‘The bra is a security threat’: Harassment and interrogation at Ben Gurion airport
Here is yet another story of a Palestinian being harassed while trying to travel through Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport. Anonymous lives in Berkeley, her father is Palestinian and her mother is Jewish. Here she recounts how she was interrogated and strip searched while trying to leave Israel/Palestine after visiting family in Jaffa and Tel Aviv, “I had been mistreated, combed out of the crowd and profiled, my time wasted and my dignity subsequently stepped all over without a second thought. I had been treated like a criminal for having an identity that I was born into, told explicitly in each of these actions that I did not belong here and had no place here at all as a person with Palestinian heritage. Harassed and picked out from the rest because of my name, my history, the assumptions that go with them, and my very intention to visit my family, many of who cannot visit me in the USA.”
I took a deep breath and looked around at my surroundings. I mostly kept tabs on the other people who I had been in line with. While most went through the baggage scan machine and straight to their ticket desks, the other members with yellow stickers on their luggage like myself had all been cleared after a 10-15 minute bag check with only one or two of their bags being searched. I was the only person left at the checking tables. The thin bald man in the suit came over once again.
“What do you have in your pockets?” he asked me. “My passport, my visa, and my phone” I told him.
“Fine” he said, “she will escort you to security.” He pointed to the young blonde.
I reached for my bags. “No no. They stay here. You go with her.”
“Who will watch my bags?” I asked him. “They will be here. Go with her.”
The blonde woman and I walked through the airport.
“How old are you?” she asked me. “21” I said, “and you?”
“23” she said.
We stopped before a big white door. She swiped her id card and typed in a code. The door unlocked, to which I entered a white room with a baggage x-ray machine and a white table that looked like a dental chair. Curtains hung in the near right corner. She pointed to that corner with a foam chair and metal legs.
“Sit there” she said. I sat.
A young man appeared, he was in a plaid shirt, jeans and a pair of white Adidas. Undercover police for sure. He lurked on the other side of the curtain that the young blonde partially drew. “Stand with your arms at your sides” she gesticulated. I watched the man’s white sneakers stop on the other side of the curtain, facing towards it. I took my shoes off and my phone was placed in a grey tub. I eyed my passport and visa on the shelf in front of me. She did a general pat down and then pulled my pant waist far from my body and checked around between the gap where my underwear and my belt would have been if I had been wearing one. She sighed and told me that I was finished and should take a seat. Somebody else came through the white door on the other side of the curtain and began laughing with the plain-clothed guard. I could tell by the voice and by her black shoes under the curtain that she was a woman. The young blonde woman left with my shoes and my phone in the grey tub. I eyed my passport again on the ledge in front of me and stuck it into my pocket.
“Are your pockets empty?” Another blonde woman came through the gap in the curtains, the undercover guard moved to the table across from the gap and viewed in. I took my passport out again and held it in my hands. “Yes”.
She had large round eyes and appeared older than the first blonde woman who had checked my bags, maybe she was 26-29. Her hair was wavy and limp against her head. My phone beeped again, probably my family calling me to check on why I had not notified them about my status through the airport as we had agreed.
I guessed at the time. It was perhaps around 6:45. I had been in the private security room for roughly a quarter of an hour. “I am the security supervisor here and I have some questions for you” she told me. She asked me again as to the purpose of my trip, to which I gave the same generic answer of Holy Land sights, friends and family visits.
“Who’d you stay with?” I gave some names. “And the addresses?” I gave one address of a friend in Jerusalem who I’d stayed with for a block of time. She questioned me more on the details of the residents in the flat and how I knew them. She asked me why I’d stayed there and how I could be friends with the people who I mentioned. All had Jewish names.
“We just are” I told her. She stared blankly. “Ok…” she paused.
I said nothing, just looked up at her face. “And who paid for this trip?” she demanded. Her tone was hostile and her body language was on edge as she stood above me and looked down at me in my chair. “My mother.”
“So that I could visit the sights, friends and family” I repeated.
“You are going to London now.”
“Yes I am.”
“To visit family.”
“You are always visiting family” she commented in a teasing tone, the corner of her mouth in a slight snarl, “Why is that?”
“Because I am. Any other questions?” I told her flatly.
“What do you do?”
“What do I do?”
“Yes in the USA or wherever you live what do you do.”
“I work. I recently graduated college.” She asked for the details of what I studied and where I worked. I gave her one-word answers.
“What are your family names?” she again demanded.
“T(Palestinian) and N (Jewish).”
“And your other name is T(Palestinian)?”
“Your father was born where?”
She repeated my name. “That is my name.” She paused, confused.
“You told another security person that you are Jewish but really you’re just a Palestinian.”
“I am both” I told her.
“What do you mean both?”
“I am Jewish and Palestinian. My mother is Jewish and my father is Palestinian, do you want my family names again?”
