The activist tells of her experience being held for hours, harassed and intimidated by Israel Security Agency officials – for doing nothing illegal or suspicious.
By Leehee Rothschild*
I arrived at Luton airport for my flight back to Israel, after spending one month in the UK and France, participating in Israeli Apartheid Week and BDS events. That, along with my ongoing activism for Palestinian rights, made me a security risk of the highest level for the Israeli state.
The troubles began at the Israeli security counter before check-in. I answered all the questions correctly: “Did you pack alone?” “Yes.” “Has your luggage been with you at all time?” “Yes.” The security person wasn’t really listening; he was checking his lists instead. A higher ranking security person was called over; my passport was taken away. This person seemed fascinated by my whereabouts while abroad, demanding names and details of people I had met, which I didn’t share.
They announced that all my luggage must be inspected, marking my bags with yellow stripes and the number six, the highest level in Israeli airport security profiling. In my carry-on bag, I was allowed only “Purse, mobile, book, and coat,” in a plastic bag. Finally after about 45 minutes, I was allowed to leave, taking only what they allowed me in the carry-on; I was already checked in, in a marked seat of their choosing. I was instructed to go through British security, and head straight to the gate.
At the gate, I was taken into a small room. The plastic carry-on bag was taken away for inspection, and I had to strip behind a curtain. For what seemed like I ages I stood shivering in tights and an undershirt while they scanned my cloths, from jeans to bra. Then another woman scanned me, feeling me all over, touching the clothes I still wore with gauze, taking samples for “chemical inspection.” When I protested, she said that objections will make me miss my flight. They finally returned my clothes, then spent another 20 minutes checking my phone contacts. They walked me onto the plane five minutes before the flight took off.
On the Israeli side, the ordeal continued. The passport inspector took my passport, and made me follow another security officer through long corridors and stairs. She locked my plastic carry-on bag in a small cupboard, checked my pockets, and showed me into a nearby room for “questioning.”
Two men and a woman were sitting inside. The men introduced themselves as Shavit, “Head of the extreme left and right department in the Internal Security Services,” and Reshef. The woman was never introduced. They called her Karin, and explained that she had been instructed to remain silent throughout the whole process.
I was interrogated for over three hours. They said they were just “getting to know me better” and I asked whether I was allowed to leave. I wasn’t. They claimed they were unrelated to the inspections in London, and that our conversation wasn’t taped, and they were unhappy with the fact that I doubted both statements. Shavit explained that because of my activities, which were all legitimate, they must warn me that some of the Palestinians I collaborate with might try to use me to transfer people, or things into Israel, people who may be terrorists, things that might be bombs, and they want me to acknowledge this risk. Then he said that they wanted to understand what drove me to be an activist. I said I don’t want to talk to them. They didn’t seem to care.
Mostly, I remained silent. Silent as they asked where I had been abroad, the meetings I attended and the lectures I gave. Silent, when they asked whether I was involved with international projects like the Welcome to Palestine initiative, the Gaza flotilla, the Global March to Jerusalem. Silent when they asked about Anarchists Against the Wall meetings, and when they offered their “assistance” in getting permits for demonstrations, or delivering messages to the soldiers in the West Bank with tips on how to better deal with demonstrations. Frustrated with my non-cooperation they asked personal questions, about my family, my studies, my relations with fellow activists, my apartment, and my looks, their attitude alternating between friendly and offensive.
Reshef said that I don’t look like an anarchist as he went through my clothing items, remarking on each one. Shavit warned him that this was sexual harassment, then tried to persuade me to meet up for coffee, and have a friendly chat. I was silent to that as well, braiding my hair, biding my time.
They threatened to make me spend the night there. They said things suggesting that they were tapping my phone, reading my emails, and bugging my apartment. They tried playing good cop, bad cop, and took turns leaving the room.
After nearly three hours, when I remained steadfastly silent, they gave up. Before releasing me, Shavit warned me again not to be used by anyone. He said that for now, I’ve stayed within the law, but once I broke it, I’d better remember that they are watching me, and that they view me as a leader, so I could be held responsible for leading other people into illegal acts. Then he went out to get a security officer and my passport. Another 20 minutes elapsed before I was finally escorted through passport control, and left the airport.
They recommended that I keep it private, which was one motive for publishing this story. This so-called friendly conversation, just like the less friendly police raid on my house about a year ago, are meant to intimidate and threaten me and others like me. They want us to know that we are being watched, tapped, and followed. They try to frighten us into submission, and to terrorize us into silence. They will fail. Three hours of interrogation were a small price to pay compared with the suffering of my Palestinian partners, and I will keep on raising my voice for freedom and justice, until the whole world will chant along.
*Leehee Rothschild has been active in the Palestinian struggle for over a decade. She currently works with Anarchists Against the Wall and Boycott From Within. She writes about activism and political struggle on her blog, Radically Blonde and other publications.