‘Do you know any Arabs in London?’ Israeli airport authorities grill British photojournalist before kicking him out
“I don’t pretend to know night-time from day, but if I were your God I’d have something to say” (Ben Gurion Prison, 14th March 2013)
These words, scrawled inconspicuously on the wall just above my head amid a plethora of other graffiti, drew my eyes as I sat on a dirty, broken bunk in an Israeli ‘facility’.
Or at least that’s what the Israelis call it. In my lexicon, rows of cells with no door handles on the inside and double bars across the windows are found in a ‘prison’.
That’s where I found myself on 13th March, six hours after arriving at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport at the start of a photographic holiday.
Initially, things were as I would have expected on arrival in Israel.
At about 4 pm, I waited patiently in a queue to have my passport checked with a colleague from work that I had met by chance on the plane.
I stepped forward and was asked why I was visiting Israel and whether I’d visited before. I told the immigration official that I was visiting as a tourist and that I’d visited before as a child and in 2011.
This answer sufficed for him to tell me that my passport was being retained and that I should direct myself to a room in a quiet corner of the immigration hall for “a few more questions.”
I was surprised – I’ve travelled extensively without problems – but aware that security at Ben Gurion airport is quite unlike anywhere else in the world. I was also uncomfortable at having surrendered my passport, aware that this ran contrary to UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice because of the risk of passport cloning by Israeli authorities.
At first sight, the room indicated by the immigration official wasn’t too unwelcoming; generic airport seating and a drinks vending machine for those who travel with currency. Every seat was taken, though. I wasn’t sure if that was reassuring or not.
However: a young German female and I were the only Caucasians present. Travellers to Israel were being selected for interrogation based on their racial or ethnic profile. This appalled me and I set about counting. During the six hours that I was to spend in and around that room, 25 travelers were similarly detained; only three of us were Caucasian.
My turn for interrogation came at 6:40 pm, 2½ hours after my arrival.
I followed a young Israeli woman in uniform into a small office. We sat at either side of a desk and a computer. On my left sat two casually dressed males. I was later informed that they were officers from Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service.
“Why did you come to Israel?” the woman started aggressively.
“For a much-needed holiday, a photographic holiday,” I replied calmly.
She failed to understand and asked me to speak up.
I repeated my answer, just as loudly and clearly as I had the first time.
It was already clear that no pleasantries were on offer in this office.
“Where are you going in Israel?”
I told her that I would first spend two or three days in and around Jerusalem, visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to pray for my brother (I explained why) and traveling to Bethlehem and Masada, before moving on to Tel Aviv, Haifa, Galilee and, I hoped, Eilat.
I was, of course, faced with the usual conundrum for anyone arriving in Israel wishing to include the West Bank as part of an itinerary. Mention any West Bank destination other than Bethlehem and you will be refused admission to Israel; fail to mention it and have it suspected and you will be refused admission anyway. I did also intend to visit the West Bank.
“Who do you know in Israel?”
“How long in Israel?”
“About three weeks.”
“What? Three weeks in Israel? Three weeks is too long! No one comes for three weeks to Israel!”
I considered pointing out that the Israeli Ministry of Tourism might see things differently, but thought better of it.
Instead, I repeated that I had three weeks in which to see as much of the country as I could.
One of the two men intervened.
“And the Gaza Strip? And the West Bank?”
“I am not visiting the Gaza Strip or the West Bank,” I said firmly but politely.
I felt as though I had been catapulted into a scene from a cheesy spy thriller, but although uncomfortable at being forced to state only a partial truth, I remained completely calm.
“Where are you staying in Israel?” the woman resumed.
I told her the name of my guesthouse, that I had booked two nights and handed her a copy of the reservation.
“Why only two nights?”
I explained that I only ever book one or two nights when I travel, so that I can plan my holiday on the fly and stay longer in places that I like.
“Where have you traveled this year?”
“Paris, Prague, Dublin and Turkey.”
“How can you travel so much? It’s not possible that you can travel so much.”
I explained that some of my trips were for work rather than for pleasure.
More intrusive questions followed, about my family, my marriage and family holidays. Almost every question was followed by an inevitable “Are you sure?”
One of the men stood up.
“What about the Gaza Strip? When did you go to the Gaza Strip?”
“I have never been to the Gaza Strip,” I replied calmly.
At times, their interrogation, although intimidating, bordered on caricature.
The woman resumed.
“Is it your first time in Israel?”
“No. I came with my school when I was 13 and again in 2011.”
“Why did you come with your school? Are you a teacher?”
“No, I was 13!”
“What’s your job?”
I told her that I work in consumer electronics; I didn’t tell her that I also freelance as a photojournalist.
“When was the second time?”
“How long in Israel?”
“Where did you go?”
“Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Bethlehem.”
“What? In two weeks? Only Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Bethlehem? That’s not possible!” she mocked.
