by Ivy Shen
Often times you never quite believe the stories you hear until they happen to you. I would like to say this story happened to me at airport security in Tel Aviv on my way back into Israel after a short stint in Lebanon and Egypt to visit friends. Sitting in a holding room, exhausted and hungry after being subjected to hours of questioning and waiting. It was nearly 5 am. I had arrived at Ben Gurion Airport at 11pm the prior evening. With my head in my hands, I suddenly came to a realization.
We were of no obvious threat. Nothing my traveling companion or I had in our possessions indicated that we were suspect in any way and should be thus subjected to the extensive and extended “security check” that we underwent. Rather, what was dangerous about us was not what we carried, or even whom we might be affiliated with, but what laid in our minds: In a region mired with insecurity and conflict, it has become apparent that military superiority is not enough to deter the potential enemy.
I would like to say it happened in Tel Aviv, but really, I think it all began at Heathrow Airport. Approaching the security gate for El Al Airlines for my departure flight from London, I began to undergo the “standard” security procedure, which involved extensive questioning and thorough searching of every single item I had in my luggage. As I had been in Israel the summer prior, I was asked what my business was in coming back.
“I have an internship,” I replied, “with the Palestine-Israel Journal
The words hung heavy in the air between the security personnel and I. Eyebrows raised, he proceeded to ask me what this journal was about and why I wanted to work for them. I responded that it is an academic journal and a collaborative effort of members of both communities for dialogue and peace.
“Hmmm,” he mused, as he scrawled in the margins of this notepad. One moment, “I must get my director,” he said.
It was then that I began to realize two things that were to be made increasingly clear to me at every run-in with Israeli security personnel. First, many Israelis are suspicious of “peace.” Throw in a couple more ideas such as dialogue and co-existence and you’ve ensured yourself indeterminable hours of questioning and languishing in waiting rooms and holding areas throughout the world. Secondly, “Palestine” as a word and concept presents the implications of that greater threat, the idea that the nation-state that would embody the aspirations of the Palestinian people is no longer questionable, but on the cusp of realization, if not in political reality then in the larger imagination. Uttering this word also gives indication of where, exactly, one might stand on this issue and the wider conflict in general. I should not have been surprised, then, to be questioned twice by two different security personnel including the director of security, to have been prohibited from carrying any personal items with me aboard the flight and to have been subjected to another security screening at the gates prior to boarding my flight, where I was asked politely to remove my clothes.
I noticed that not all passengers were subjected to the same procedures I had undergone and others were allowed to carry luggage onto the flight. I wondered if the other passengers felt safer after I had gone through all the necessary procedures that would now permit me to sit alongside them on this flight to Tel Aviv, because I suddenly felt very unsafe
, uncomfortable and alienated. It is an anxiety I continued to have at all points of exit and entry into and out of Israel.
In Egypt, prior to boarding a flight back to Tel Aviv, I underwent two hours of security procedures by Israeli security personnel before I was cleared to board. Here, not only did I receive the same reaction to the name of the journal I interned for, but also I apparently made the mistake of stating its location in East Jerusalem.
Jerusalem,” the security personnel repeated, while making marks in his logbook. Of course, decades of policies and efforts to make Jerusalem the capital of Israel do not welcome the idea of a division of this great city, especially not one that implicates the 1967 demarcation between east and west and of the continual dispute over its status in the conflict and negotiations.
It does not end here, however, with my own experiences. Recently, I escorted a friend of mine to the airport in Tel Aviv for his flight back to the States after a brief visit to Jerusalem. Before I was able to bid him goodbye, I was roped into a round of security questioning. Once I stated my purpose for being in the country, I knew what was ahead of us. I protested, stating that I was not the one boarding the flight and I should not be subjected to questioning. In response, my friend was held for extended security procedures. I sat on the floor of the airport and waited as anxiety gripped me. I worried that he would miss his flight. The security personnel returned and requested that I cooperate with the questioning this time, lest I wanted to make worse the possibility of his continued detainment and the missing of his flight. I immediately obliged. Two hours later, my friend emerged from the holding room and was escorted by personnel to the gate, just in time for his flight.
As I left the airport, the tension, anxiety and anger only heightened. I wondered what were these shared values that so many Americans point to as the basis of the special relationship between the United States and Israel? The many freedoms and liberties we are so proud of sharing are in absence here, at the many points of contact between Israel and rest of the world.