When I first traveled to Palestine in 2000, I made the mistake of asking for advice from others who’d made the trip to the Occupied Territories via Israel. In fact, Israel was
and is* the only way to get into the occupied territories—Palestinian Authority entrances, such as the one in Jordan, for example, are actually run by the Israeli government for all intents and purposes. I heard a dozen different perspectives and cautionary tales, until I didn’t know what to do. And the reality is that the experience is so varied as to be inscrutable—entry depends on how you look, the configuration of your surname and first name, gender, of course, the political situation at any given time, and the attitudes and dispositions of the airport employees. In any other context, going to the mother country to visit family or friends—especially from the first world—is the best reason for entering and rarely questioned if you have a return ticket and some names and phone numbers. But imagine, going to see your family in, say, France, and having to tell the people at immigration that you’re only there to see the sites, that you have no affiliation with anyone there, and that you have no opinion about the conflict. In effect, having to act like a criminal to do this thing that, in the era of globalization, has become a happy and regular constant of the Diaspora experience.
I settled on a final cover story. When I arrived at the gate, I was greeted with a shalom, until the woman behind the counter saw my Arabic surname. I was surprised to see her blanche, and to walk over to her supervisor, who came to interrogate me. I was better at lying about it then, since the stakes weren’t yet as high, and the situation not yet intense. I told them that my surname came from my father, a Moroccan, who had left our family when I was too young to remember. And that I was a Christian, anyway, here to see the Holy Land. It worked, but as time went on, and I left the country to renew my visa, the stakes became higher, and my ostensible reason for being in Israel harder to explain. Once, when I returned from Jordan after a fake three day get away, I was held at the Israeli side of the border for over an hour. By the time the clerk stamped my passport and let me through, apologizing as she explained that the computers had gone down, I was already trying to figure out what personal items I would ask friends to try to send back to the US. Eventually, the constant stress and cost of the threat of being deported on re-entry was one of the factors that led me to leave Palestine. And those fears were well-founded, because when I attempted to return in 2003, I was arrested and deported, though that’s a story for another day.
The solidarity movement was still in its infancy then. Now, numerous people have had this same experience as they go to, or return to, Palestine to do [obviously] non-violent political advocacy work, to reunite with friends, and yes, to see the sites; it’s a beautiful, if stoic, country-side, with a long history and, of course, great food. This barrier affects not only the hippiesh subset of solidarity activists—Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, activists with no security or criminal record, have been ejected at Ben Gurion. Their plan was, for professional reasons, obviously, to travel to the OPT. It’s even happened to journalists, such as the non-Palestinian editor of Ma’an, an online Palestine based news-website.
It’s a testament to the strength of the solidarity movement, that the Fly-In at Ben Gurion is even something that can be contemplated. On Friday, July 8, a reported hundreds of solidarity activists will fly to Israel’s Ben Gurion airport, and, rather than mislead immigration officials as to the purpose of their trip, will claim straight-up that their intention is to travel to the OPT. They plan to all arrive in a two-hour window. Whatever the outcome of the move, it highlights several often ignored elements of Palestine’s continued existence as an occupied territory.
Despite its alleged sovereignty, the Palestinian Authority is not in control of its immigration process. Palestinians who were born in and live in the West Bank and Gaza, must apply for visas for travel from the Israeli government. Diaspora Palestinians, like my father, who were born in Palestine but have achieved the yearned for status of “citizen” in another country, can only live in Palestine as tourists, having to renew their visas by exiting the country and returning. And, of course, people like me, who would normally consider it a nice vacation to go to the ancestral home for a few months and catch up with the folks, face an anxious trip. One of the people I was in detention with when I was arrested at Ben Gurion in 2003, was a fiftiesh man, who’d grown up in the West Bank, and left in his early twenties to live elsewhere. He was visiting his parents, who were in their eighties and nineties, and although his daughter, who he was traveling with, was let through, he was not. He had been in detention for four days in the hopes that his lawyer would figure something out. Although I was deported before he was, I doubt it made any difference. Like me, he faced the reality of permanent exile—either de facto, via the record of having been denied entry previously, or de jur, according to a banning period which remains the subject of speculation by many. He would probably never see his parents again.
