This week, noted journalist, CNN contributor and Forward columnist Peter Beinart underwent a shocking ordeal. He was detained and interrogated at Ben Gurion Airport when trying to enter Israel, despite being Jewish and an ardent Zionist. The outrage was so swift that Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu himself called the episode a mistake in a quasi-apology.
And yet, devastating as Beinart’s experience was, for many Palestinians, reaching Ben Gurion for an interrogation is an unthinkable fantasy.
Palestinians are generally not allowed to use Ben Gurion airport. If they want to fly internationally, they have to be shuttled to Queen Alyia airport in Jordan through the Israeli-controlled Allenby bridge. This is true for U.S. citizens of Palestinian descent, too. “The Government of Israel does not currently permit U.S. citizens with Palestinian nationality (or even, in some cases, a claim to it) to enter Israel via Ben Gurion International Airport,” writes the U.S. Consulate’s website. “U.S. citizen travelers who also have Palestinian nationality have been sent back to the U.S. upon arrival at Ben Gurion.”
And for Gaza’s two million locked up inhabitants, it’s far worse. Israel closes Gaza’s sea, air and field spaces with its military, leaving the population with one Israeli-controlled border to leave the besieged enclave, the Erez Border Crossing. There is also the Egyptian border, the Rafah crossing.
To access Erez, Gazans have to petition the Israeli authorities to be granted a security permit specifically tailored to the reason they want to leave, such as receiving medical treatment at a particular facility, where they will not be allowed to leave the premises.
To be considered, petition must count as a dire humanitarian need or special circumstance, something like cancer treatment or a special scholarship, and then it needs to be approved by the Israeli Defense Forces, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories and the Shin Bet. As you can imagine, successfully obtaining such a permit is the exception to the rule, where most cases that even qualify as eligible are rejected on baseless grounds. The phrase “security concern” suffices.
The truth is, I’d rather to be detained and interrogated at Ben Gurion for weeks on end than be imprisoned in Gaza.
I’m not alone. Here are a few stories of Palestinians from Gaza who feel similarly. Their names have been obscured to protect their identities. The interviews have been edited for clarity.
A.A., a Palestinian 18 year old student
I was very excited that I got the highest score in my high school final exams — 99.3%, making me the top student in Palestine. I was honored and celebrated by the Ministry of Education, the Palestinian Parliament and many other prestigious organizations.
The PA president’s office awarded me an open scholarship to pick any university I wanted to attend around the world, and promised they’d pay part of my tuition.
I thought about it for a long time and finally decided to go to Berziet University in Ramallah to study international law and human rights. That was my first choice, my dream.
I submitted my papers, and everything went well except for two major problems that I forgot to take into consideration: I’m from Gaza and I just turned 18.
Both factors meant I could never obtain a security permit from Israel to study at Berziet.
I tried everything and contacted everyone who could help — UNRWA, the Ministry of Education, Gisha… you name it. But the answers were heartbreakingly unanimous: You’re from Gaza, and you just joined the banned age of 18-45.
Israel doesn’t allow Gazans to enroll in West Bank Universities, or even to visit the West Bank. Israel considers any Gazan between the age of 18-45 to be a “security concern” — a label that almost always results in the immediate rejection of any petitions to obtain a security permit to travel through Erez, let alone move to the West Bank.
I don’t understand what danger I could have posed to “Israel’s security” by becoming a university student in law and human rights.
Was it too much to ask?
S.A., a Palestinian woman who works for an international organization
I work as the Gaza office director of a recognized international organization, and part of my job is to hold meetings and conferences on political topics in the Gaza Strip, and to meet with visiting European delegations, diplomats and officials.
Some of the meetings take place in Ramallah or Jerusalem, and I have to have a security permit from Israel every time I pass through the Israeli-Controlled Erez Border Crossing. Of course, I had difficulties every time, but it was okay as long I got to pass.
In 2014, during the first few days of Operation Protective Edge, I was interviewed by some mainstream media outlet about the situation in Gaza. I gave an honest and sincere description of what was taking place, especially the bombardment of residential neighborhoods.
