A Personal Account of Terror

I am three days from getting on an airplane. After many months away from my husband and my family, I am finally going home. This is both very exciting and rather terrifying. I've been on planes many times, since I work internationally as an activist. However, my journey next week is a reprieve of the most uniquely terrifying airplane experience that I have ever had. Last fall I was also here, in Palestine. After five weeks of preparation for a conference on education, I began my journey home through Ben Gurion Airport in Tel-Aviv, Israel. Having had no problems at immigration upon my arrival, I was at that time completely unprepared for what awaited me as I departed.

During my first visit to Palestine, I was very moved by the political situation, in particular the impact of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and what it means to be a citizen of the West Bank. It means daily reminders of the occupation, everything from the left-over barbed wire of the second Intifada, water tanks upon every rooftop to preserve precious water that Israel allots only one day per week, and the constant restriction of movement. There are something like 300 checkpoints throughout occupied Palestine and a massive apartheid road system that separates Israeli and Palestinian citizens as they drive through the mountainous terrain made ever-more winding by the presence of the Apartheid Wall. The Wall is more than 400 kilometers built within West Bank territory, severing communities, isolating farms, and cutting off rural citizens to health care facilities, in addition to its official purpose to divide Palestinian Arabs from Israeli Jews. Travel, in no uncertain terms, is precarious.

A Palestinian friend that I met on my first trip told me about her first visit to Europe. "The thing I liked most," she said, "was the freedom to drive for hours without being stopped by anyone. No one ever asked us where we were going." With the various designations by the Oslo Accords of Areas A, B, and C, it's nearly impossible to drive more than 10 kilometers without crossing a border and a checkpoint. Flying checkpoints are also common and at their essence, always surprising.

My experience with border security upon leaving Israel by plane was beyond surprising. I had witnessed and experienced first-hand the daily oppression of Palestinians, yet still I was unprepared for the direct experience with Israeli security that I was met with at the airport.

I arrived by taxi four hours early because travelers are told to allow three to five hours for security. I hadn't even gone through the door of the airport when a security guard approached me on the sidewalk and asked to see my passport. My passport number was recorded next to the time and date. Israel's airport security policy includes automatic background checks of all ticketed persons leaving or arriving through Tel-Aviv, something that is not done anywhere else in the world. The United States, the land of private security firms and home of the metal detector, introduced legislation to adopt this style of airport security and it was rejected as too extreme a measure.

There was an unbelievably long line immediately before me. Prior to even approaching the ticket counter, passengers must have their luggage scanned, a fairly common practice in most international airports. My passport received a sticker with a cryptic, numbered security designation. My luggage was scanned and then I was ushered to a nearby table for a random-selection search, or so I was told. It took a substantial amount of time considering the detail of the search, conducted in the open, just mere feet from the entrance. Each piece of my clothing was taken out and put back. One hour had passed since my arrival and I had yet to check in for my flight.

I was finally escorted by a security agent to the ticket counter. At this point, I still believed, or rather fervently hoped, that my special treatment was merely routine and "random" as they say. I checked no luggage since traveling light is my go-to tactic for reducing stress associated with travel. Like everyone, I then proceeded to the usual security station located at the entrance to the terminal.

At this point I was planning on using my long, three-hour wait to catch up on the news over a coffee and breakfast. I was, however, stopped again. Once my luggage was scanned, it was held back for another search. Without explanation, the security agent asked me to open my bags. Usually, they look for liquids and I always carry lip gloss that is technically too large a quantity to pass inspection. Maybe I'd left a lighter in my bag, I thought. But the security agent went immediately for the documents I was carrying, objects which probably could not even be discerned by an x-ray scanner. She thumbed through the program of the education conference. It was written in Arabic, English, French and Spanish. Pages were organized by location of events, including some held in the West Bank and Gaza. She asked me if I'd been to the West Bank. "I was in Jerusalem," I said. She asked me to show her the event descriptions that were held in Jerusalem. She flipped some more and stopped on a word and nearly shouted, "What does this mean?!" The word was "judiazation." The event was about the illegal Jewish settlement of Muslim neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. I was now fully aware of the gravity of my present situation but managed to say calmly that I hadn't attended that session.

Walkie-talkie static and muffled Hebrew seemed to be coming from every direction. I was told to sit. I followed with my eyes my passport as it passed from one agent to another while also trying to keep an eye on the metal table where my open backpack lay. An entourage approached, though all but one security agent attempted aloofness. He asked, "You've lost your passport?" "Yes," I said simply, "this is a replacement." I'd asked for a replacement passport just before traveling in an attempt to separate out my Israeli visa so that I might be permitted to travel to Lebanon, Syria, or Iran at some point in the future. The seemingly hyperbolic stories from friends about being taken to a "back room" for further questioning was also to be my fate.

I was taken to a room so secluded that I doubt I would even have been able to find my gate if I somehow attempted escape, which of course I realized was itself futile. Due to genuine and rather surprising fear, my mind wasn't exactly thinking rationally at that point. For the following two-and-a-half hours, all of my bags were searched yet again in excruciating, unprecedented detail. It became clear that this was a fact-finding investigation. I wasn't so much questioned, as told to sit and wait while my papers, my journal, the contents of my wallet, and every other scrap of paper were scanned into a computer hidden from my view. I was idly asked basic things over again, including if I'd been in the West Bank. "I'm a teacher and I attended a conference on education. I went once to Ramallah." I was strip searched, down to my bra and panties and again told to wait. I watched as a bag of oil pastels was emptied into a box. All of my belongings were haphazardly dumped into the same box, even a pack of cigarettes. At the end of it all, I had to reassemble everything myself. A disposable film camera was taken from my view and ultimately never returned.

The only preparatory steps I had taken were merely to envision in my mind a scenario involving the possible search of my computer. I volunteer for a technology non-profit and for the security of our client's data have always encrypted my hard drive. Knowing the routine check on laptops, I worried that the encryption and Free Software operating system might raise suspicion with even the most lax airport security. I intended to refuse to decrypt my disk by explaining the sensitivity of our client's data. However, at this point I was rather intimidated and upon request booted the computer, unencrypted the disk, and opened an innocuous text file on my desktop as instructed. I was right, though, that the unconventional set-up of my laptop worried the agents. I was told it must be checked luggage, that I was not allowed to take my laptop with me onto the plane. It was packaged in a box and its charger in a separate box and taken out of the room by a security agent, against my panicked protest. It is at this point that my emotions hit me. I began crying. In the first place, I wasn't convinced that my computer would be waiting for me in New York. And secondly, the true reality of Israeli security became inescapable. Among my tears, my head swam with deep solidarity for the surveilled and with profound sadness for the those that carry out such extreme measures in the name of national security. To comfort me, I was told that what was happening to me was normal, that this was the usual procedure. Frankly, this lie they told to both me and themselves made me cry harder.

In the end, I made my flight with only minutes to spare. I was the last person on the plane, feeling rather humiliated. This is why I'm worried about my flight next week. But I'm even more worried about the Israeli state and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Intimidation and security measures of the extremes present in this region are untenable. What is the goal, the endpoint? For me, I will eventually reach New York safely. For Jewish and Palestinian Israelis, international travelers, and Palestinians, when will real safety and security become a reality?


Mallory works from her rural hometown in St. Francis, Kansas, as an activist for social justice at home and in places around the world with the help of the Internet. She can be reached at mallory@mayfirst.org.

Categories: Airports, Security

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