This was it; I was making the journey I didn’t think I would ever make. Palestine, فلسطين, the Holy Land. I was incredibly grateful for the opportunity to go with the organisation Unipal as a volunteer to teach English at Deir Ammar Refugee Camp west of Ramallah. I had to mentally prepare myself for what I would potentially witness, as I had studied, heard all the stories, and read all the articles on the injustices happening to Palestinians. Nothing could prepare me for what I saw and heard when I was there. I now put faces to names and real families to stories, and my time there, witnessing the injustices has just made me angrier and more determined to tell the world what is happening to other humans.
My airport experience was not uncommon; in fact I had it a lot easier than others, but it was still like nothing I had ever been through.
As the plane landed and the captain’s microphone crackled saying ‘Thank you for flying with us and we wish you pleasant travels in Israel”, a round of applause erupted from the passengers as they congratulated each other on making it safely to ‘Israel’. I didn’t know what to feel, it was surreal knowing I had just landed in Palestine, but I also felt a pang of anger as I heard those around me talking excitedly about what they were going to do in Tel Aviv and what attractions they were going to see. It angered me that they can just come and go as tourists enjoying the restaurants and beaches and shopping centres, while the rest of Palestine is under occupation and travelling from your home to the nearest hospital could be a laborious task and sometimes impossible for Palestinians.
‘Welcome to Israel’ read the sign as we got off the shuttle and into the airport hall. The dreaded passport control was coming up as I waited in the queue. I went up to the desk and was greeted by a man who took my passport and started typing into his computer. “Where are you coming from?”, “What’s your father’s name?”, “What’s the name of your grandfather”, “What’s your mother’s name?”, “Where are your parents from?”. He typed away as he asked all these questions, but when I said my parents were from Tunisia he stopped and looked up at me, then looked at my passport, which showed no indication of me being Tunisian. “You’re not born in Tunisia?”; “No, I was born in Albania” I replied, “But my family all live in London now”. “Ah, that’s why you look like that, you’re not Tunisian?”, he seemed really puzzled, as was I at this point, was he saying I didn’t look Arab enough? “Yes, I am Tunisian originally but my parents moved around a lot, so I was born somewhere else, that doesn’t mean I’m not Tunisian”, my tone was getting a bit frustrated and I was tired, jetlagged and lacking sleep, the man was not impressed. “What’s the purpose of your visit?” he asked his last question. After explaining that I came with an organisation as part of an educational exchange to teach English, he did not look pleased at all, “Teach?!” he replied questioningly, eyebrows knitted together, he then picked up the telephone and spoke in Hebrew, none of which I understood.
He’d summoned a grumpy looking lady who took my passport from his hand and walked away with it without saying a word to me. “Follow the lady”, the man told me, “They’re just going to ask you a few more questions, nothing to worry about, goodbye”. I hurried after the lady as everyone in the queue behind me was watching the scene with suspicion, as we got away from the queue of people, she indicated to a room in the corner and said “stay in there”. I went into the waiting room and found a chair to sit in. Everyone in the waiting room was Arab/Muslim looking (unsurprisingly); and I noticed the only other hijabi’s on the flight were also sat here. After hours of sitting around watching people being called up one by one, and making conversation with some lovely people stuck in the same situation as me, I was finally called up by a different Israeli lady who took me into someone’s office.
An Israeli soldier was sat at his computer and signalled for me to sit on the opposite side of his desk. He had my passport and was clearly entering all my information into his screen. For the fifteen minutes or so that I was sat there, he had asked me questions about my family and friends, my studies, and what I do. He also asked me to give him all my email addresses, my home address as well as my mobile and home number, and contact numbers of anyone I knew in ‘Israel’. Every time I gave him a piece of information he would type something in his computer and look at his screen then at me with scrutiny. If this was supposed to be some sort of way to intimidate me, it was working; I did not like the idea of him searching up anything about me he could find. Finally, after showing him the letter provided by Unipal of proof I would be working in a UN school, and him looking at the paper and googling all the names and addresses on it, he said he was done and that I could go. I asked for my passport back, but he scoffed and said, “No this is staying here, you’re going back to the room”.
I went back to my seat in the waiting room with a little TV screen in the corner, and after a while my friend and fellow Unipaler who was on a later flight came in to the room. I updated her on the situation and how long I had been sitting here. We spoke to others in the waiting room as we tried to pass the time, and we found out that a fellow Londoner who had been waiting for 12 hours prior, had just been refused entry and was going to be sent on a flight back to the UK. I had heard stories like these, but I didn’t think it would happen in front of me, and that I would witness this unjust occupying force in action.
We started to get a little worried, when my friend was just then called up for her turn of questioning; but she came back a few moments later saying they were asking for me as well. We went up together and were greeted by a man looming over us holding our passports in his hand. “I’ve got your passports”, he said in his slightly accented but otherwise perfect English, “But I will give them to you on one condition…we know what you do in the UK, we know you are activists in your University and are part of those groups”. I interrupted him to say that I did not go to the same University as my friend did, and that my Uni didn’t actually have a Palestine Society (even though I was part of Palestine activism with other groups). It was clear they had done some limited research. “NO, shh, you listen now!” he replied angrily, I made a mental note not to interrupt him again. “We know everything” he continued, “You can do whatever you want in London, but here in Israel you are under our rule. No demonstrations no nothing. You will be targeted when you travel in West Bank, I’m warning you. If you cause trouble in Israel we will cause trouble for you.” What did he mean we would be targeted? By Palestinian extremists? Trying to turn us into activists? And was he threatening us by saying he could cause trouble for us? Everything he was saying was an absolute joke, but we said nothing, as we didn’t want this to last longer than it had to. He thrust the passports in our hands and walked off. We opened our passports and sure enough there was our Entry Permit card from the ‘State of Israel’ allowing us a maximum 9-month stay in Occupied Palestine. This little card was all it took to get through security into the main airport lounge and then through all checkpoints and barriers set up across the country for the month that I would be here.
I was glad for the ordeal to be over, but could not help but feel sick with anger as this was not even a fraction of what Palestinians whether living in the West Bank/Gaza or living abroad go through every time they even dare to visit their own land, the country of their parents, grandparents and a long, long line of ancestors. And it was only the lucky ones who are allowed back, most Palestinians who were evicted from their lands since 1948, and even now, have never been back and will never be allowed back to their homes while illegal inhumane Israeli forces occupy Palestine.