Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Day 14: Ben Gurion Airport

After my meeting with the students, I go back to the hotel and spend the rest of the evening there. The stomach bug has really got a hold and I must rest.

I have booked a shared Israeli taxi at a cost of 45 shekels per person to drive us to Ben Gurion. It shall be picking us up at 2 am from Jaffa Gate, which is a fair hike up the hill from our hotel. Not a thrilling prospect for the middle of the night but we have no choice. He refuses to come to Damascus Gate. I know the reason- it is too near the Arab area.

I tell SH, the hotel owner, of these arrangements. He has an alternative. He can book us a Palestinian taxi for 50 shekels per head from Damascus Gate. I have no hesitation in taking up the offer- I cannot pass up this final opportunity to pump money into the Palestinian economy. We try to contact the Israeli company to cancel but they do not pick up the phone. Oh well, never mind. I am secretly pleased that they will lose 270 shekels!

However our group cannot even take a taxi ride without causing chaos. The taxi driver and SH have just helped us and our baggage into the van when another vehicle screeches to a halt in front of us. It is trying to block us from leaving. It is the Israeli taxi!

The Israeli taxi driver gets out and starts arguing with our driver and SH. 'You have stolen my customers'. SH puts his head into our van. 'Did you book an Israeli taxi by any chance?' I can sense the tension in his voice. We give him the answer he wants. 'No', we chorus, shaking our heads vigorously. The Israeli puts his head in next. 'Which one of you is **** (my surname)?' I had booked the taxi in my name. 'No, there's nobody by that name here.' He finally leaves and we depart.

We know he isn't fooled. It would be too much of a coincidence for two groups of six people to be leaving for the airport from exactly the same spot in Jerusalem at the same time. I realize he has my mobile number- I switch the phone off. SH rings our taxi driver to warn us that the Israeli is hot on our heels (he has some other passengers for the airport). He warns us not to divulge the name of our hotel to anyone. He is obviously worried that someone from the company may cause trouble for him. We reassure him.

As we approach Ben Gurion, the taxi is stopped at a security barrier. An Israeli soldier takes our passports away. When he returns, he asks us, 'So, did you have a good time in Israel? Ate lots of hummus, falafel and baklava?' I am infuriated beyond words. Since when did these become Israeli dishes? Not content with stealing the Palestinians' land, do they want to claim their cuisine as their own too? It may seem like a petty observation to make, but you have to understand that our nerves are frayed as a result of what we have seen in our two weeks here.

As the massive terminal looms ahead, I am reminded of the words of Yasser Darwish from Birzeit University: 'My family lived in a village once. It no longer exists. They call it Ben Gurion airport now.'

I am filled with a sense of foreboding as we enter the airport. I have been warned that the interrogation on the way out can be worse than on arrival. The Israelis have been known to take people off the plane after boarding, then put them back on again just in time. No doubt, the sole purpose is intimidation.

Usually the first thing you do at an airport is check in. Not here- we have to join a queue for questioning. We tell the security officers that we are a group of six. They decide to question two of the women in our group- and leave me alone. Unbelievable. If I was sitting, I would have fallen off my chair.

K and D get asked why we'd come to Israel, where we'd been, who we'd met, how we travelled around, why we'd come to Israel (again!), how we knew each other, how long we'd known each other, why we'd come to Israel (yet again!).....and so on. Needless to say, our preparation is flawless. The story about a multi-faith group spending two weeks in Jerusalem visiting holy sites works. Although the officers do ask, 'But why would Christians and Jews want to socialize with Muslims?'

The next step is baggage inspection. Everything goes through an x-ray machine. Then some bags are selected for manual inspection. Mine is among them. A smiling female security officer asks me to open the case and show her my sandals. She runs an electonic 'sniffer' over them. I can see what the problem is- the soles are very thick, and could potentially hide banned substances or explosives. She is not interested in anything else. 'So my sandals have set an alarm off, have they?' I ask her jokingly. 'No, don't worry, everything is fine,' she reassures me.

We then proceed to check-in, which is uneventful. After this is the usual airport security check where you get frisked and your cabin baggage is looked at. No problems here either. At any other airport, the next step is to proceed to the gate. Not here. A sign ahead of us says 'Immigration'. My heart sinks. They will be waiting for me here.

The others get through without a hitch. After the officer swipes my passport, there is an uncomfortable silence for what feels like an eternity. I know what has happened. A phone has rung somewhere. Sure enough, a securitywoman appears and takes my passport. 'Come with me please.' I follow her- but the others are having none of it. They follow too. I am asked to wait on a bench. The others crowd round me. There is barely half an hour to takeoff.

The door to the security office is open, and we see an officer inspecting my passport and tapping something into a computer. Aha. He will be looking at my 'Crime File'. L goes up to him and demands to know why her friend is being detained. 'Your friend?' he says incredulously. To him, obviously, friendship between people of different religions and races is an alien concept. We are so fortunate in the UK! He sends L away.

It is now perilously close to our departure time. The others march to the office and surround the securityman.
'We have a flight to catch.'
'You won't miss it.'
'But what about our friend?'
'We have to complete the procedure.'
They come back.

The officer finally puts his head round the door and calls my name. I walk to the office. He looks at me for a second, then hands me my passport. 'Have a nice flight.'

What was all that about?

It is a mad scramble to the gate, and we are the last people on the plane. After we settle into our seats, our relief gives way to an overwhelming sadness. It has been an incredible two weeks. Leaving is an unbearable wrench.

We take off.

Goodbye Palestine. You are now part of me.


CMH said...

Hope you are home safely, was fascinating and disturbing to read your blog, sounds like an amazing trip.

SF said...

Thanks so much for writing this; its been good to read and remind myself of our trip. I will send on again to my friends and colleagues.

Joe said...

FWI, that is fairly typical Immigration behaviour. I once spent most of a day being questioned by them (actually they'd ask me a few questions, go away for an hour and come back to ask the same ones).

I've never heard of them actually preventing anyone from catching a plane - they just want to make life difficult.