I explained that it would easily have been possible to spend the entire two weeks in Jerusalem, so much was there to see in and around the city. I added that this was the main reason for me returning to see more of Israel.
“No one comes to Israel more than once!”
Another strapline for the Israeli Ministry of Tourism.
Other questions followed in quick succession.
I told her the name of the convent where I had stayed and that I had spoken to people in restaurants and shops as well as to other guests in the convent.
I reeled off a couple of random first names from memory and told her that we had spoken about Jerusalem’s religious and other tourist sites.
I recall thinking that it was a bit like conversing with a persistent toddler.
One of the men intervened.
“So you didn’t meet any Palestinians?”
“No, I didn’t,” I said clearly, gathering that there must be some kind of prohibition on speaking to Palestinians.
“Are you sure?”
“So if I take your phone I won’t find the names of any Palestinians?”
“No, you won’t.”
“It’s better if you tell me now because if I find them you’ll be in big trouble.”
I repeated my answer.
“Do you know any Arabs in London?”
“I have friends from many different countries owing to my work and studies.”
“What about Mohamed?”
“Mohamed? Who’s he?” I laughed.
He asked for my phone.
For an instant, I considered refusing – this seemed beyond the bounds of reasonable questioning – but any refusal would have been pointless.
He seemed satisfied with a quick check. I later discovered that he had used £5.00 of my PAYG credit without asking permission.
The woman asked me to write down my name, home phone number, mobile phone number, home e-mail address, work e-mail address, father’s name and grandfather’s name.
One of the men asked if I had any other e-mail addresses.
“A facebook account?”
I had read an article suggesting that Israeli immigration officers ask travelers to open e-mail and facebook accounts for them to trawl, so I opted to say that I hadn’t.
This was a mistake.
He showed me on-screen an old e-mail address of mine entered in the sign-in page of a facebook account.
I started to explain, entirely truthfully, that I’d not actively used the e-mail address for years and that the facebook account has always remained entirely blank, but he cut me short and yelled at me from close proximity.
“You’ve been lying since the moment you walked through the door! Everything you’ve said has been a lie! Either you start to tell me the truth or you’re going to find yourself in serious trouble. I can make things very difficult for you. If I refuse you entry to Israel, you will have problems in many other countries. You will have to answer lots of questions about why you were refused entry to Israel. Now, tell me about your time in the West Bank. Who did you meet? Which Palestinians did you meet? Which Israelis did you meet? I want names. NOW!”
I repeated, quite simply, that I had not visited the West Bank.
“GET OUT! GET OUT!” he snarled at me.
It was about 7:25 pm. I shrugged my shoulders and walked outside.
He returned ten minutes later with my phone.
“You will not be entering Israel tonight.”
I sensed that there would be no tomorrow.
A shocked fellow detainee asked him why but he walked away.
On the face of it, I had been denied entry because I had forgotten about an e-mail account unused for years and a never-used facebook account; neither contained a single reference to either Israel or Palestine.
At 7.55 pm, an immigration officer led me to the baggage handling area.
The left-luggage attendant joked that he had completed a claim form because my rucksack had remained unclaimed for so long.
I guess he must repeat the same joke every day.
I was then led to a large room, closed to prying eyes. Everything was white. It contained a huge x-ray machine and a long row of tables.
I said that I didn’t have a laptop but that, as a photojournalist, I was carrying a lot of photographic equipment. This was the first time I mentioned that I also freelance as a photojournalist.
My luggage was x-rayed.
Two intelligence officers started to rifle through my rucksack with an electronic device as I was gestured into a small room by the immigration officer.
“Empty your pockets.”
I pulled out some British coins and my press credentials. My passport still hadn’t been returned to me.
I was then asked to remove my shirt and shoes and to unbutton my fly. I fixed the official in the eye as if to question this and he indicated that I should proceed.
I’d never been subjected to a strip search before.
Not in Soviet Russia. Not in Albania. Not in Latin America. Not in the US.
Only in Israel.
He patted me from head to toe and then swabbed me with an electronic device, including around my genitals.
An unwelcome invasion of privacy for me as a Caucasian male, I pondered how degrading and invasive this process must be for other travelers.
The contents of my rucksack and hand luggage had now been security-checked and were strewn all over the tables. I was asked to repack. Just the paraphernalia of modern life required by any backpacker on holiday.
Minus my bottle of water – they’d thrown that away.
At 8.25 pm, I was escorted back to the original room in the immigration hall. There were free seats now. An immigration official sat near to me.
A Muslim woman waiting when I arrived just after 4 pm was still there. There was no change in the ethnic profile of those waiting.
I had had no access to a toilet for over 5 hours and no food for 12 hours.
I phoned my guesthouse, knowing at least that I would no longer need accommodation that evening. I told them that I had been detained by Israeli immigration, that I did not know why and that I may or may not be allowed through the following day.