The undercover guard was still sitting on the table swinging his legs. His face twisted.
“So if you are both, where is your family in Israel?”
“Jaffa and Tel Aviv” I told her. She was frustrated. “But who…you’re going to England?”
“My mother was born in Britain, why I am going to England and who I will see is not relevant. Do you have any other questions?” I asked her.
This was the first emotional rise that she had gotten from me and, though it was mild, I reminded myself to calm down. I did not want to spend any more energy on this process than I had to. The goal is to end this and go. End this process and go. I reminded myself.
She paused. “Ok, were you told to bring anything onto the plane?”
“I am just bringing myself and my luggage”
“Yes but were you told to bring anything with you?”
“I don’t understand your question”
“Were you told to carry something onto, you know, the plane”
“I still don’t understand your question. I am attempting to board this plane in order to leave Israel and I am hopefully bringing myself and my luggage”
“But there is nobody else?”
“No? I am by myself” She turned around to leave.
“Excuse me, what is your name please?” I asked her. “My name?” The guard smirked.
“Yes your name.”
She and the guard exchanged glances. He sniggered. She laughed. “What do you want my name for?”
“You know my name so I would like to know your name.”
“Hilda Ma…” She mumbled the rest. “What was your last name again please?”
“I’ll spell it out for you later if you want. Ok?”
“Yes thank you.” She tossed the curtain aside.
I sat in clear view of the guard who exchanged some words and guffaws with Hilda. He raised his eyebrows at her and pointed at me, his tone of voice said, “can you believe that? Who does she think she is?”
Hilda imitated me and they laughed again. She then disappeared to the other side of the room where I lost visual contact with her. The guard watched her speak with the young blonde woman who then reappeared in the curtained area. She pulled the curtains closer together behind her. The white shoes stood on the other side of the curtain, facing towards it. She motioned for me to rise and hold my hands away from my body.
“Are you going to check me again?” I asked. “Yes” she said.
She scanned me with a metal detector, paying close attention to my chest where my underwire was making the machine beep (which anyone who wears a bra can tell you happens routinely in a check with a handheld metal detector). She lifted up my sweat-pant legs and checked around my calves.
“What’s in your hair?” she said, pointing to my poofy bun on top of my head.
“Nothing, it’s just a hair tie” I said. “Ok can you take it off” she told me.
I took my hair down and she sifted through my curls. “You have a lot of hair” she told me.
I put it back up into a bun and said nothing. Then she left through the gap in the curtains. The man walked to the gap in the curtain and again turned to face me. I sat down and looked at him. His feet were swinging and his eyes mocked me.
The young blonde came back with the same probe, with a flat head and a cotton pad, that she had used to check my luggage earlier that morning. “Ok stand up again” she told me.
“What is that?” I asked her. She looked shyly at me. “This will um go around your chest and your bottom area”
“Your waist and yes like that” she said. “For what purpose?”
“To check and then scan into the machine…it’s just your surfaces” she told me.
I withheld a shudder, feeling the situation slowly slipping out of my control. There was no one else in the room, only the four of us, Hilda, the young blonde, the young undercover guard, and myself. Hilda called the guard over to the right hand side of the room. I watched his white Adidas move back and forth as he rocked on the other side of the curtain. The young blonde stuck the flat-headed probe down my shirt and then around my bra. Then she pulled my sweatpants far away from my body and circled the probe around my waist.
“Can you pull your underwear down a little bit please?” she asked me. This was the first time that she had said please and I could tell that she was embarrassed. I stared at the gap in the curtain and pulled the top of my underwear down. I looked her in the face. Her skin was dewy. The woman swept the probe around my body again and then told me to lift my feet off the floor. She checked my soles. I heard my phone beep twice in its grey bin somewhere on my right by the white “dental” chair next to Hilda and the guard. The young blonde avoided my eye contact and left through the door.
About 30 seconds later, Hilda reappeared and swept open the curtains. The guard reappeared with her and moved to stand on my left by the curtain seam.
“Ok so I need to take off your underwear.”
“Yes the machine signaled a problem with your shirt and underwear so you need to take them off”.
The guard stared me down. His eyes were mocking. “You want me to take off my underwear and then do what with them?”
“We will scan them and then you will need to put other ones on.”
“Other ones? I only have what I have on.” On cue the young blonde rolled in my red suitcase and pulled it into the curtain area.
“What did the machine detect exactly?” I pressed. “I can’t tell you that. You just need to remove your underwear and your shirt.”
“And then you want me to change back into them?”
“No you have to check them in with your luggage and wear something else.”
“But I don’t want to wear anything else. My other clothes are dirty.”
“You have to wear something else. The bra is a security threat.”
“My bra is a security threat?”
“Yes and so is your shirt.”
My mind buzzed as my emotions rose. I looked at the guard and he smirked back at me. “This is your punishment for asking Hilda’s name” I told myself.
