Saturday, May 22, 2010
A white American woman traveling with a Gaza-stamped passport
Apologies to anyone who checked this blog recently and found no new posts! I’ve been in the U.S. for the past two weeks, I arrived in Israel on Friday, and I’m looking to reenter Gaza on Sunday. An article of mine about humanitarian travel through the Gaza-Egypt smuggling tunnels just published in the Jerusalem Post Magazine. Also, from now on, I'll plug all of my new articles and blog posts on Twitter (username: ashleybates) and on Facebook (email address: email@example.com).
Traveling with a Gaza stamp on my passport has given me a fractional taste of the intense security scrutiny that Palestinians undergo as they travel through Israel. When one Gazan friend of mine crossed the border into Israel last year, he watched an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) video offering a ransom for Gilad Shalit as well as a video highlighting Hamas’s alleged crimes against its own people. This friend was then interviewed by a high ranking officer who attempted to recruit him as a spy. He endured hours of questioning and was stripped down to his underwear before finally being allowed to pass. The whole process took more than five hours.
My experience coming out of Gaza was a breeze in comparison. I got into a line designated for non-Palestinian foreigners, gave all my bags to security screeners, walked through a full body x-ray scanning machine, then sat in a waiting room where the contents of my bags were delivered in large plastic trays. I reassembled my suitcase, answered a few questions about what I’d been doing in Gaza, and was free to go. The whole process took less than an hour.
Two days later, I underwent a much more strenuous security check at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport, where my Gaza stamp earned me a “level six” security ranking—the highest possible threat level. For about 30 minutes, three soldiers dissected every item in my bags, using chemical swabs to check for bomb residues. A serious, resolute young lady brought me to a private room where I submitted to a slow, massage-like pat down that took about a minute. This search of my body included a thorough rummaging of my hair, which left me looking like an electrocuted clown. The soldier then matter-of-factly told me to take off my shirt, and I complied. “Where in Israel are you from?” I asked, seeking to lighten the mood. “Why do you want to know that?” she replied nervously.
After this soldier escorted me silently to the gate terminal (a courtesy that prevented me from passing through the standard security checkpoint after I’d already completed a rigorous private screening), I thought that the security questioning was over. However, I had a flight connection in Turkey, where transit passengers apparently undergo additional interviews. The Turkish security guy immediately noticed the “level six” sticker on the outside of my passport, grinned, and raised his eyebrows. “How are you a level six?” he said. “May I ask—Are you Arab American?”
While I was in Chicago, I learned that left-wing author and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Noam Chomsky (see video above) had planned to give a speech at a West Bank university, but was turned away when he attempted to cross the border into Israel from Jordan. He was presumably denied entry because the Israeli government objects to his political views. Chomsky’s experience fueled my concerns that I could be denied entry for a myriad of possible reasons, such as overusing my tourist visa status or spending a suspicious amount of time in the Palestinian Territories—and Gaza in particular.
My fears did not come to pass. Yesterday I met for less than five minutes with a courteous security supervisor at Ben Gurion Airport who seemed moved by my work with Hands of Peace, a Chicago-based dialogue camp for Israeli, Palestinian and American teenagers. She almost apologetically explained that she would keep my Gaza-stamped passport while I retrieved my bags. “We will need to search your bags and put them through an x-ray machine,” she said. “But, don’t worry, it won’t take too long.”