When I finished the call, the immigration official informed me that I was being deported. He apologised that I had not been told before and pointed out that he was not in charge. I asked him whether he knew why I was being deported; he said he didn’t.
At 9:20 pm, a female intelligence officer entered the room.
She also informed me that I was being deported and said that my flight to the UK would leave at 5 pm the following day.
I again asked why I was being deported.
“But what’s the reason?”
“Security. That’s all I can say.”
At 9:55 pm, two men told me that they were taking me to a ‘facility’ where I could eat and sleep.
One smiled as he read a form bearing my photo given to him by an intelligence officer.
“What did you do? Did you throw stones at the soldiers?”
I explained that I had just arrived in Israel on holiday and asked him if the form explained why I had been denied entry.
He said that my refusal came not from Israeli immigration but from the Shabak. I later learned that Shabak is another name for Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service.
I was transported to a prison in the back of an armored prison van, a journey of around 10 minutes from the airport.
Once there, a warder told me to leave my baggage downstairs and to take only my money and any jewellery. I could not take my stomach medication.
He asked my nationality and why I was there. I told him that I was from the UK and that I had come to Israel on holiday.
He offered me food – which I refused in protest at my unjust detention – and then apologized as he showed me to my cell, adding before he slammed the door that I should bang on the door if I needed anything.
It was 10:20 pm, over six hours after my arrival.
The lights were off, but I could see that the cell contained three double-bunks. Two were half-occupied and the occupants were trying to sleep.
I sat on the free bunk.
The cell stank of urine. There were double bars on the window. The door had a peephole but no handle on the inside. I could see a toilet and a basin. The walls of the cell and the underside of the bunk above me were covered in graffiti.
I used the toilet – my first opportunity for seven hours – and settled down to meditate on my bunk. I knew I wouldn’t sleep so I didn’t even try. I later discovered that I had been bitten by bed bugs merely from sitting on the filthy bunk.
As the night wore on, I could periodically hear other inmates shouting and banging on the doors of cells in the same corridor. Some of the voices were female. The only response I ever heard was an unsympathetic “Go to sleep!”
Two more men entered at around 7 am. They talked to one of the other occupants in Russian.
As daylight started to penetrate the barred window, I could see more of my surroundings. My bunk was broken in several places and there were bare electric wires sprouting from the wall right next to my head.
I began to read the graffiti. Those detained here had come from all over the globe. There were so many different languages represented.
I was shocked to think that all these people were being deported.
Much, if not all, of the text was harsh in its condemnation of Israel and its human rights record. I noticed a number of slogans calling for a ‘Free Palestine’. The few anti-Semitic comments and swastikas sickened me.
My eyes were most drawn, though, to some words in small, inconspicuous lettering immediately above my head: “I don’t pretend to know night-time from day, but if I were your God I’d have something to say.”
I found these words comforting and I memorized them.
I refused breakfast and lunch and tried to explain to my cellmates – only one of whom spoke a few words of English – that my refusal was in protest at my unjust detention. I should not, in any case, eat without my stomach medication.
I was sharing the cell with a Thai and three Moldovans. The Thai was being deported after four years in Israel and one of the Moldovans after ten years.
At 10 am, a cleaner arrived and we were ushered out of the cell. The Thai and one of the Moldovans left for their deportation flights. I joined the other two Moldovans for a quick cigarette outside, amusing myself with the thought that this was the only sun I would see in Israel. They also left an hour or so later.
At 4:10 pm, 24 hours after my arrival, a warder informed me that I was being taken to catch the 5 pm flight to London. He granted me access to my stomach medication. I had difficulty swallowing it without water. I hadn’t drunk any water for well over 24 hours.
I sat alone in a sealed compartment in the middle of an armored truck. Two immigration officers sat in the front, one carrying handcuffs.
We passed through a number of security checkpoints.
At one, the door to my compartment opened.
“Hello,” said a very young Israeli woman.
I returned her greeting with a smile and had a strong sense that she found it difficult to imagine that I had done anything wrong.
Maybe she had that feeling every time she saw someone pass in one of those armored trucks on their way to a deportation flight.
At 5:45 pm, I was escorted across the tarmac towards my flight, the first passenger to board.
One of the immigration officers explained that my passport would be handed to the captain, only to be returned to me when we reached the UK.
I was greeted by the Easyjet crew at the top of the mobile stairway. The captain handed me my passport and smiled.
“You’re on British soil now,” he said.
I still don’t know for sure why I was denied entry to Israel.
I imagine, though, that Israeli intelligence Google-searched my human rights photojournalism in advance of my arrival and decided not to interrogate me around that as to deny access to a holidaying photographer is less likely to attract criticism than to deny access to a photojournalist.
Until such time as our Governments apply genuine pressure on Israel to permit travelers to openly state on arrival that they wish to visit the West Bank without risk of being denied entry, I fear that other people, too, may find themselves in the same distasteful predicament.