The young blonde girl looked at me with my suitcase in hand, a surprisingly distressed look on her face. The expression was guilt. Only later did it strike me that the time between the probe test and Hilda’s decision that my underwear threatened security spanned an average of 30 seconds and that this was, most likely, a time too short to have actually checked the cotton pad on the end of the probe and communicated the next sequence of events between Hilda and the young blonde along with the organized retrieval of my suitcase from the terminal.
I unzipped my bag and popped it open. The inside was a mess from the first rummage through it and I had no idea where anything was. I calmed myself down, took deep breaths, reminded myself that this was all a power play with the intention of making me feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar. I fished out another bra from my bag and took the first shirt that I could find. I went into my underwear pocket but Hilda stopped me. “Why don’t you just wear the ones you have?” she said.
“You told me to change my underwear” I responded.
“No you can leave them. I just want your bra and your shirt” she barked at me.
I folded the two articles over my arm. “Give them to me” Hilda demanded. “I need to scan these before you put them on.” I handed them over to her while the guard watched. She disappeared, I don’t remember what she did. I was busy watching the young blonde woman who looked as uncomfortable as I felt. Hilda handed me my bra and shirt. I stared at the guard. Hilda caught my eye, “you have to change clothes now. No one will see you.” She left and drew the curtains behind her.
For the first time since I entered the airport, I was alone. I watched the guard’s white shoes, pointed towards the curtains. For good measure, I faced the wall and placed my passport in my pocket. I changed my clothes and replaced them with the ones from my bag. I went to my bag to fold them back in when Hilda pulled back the curtains.
“No don’t pack them yet I need to test them!” she barked.
“You already checked them. That’s why we are going through this process, correct?”
“I will check them again.”
I passed them to her right past the guard’s body. He had stepped very close to Hilda and myself. As I passed my clothing to Hilda, he stared down at the bra in my hand and then back up at me. I stood there. I took deep breaths. My eyes dared him to utter a word. He didn’t, he just stared at me.
The young blonde called me back to the other side of the curtains and closed them behind me. My whole body was vibrating with anger. She checked around my body with a metal detector for the second time. The young woman patted down my top yet again. My throat constricted and I could feel angry tears welling up somewhere inside me. I swallowed my feelings. I buried them. I reminded myself of my goal in this very moment and of the stubborn character that my family was so well known for. I made a pact with myself that I would not give them the emotional response they were pressing for. I would not let them compromise my dignity. “Focus” I told myself. “Just focus.”
Hilda brought my shirt and bra back from wherever she had taken them and I packed them into my chaotic suitcase. As Hilda and the guard joked and laughed together, the young blonde approached me. “This is all protocol you know” she whispered at my side.
“Oh really? This is protocol?” I said slowly. I looked her in the eye and she looked down at her feet. I hoped that she was ashamed of this process, ashamed of the actions that had been deemed “appropriate”, realized that she was a pawn in all of this but no less guilty in carrying out the policy of racial and specific group targeting that this whole experience was built upon.
The end of the process was sudden. The whole thing was surreal actually. Hilda left the room in one swift movement. The door slammed behind her. The guard kept tabs on me with the young blonde at my side. I closed my bag and pulled it to standing.
“You can put your shoes on” the young blonde said.
I looked around. “Ok, can I have my shoes please?”
“Oh yeah.” She brought me the grey bin with my phone and shoes and I slipped them on.
The girl pointed me towards the door and we walked through, the plain clothed guard disappeared into the hallway behind us. I did not see him again.
The girl and I walked back together, alone. “You know…” she began “I’ve been working here for 1.5 years and I have never seen them do something like that.”
“Do something like what?” I asked. She looked up at me with a crease in her forehead, “make someone take off their bra…”
“I hope it’s the last time” I told her. She looked ahead into the terminal. We stopped talking.
We reentered the large room that I had first had my bags checked through, the glass doors to the outside of the airport shone with the bright light of the sun. It was now morning. I smiled to myself that I had finished the process. “I get to leave now”, I thought to myself. My eyes adjusted to the light in the terminal where I clearly saw about 6-8 security guards rummaging through the complete contents of both of my carryon bags that now lay limp on the floor. Stuff inside grey bins, outside grey bins, on the conveyor belt, across on other tables; my things were strewn absolutely everywhere. It was chaos.
I appeared before the tables, covered in my things, as the plastic gloved hands continued the sifting process. Everything was separated and individually run through the little metal detector behind me.
A stern, balding, reddish haired man with a black kippah stood there with an earpiece on one side. His arms were crossed and by the way that the skinny bald man stood next to him and all the guards checked in with his appraising gaze, I could tell that he was the boss of this particular operation. Hilda had disappeared completely. She was nowhere in sight. I said nothing about the bags. I just breathed. “Excuse me”, I called to the skinny bald man, “What was the woman’s name who checked me in the security room?”