It was hard not to voice my fears and worries about how the building where I live was roughly shaken in the evening as intense Israeli airstrikes and bombs were dropped nearby constantly.
When the war was over, I was invited to a conference in Jerusalem, but my permit was suddenly revoked without further explanation, and I was turned back at Erez.
I tried to understand that decision, but the only thing that came to mind was this interview; I’m politically unaffiliated, I’m an academic and I have a European citizenship besides my Palestinian one.
My suspicions were soon confirmed when I petitioned to obtain a new permit and with diplomatic help and influence, I was invited for a security interview at Erez, or more precisely, a cautionary one.
The main issue the officer wanted to discuss was my interview, and how dare I position Hamas on a higher moral ground than Israel (I didn’t).
The outcome of all of this is that the only way I can perform my job normally is to keep a low profile and never have a political opinion again.
I.H., a Palestinian woman, journalist activist from Gaza who currently lives in Italy**
I really feel sorry for what the American-Jewish activist Peter had to go through. But this indeed a glimpse of what Palestinians encounter under the Israeli occupation, and even more recently, it seems to be the case for anybody who supports Palestinian rights.
My experience with the Erez border crossing has been characterized by difficulty and worry, mainly because I’m from Gaza.
In order to be able to travel out of Gaza, I’ve consistently tried to petition the Israeli authorities for more than two years, throughout which I’ve always received rejections letters. My petitions to obtain a permit to travel through Erez were wholly rejected without any solid reason.
I eventually managed to obtain a permit after repeated attempts, but the day I travelled was the most difficult part of the journey. It wasn’t just saying goodbye to my family in Gaza, not knowing for how long, but the fact that I knew that traveling through Ben Gurion wouldn’t be easy for a Gazan at all.
I was so afraid throughout that the Israeli authorities would send me back to Gaza for the smallest and most ridiculous thing, even though I had all the necessary documents: my destination, my reason for traveling — to get medical treatment — and my sponsoring organization and host in Italy.
I was asked to be present at Erez at 6:00 AM. The Israeli authorities held me until 12:30 before they finally gave me my permit paper. I finally entered Israel after a long and agonizing process of going through multiple detectors, x-rays, fingerprinting, picture-taking, manual inspection and other procedures.
Staff members from the Italian Consulate in Jerusalem were waiting for me on the other side to escort me to Ben Gurion Airport at Israel’s request. At the airport entrance, I was stopped by female soldiers who refused to listen to my escorts no matter what they tried to say. My father was also with me as my escort on the medical trip. He speaks fluent Hebrew, so he also tried to speak to them, but they hushed him and refused to listen to him.
It was very humiliating.
We stood outside the gate for almost an hour. I was not even allowed to give my passport to anyone. When we finally got into the airport, I thought of catching my breath, taking a pause and resting for a while after standing on my feet since 6:00 in the morning until around 3:30 in the afternoon. My plane was scheduled at 6:00PM, so I thought there’d be enough time to get some rest.
Instead, our time was wasted in more humiliating interrogations, harassment, multi-layered inspections, and finally a strip search. They scattered everything in our bags and left them open.
I remember staring, eyes wide at how they treated other passengers, how other people were simply passing through so quickly without any trouble at all.
I felt so embarrassed, so belittled and ashamed.
Even inside the plane, they kept an eye on us as if we were criminals.
It was so uncomfortable, but it was a trip of emancipation nonetheless. I felt I was breaking free of great layers of suffering and oppression.
M.M., a Palestinian woman and celebrated artist
I traveled through the Israeli Erez border crossing three times. The first time, I got a security permit to join a conference where Palestinian girls from different cities meet entrepreneurs, businesswomen and company owners.
According to Erez instructions, we were supposed to be present in the very early morning, so we arrived early. But we waited for about eight hours at the Hamas-controlled side of the border, where they hindered our way.
We almost never got to see the faces of soldiers talking to us. Almost everything was done from behind secure, thick, dark-colored glass as if we had the plague.
One person after the other, we were rushed into a small spherical glass room for the x-ray check, amidst soldiers shouting loudly and harshly at us in Hebrew from behind the second floor glass to hurry up as if we were cattle.
