility where someone is involuntarily detained?”
“… but you will get a TV and even a new toothbrush.”
The thought of giving up my freedom for a chance to watch Israeli television and take home a souvenir in the form of a brand new toothbrush, all out of the goodwill and generosity of the state of Israel, did sound tempting.
I was assigned my own guard who followed me around. A chubby, ginger chap who looked perpetually tired and restless, as if his heart just wasn’t in the job. I don’t blame him; being a tool of the Israeli security apparatus and having to implement racist policies must be exhausting.
After they collected my biometric data and searched through my bags and clothes, I was put into a truck and sent to a detention facility a ten minutes’ drive away from Ben Gurion airport.
My phone, wallet and bags had been confiscated. All of a sudden I felt alone. I had been keeping in touch with my friends and family back in London, keeping them up to date with the developments and receiving words of support. Now I was alone.
The conditions in the cell were grim. There were three other men already in the room when I arrived. The room was filled with three bunk beds, a toilet in one corner and a sink in the other. I was wondering where my souvenir toothbrush was and what happened to that promise of watching Israeli TV but it was 2am, a full seven hours since I landed. I was feeling completely drained. I climbed up to my bunk and went to sleep on the damp mattress.
Israel’s treatment of African immigrants
The next morning, after completing morning prayers I sat down and spoke to Faris, an Ethiopian in his late forties. I could see the sadness in his face; the marks of wear and tear that made him look a lot older than he actually was. He told me that he entered Israel in the hope of seeking refuge. He had been an anti-corruption campaigner in his homeland and as a result his family had been repeatedly targeted. He looked numb and motionlessness as he spoke about the three young children he had left behind.
His hopes of finding sanctuary in Israel had been dashed. He had been arrested for entering the country illegally, detained for the past nine months in an Israeli prison and now was awaiting deportation back to Addis Ababa. He feared that a return could put his life in jeopardy.
I had read about the plight of Africans living in Israel, their struggle to find work, facing violent attacks by the far right, and sleeping rough in Levinsky Park in south Tel Aviv. This was the first time I had come face to face with someone who had to endure this pain that often goes unreported. I could not help but feel empathy. We are all human beings and we all deserve the chance to live a life that is free and dignified.
Israel seems to be suffering from elements of paranoia. There is an obsession, in some quarters, to preserve its “racial purity” which is sadly ironic because it was this obsession with “racial purity” that led to the massacres against the Jewish people in Europe during the Second World War. The idea of Palestinian refugees seeking to return to their homeland has been a long-held fear by many Israelis concerned about the demographic consequences that would entail; now there is growing trend of bigotry, dehumanization and violence towards African immigrants which has been supported by Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu — who has referred to them as “illegal infiltrators.”
It seems that Israel is determined to become a fascist state and their harsh treatment of activists and proponents of human rights show that they are increasingly concerned about their criminal policies being exposed.
Although I am not completely surprised by my treatment, I still find the ordeal disturbing. Prior to being denied entry, I ensured that I behaved in an impeccable manner so as to not give the Israeli security officers the excuses to deny me entry.
I understand that Israel has created many enemies and that strenuous checks are needed. However, an admission policy that discriminates on race, religion and physical appearance is not the way a state, which is largely accepted by the international community, should behave. We cannot allow the normalization of this kind of behavior, where both parties accept an ethnically discriminatory practice as a given and just seek to make it a little more palatable.
For me, it seemed like nightmare. I feel a sense of guilt however that it was a nightmare I was able to wake up from and return to the comforts of home whereas many others don’t have the privilege to do that.
Jakril Hoque is an economics graduate of Queen Mary, University of London and a human rights activist, and is currently working within the financial services sector in London. He is on Twitter: @RestlessJak.