Palestine is not now nor has it ever been autonomous. It is a ghetto, the entry to which is regulated by the same occupation system that has been doing it for nearly half a century. Indeed, one way you can be sure Palestine is free, in the odd eventuality that it actually occurs, is that people will be able to fly there and visit their friends and family the same way they would be able to in any other country. That would be the most obvious and real symptom of independence.
Acts like this refocus the world’s community on the basics of sovereignty—control over one’s borders, and how people enter and leave them, being the most basic of them. What the Fly-In activists are contemplating is no easy task, and quite a brave symbolic act of civil disobedience and resistance that I hope isn’t overlooked.
Update 1: Al Jazeera [via Noam Sheizaf] reports that two Dutch journalists who were going to cover issues about the flotilla in Israel and Gaza, have been prevented from boarding an El Al flight in Amsterdam. This kind of targeting is exactly why actions like the”fly in” are necessary in the first place.
*Correction: I wrote here that Israeli controlled border crossings are the only way into the Occupied Territories. That was until a short time ago, effectively true for all, although the history of the Rafah crossing is a bit complicated since 2005. Egypt re-opened the Rafah crossing in late May 2011, but it remains unclear how much influence Israel has over the Egyptian control of the border. The re-opening has not lived up to expectations, and many people are still not allowed to travel through Rafah–Egyptians, Palestinians and Westerners, all under different rubrics and security policies. Travel between Gaza and the West Bank remains controlled by Israel.
Update 2: Maureen Murphy poignantly describes her own experiences of being denied entry in this 2006 Electronic Intifada article:
During April, after having lived in Ramallah for a year and a half and staying on a tourist visa that I would renew every three months, I was denied entry to the West Bank from Jordan via the Israeli-controlled Allenby Bridge land crossing, and given no documentation to indicate why I was being turned away. On the Jordanian side of the bridge, security officials there told me that scores of international passport-holders — Palestinian-Americans in particular — were being denied entry into the West Bank. I eventually managed to get back in with a one-month visa after having been issued a new passport by the US Embassy in Jordan, but was deported from the airport in Tel Aviv a month and a half later. There, I was informed that I was declared “persona non grata” as it was believed that I was trying to “illegally settle in Israel,” despite that I informed them that I was living in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
But we all knew that our fates would be arbitrarily determined, for there is no established and transparent process for ensuring entry.
Amongst expatriates living in Ramallah, there were stories of spouses of West Bank ID-carrying Palestinians who have been continuously getting the three-month B-2 tourist visa for as many as twenty years, by coming and going to Jordan several times a year. These individuals had acquired the status of legends amongst the expat community, though the precarious situation of international passport-holders (including Palestinians living in the diaspora) who marry and have families with Palestinians holding West Bank or Gaza ID cards is all too real. Thousands of Palestinian families perpetually live in fear of a family member being deported — a worry shared by my corner shopkeeper with an American passport-holding wife who goes to Jordan and back every three months, and a friend whose American sister-in-law simply overstayed her visa for five years, knowing this would mean she could never return once she left.
Recently, this fear has been confirmed; countless families in which one or more members hold a foreign passport have found themselves fractured by the denial of entry of one of their members. Many of these are middle class families headed by diaspora Palestinians who returned to help develop their country during the post-Oslo years. As a Palestinian official who holds a European passport pointed out to me, “this is particularly symbolic since, by choosing to return to Palestine, these people represented the optimism of the Oslo years and personified the state-building project.” If this trend continues, a whole segment of the Palestinian middle class may be dispersed, taking with them their business investments and entrepreneurship, leaving the Palestinian economy that much more unstable.