The man looked at me, “You mean Hilda?”
“Yes Hilda” I responded.
The man with the kippah turned his glance towards me. “What is her full name?” I asked.
The bald man opened his mouth to answer but first turned his attention to his superior. “We don’t give last names” the man with the kippah asserted. “I doubt that”, I thought to myself.
“Ok what is her title then please?”
“Hilda, Security Supervisor.” A woman with a clipboard appeared between us and asked the skinny man who I was. He pointed to my name on a short list, which she then highlighted in yellow and pink. The skinny man looked at me, “You will make your flight.”
A young woman beckoned me to her box, I’m next. She opened my passport and stared down at the page. She stutters my first name. “Yes?”
“Ra…Ra…” I pronounce the rest of it for her. “What was the purpose of your visit?” I let out the same monotonous answer I had uttered all morning.
“You have friends and family here?” she asked. “Yes.”
“Ok where are they?”
“Tel Aviv and Jaffa” I said. She paused and cocked her eyebrows. “That’s the same place.”
“No no, I said Tel Aviv and Jaffa” I told her, thinking she had not heard me correctly. “Yes that’s the same place.” What she was implying hit me.
All morning I had been mistreated, combed out of the crowd and profiled, my time wasted and my dignity subsequently stepped all over without a second thought. I had been treated like a criminal for having an identity that I was born into, told explicitly in each of these actions that I did not belong here and had no place here at all as a person with Palestinian heritage. Harassed and picked out from the rest because of my name, my history, the assumptions that go with them, and my very intention to visit my family, many of who cannot visit me in the USA.
Here I was being told by a girl in uniform, very close to my age, that my town had no existence in the present, even as I had just left from it hours before arriving at the airport. The whole morning’s exchange culminated at this moment as a burning ember in my stomach. It was emblematic of the constant reminder that we Palestinians are being systematically forgotten and erased from public consciousness in every sphere of life, delegitimizing every root that we are attached to inside and outside of the Israeli state.
Tel Aviv, some of it built on two prominent neighborhoods of my town, much of the rest built upon the orange groves that sustained it, was swallowing up my very presence, right there in the middle of the airport. I realized that, to this girl I was already a disappeared part of “history”, excluded from her general consciousness, not even present in her own imagination of the past.
Yet here she was, looking right at me. I wanted to show her, to figuratively reach behind her glass case, that I was not a shadow of the things that were but a glimmer of the present and future of what is and what can be.
“They are not the same place” I tell her “One is north and one is south. One is a city and one is a town.”
“No, you were in one place. The name of the city is Tel Aviv – Yafo. Not Yafo. Same place.” She handed me back my passport and stared at me, annoyed.
“It is not the same place” I told her. “Is that all?”
I hurried to my gate, through the final check and into the airport lounge area. I decided that the plane would not leave without me, from the beginning the airline had been notified about my ensured tardiness. I stopped at a candy and snack store on my way to the gate and chose a bottle of water. I brought it up to the woman at the desk. “Passport and boarding ticket please” she told me. I handed both to her. She looked me up in the computer in front of her. Her eyes fixed on me. “How long have you been in Israel and what is your final destination?” I was incredulous. I was being asked security questions by a candy vendor.
“Excuse me, I’ve already passed through security. How much are those tic-tacs please?” I grabbed the box next to me. She told me the total and I paid. She asked no more questions. I took my boarding materials from the counter. As I turned around, I noticed two plain clothed men with shaved heads watching me from their seats at the fountain. They had no baggage. I guessed who they were. I moved past them and walked briskly to my gate. I kiss the necklace around my neck as an act of gratitude and I know that I will be back. I also know that it will not be easy. It never is.
I hope that one day this story becomes a fairy tale of what was once the Occupation, in all of its arbitrary character and continual perpetuation of inequality, injustice, and illusion. For now, this experience as described above is just a minor example of the humiliation and daily challenges that Palestinians face on a regular basis when trying to cross checkpoints inside and outside of the West Bank and Gaza. It is just a minor example of the racial profiling that Palestinians with Israeli passports or Jerusalem ID cards go through on a regular basis when walking down the street or applying for a job. It is just a minor example of how the Occupation divides the Palestinian population into all of our different “statuses” and privileges while combining us all together into one essentializing package. It is an example of a situation where the oppression of certain groups of people has been completely normalized by the international community.
If we can start anywhere in deconstructing this Occupation, literally taking it apart, we can start by educating ourselves and our communities. I implore those who read this to learn about the history of Palestine, to learn about recent events on the ground, to talk to as many people as they can, to be curious and ask questions, to look at displays of military power and question the motives of those governments who support them.
Throughout all of this, please remember, that this is not a historical issue, it is a human one.
Peace, Justice and Dignity.