Taking the first bus of the day, my wife and I arrived on the Israeli side of the King Hussein bridge crossing into the West Bank from Jordan. We explained that we were heading to Ramallah to visit my wife’s mother and brothers for three weeks. We performed the exact same procedure last year without incident. However, this year I was told to wait.
My wife is a Palestinian from Ramallah, where we met a few years ago. We got married there, and her closest family still live in Ramallah. We have moved to live and work in London, but try to return once a year. As Israel still controls all the border crossings into the West Bank, a trip intended as a May holiday to visit family quickly ran afoul of the continuing occupation.
Four hours after my passport was taken away, I had heard absolutely nothing. I started to make a fuss and was told that my passport was “with security.” Several hours later, I was taken in to a back room and questioned by a burly “security” agent. He asked several questions about the purpose of my trip while typing into a computer.
He wanted to know if I belong to any “groups that help the Palestinians,” and asked if, since I am a journalist I was going to work during this visit. I replied that, although I had worked with the Palestine Times in the past, this trip I was just to visit family. It tells you a lot about the nature of the Israeli occupation that they try to make it seem that “helping the Palestinians” is some sort of crime.
After the questions were finished, he told me to wait in the next room “for five minutes.” Two hours later I was still waiting.
By now we were the last remaining people in the terminal. I was finally approached by a police woman with my passport. After waiting a total of nine hours since the morning, I was told to come back the next day. Apparently I would not be allowed in without signing some sort of document, but the people from the Ministry of the Interior were not available, so I would have to come back when they were. After being assured by the policewoman that I would “definitely” be allowed in the next day, I returned to Amman at my own expense, while my wife went on to Ramallah.
I returned in the morning to find out that even though the policewoman was not there her colleague was familiar with my case. Eventually, I was called into an office marked “Ministry of the Interior” and presented with a one-page document to sign. Written in Hebrew, with English translation underneath each paragraph it had three clauses:
1. My visit was to be “within Israel only” and I was not allowed to enter “the areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority without advance authorization from the Territory Actions Coordinator.”
2. If I was to enter “any area under the control of the Palestinian Authority” I could be deported and issued with a ban from “Israel … of up to 10 years.”
3. My visit to “Israel” was only allowed for two days, and if I wished to apply for an extension on this, I would have to deposit 20,000 shekels (about $5,000), returnable on exit.
After waiting for two days just for this, I was extremely angry. I kept asking them why they couldn’t have just told me just told me all this the previous day; they gave no answer of substance.
I asked, “who is the Territory Actions Coordinator?”
Reply: “That’s us.”
“Can I have permission to see my family in Ramallah?”
“Which are what?”
“We can’t tell you that.”
And that was basically that. I stayed in Jerusalem catching up with some friends for two days before heading back. I had no real problems on the way out. I then reunited with my wife and her mother and brothers in Amman, Jordan where we spent a couple of weeks on holiday.
So basically the “State of Israel” considers a skinny Welsh guy from London a security threat, simply because he wants to visit his family in Ramallah? I would like to flatter myself that I worry the occupation authorities, but no: this is simply how they treat everyone visiting Palestine.
Examples abound, and are documented by the Right to Enter campaign. Palestinian director Annemarie Jacir was denied entry when traveling from Jordan to attend the premiere of her acclaimed film Salt of this Sea in Ramallah. The film was an official selection at the 2008 Cannes Film festival and stars acclaimed Palestinian-American poet and actress Suheir Hammad. The reason they gave for denying Jacir entry to her homeland was simply: “You spend too much time here.”
As poorly as we were treated by the Israelis, I saw or met many Palestinians over the two days I spent at the border crossing who were treated much worse. Their number one target for abuse was Palestinians of the Diaspora: either Palestinians born overseas on their way to visit, or Palestinians who now have a different passport through marriage. There was one Palestinian-Australian woman who had come thousands of miles, presumably to visit family, yet the Israelis sent her back. I will never forget the tears in her eyes as they sent her back to Jordan; neither will I forget her defiance as she refused to give them the satisfaction of seeing her weep openly.
I talked with a Palestinian woman on her way back to Jerusalem. “I wish they would just give me an answer one way or another,” I said. “At least then I could get this waiting over with.”
“For me it’s not an option,” she replied. “I have to go back for work.”
The way they treated her was disgusting. It was not enough for them to keep her waiting for hours without information: when she dared to politely ask what was happening with her passport the reply was screamed, “Go and sit down!” This is standard behavior.
If my wife had been from Gaza things would be even worse for us. At least my mother-in-law can come to Amman where we can reunite. For someone from the Gaza Strip to visit Egypt, even for emergency medical treatment, is next to impossible (and here we must lay blame at the door of the Western-backed Egyptian dictatorship, as well as the Israelis).
On the second day, I also saw the BBC’s Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen pass through the terminal. He was not detained for more than 15 minutes, at most. But then, he has power and influence. I wish they would have detained him: I’m sure he would have done a story about it, and of course that is precisely why he wasn’t.
The Israelis want to do everything in their power to pressure the Palestinians into leaving. At the moment, they cannot get away with a repeat performance of the mass ethnic cleansing of 1948 — that might prove politically problematic. So instead they “encourage” indirect, slow, removal of the Palestinian population — “transfer” in the longstanding Zionist jargon. Such treatment at borders, making travel difficult or impossible, is another aspect of this policy.
If you doubt any of this, consider this simple fact: they would not have given me these problems if I was married to a Jew and was going to visit her family in Tel Aviv. Similar policies in South Africa were called “apartheid” and the whole world boycotted and isolated the apartheid regime until, because of the struggle of the African National Congress, supported by the international solidarity campaign, the state was cornered into accepting democracy.
Yet, the world lets Israel get away with seemingly everything. Israel killed more than 1,400 Palestinians in the latest round of massacres that its army initiated in Gaza in December-January. But the European Union is still moving to upgrade trade relations with Israel. The US under President Barack Obama is still intending to bankroll Israeli apartheid to the tune of some $3 billion in military aid this year alone. It’s time to wake up and respond to the call of Palestinian civil society to boycott Israel.
Of course I want to go back to Palestine, and going on what the Ministry of the Interior officials said, the door is not totally shut for me. I may still have legal avenues to explore. On the 61st anniversary of the 1948 Nakba, when half the population of Palestine was ethnically cleansed from their homeland by Zionist militias — it’s important to remember that, relatively speaking, I and my family are among the lucky ones.
Asa Winstanley is a freelance journalist and sub-editor who has lived in and reported from occupied Ramallah, working for the Palestine Times and the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.