The glass device has two black axes that spin around searched subjects vertically and horizontally to produce a detailed picture. Despite this, we were humiliated and searched again when we came out of the room.
Shouting and yelling were the only way soldiers communicated with us from behind the glass. I was terrified and paranoid that the smallest mistake I made would have been big enough for them to send me back to Gaza.
Then, a soldier finally came in person to search my already thoroughly x-rayed luggage. He opened my bag condescendingly and violently scattered everything inside it before tossing my stuff away for me to collect while being rushed again. It felt as if he was taking revenge on us.
We made it to the conference at the last minute. We only had few hours to return to Gaza again, before the security permit expired. If it expires before you return to Gaza, you’re blacklisted and get into big trouble.
My second time was my first time to ever visit Jerusalem to exhibit my art and paintings at the U.S. Consulate. I went through the same dehumanizing standard procedures at Erez again. The soldiers checking us were extremely rude.
I had my paintings tightly packed together in a set. They scattered all of them around and I had a very difficult time putting them together, and I was rushed to do it fast.
They opened my suitcases randomly and scattered everything inside. I suppose that’s what they called “checking.”
The third time I was supposed to travel through Erez, I was really excited and all prepared. I had my suitcase ready, my passport and my papers with me.
At the last minute they canceled my permit without any explanation and declined my departure. I still have no idea why.
The fourth time wasn’t so different, but we were many Palestinian women participating in the Annual bazaar, organized by the US consulate.
It took us one day just to go through the “checking.” It took so many hours at Erez and longer hours at the Qalandia checkpoint. We were 34 people, and everyone had everything they wanted to display. Although, we were checked thoroughly and humiliated enough at Erez, we were checked again more tightly at Qalandia which doesn’t usually happen.
When I myself was young, I the Israeli-controlled Rafah crossing. I remember IDF soldiers constantly pointing their sniper rifles at us. We had to wait inside a car for hours; we were not even allowed to open the door. Soldiers armed with machine guns and M16 rifles then rushed us through metal detectors and checkpoints, shouting at us to hurry up, move back, or freeze in place.
The soldiers’ military sunglasses became something of a traumatic touchstone in my mind after two gunmen violently separated my parents and I at gunpoint from my brother, whose only crime was that he turned 18-years-old and was no longer a child, hence was not allowed to cross with us.
The IDF soldiers at Nitzana were actually nicer and more down to earth compared to Erez and Rafah. Perhaps because they’re not meant to engage with Palestinians and our passage through that border crossing was a very rare exception.
Later, when I tried desperately to travel out of Gaza, I repeatedly petitioned the Israeli authorities to leave through Erez, for a scholarship abroad, or to attend a meeting in Jerusalem, or even to be interviewed at a diplomatic mission for a visa application.
The answer over and over was no.
I was treated as a non-existent entity. I wasn’t seen as a person, and my story never mattered. I was only seen as a young Gazan who fit the banned age of 18-45 years old. I was guilty until proven otherwise.
The problem is that I never got the chance to even prove that. My applications collected dust for months, as my opportunities were squandered along with my future, wasting away before my eyes.
In my applications I repeatedly begged for the treatment Peter Beinart got. I wrote that I was willing to be interrogated for however long it may take, willing to be strip-searched and escorted to my departure by a military officer, handcuffed and blindfolded, or to provide any other guarantee that I am not a security concern.
But my emails and letters were never even answered. Not a single time.
Two years after I sent it, my petition to Israel is still unanswered, and never will be, for as long as I continue to simply be a Palestinian from Gaza. (When I finally managed with great resources, connections and a rare opportunity to get out of Gaza, it was through the Egyptian-controlled border crossing at Rafah, a traumatic trip in and of itself.)
The most precious thing I have, my identity, is deemed in Israel a threat, a curse.
This isn’t only my story. It’s the story of almost every Gazan I know.
Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip. He was the PR officer at the Euro-Med Monitor for Human Rights in Gaza, and is currently a student of Development Studies at Lund University.
This story "For Palestinians in Gaza, Peter Beinart’s Detention Is A Luxury. Here Are Our Stories." was written by Muhammad Shehada.