Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv looks like any European airport, except for the general atmosphere of suspicion and higher-than-normal security. Even before I reach the check-in counter I am greeted by an expressionless trainee security guard who has a set list of questions to ask.
'Three months is a long time. Can you tell us what you were doing in Israel for all that time?" I peer over at my team-mates at the adjacent counters, who don’t seem to be receiving quite the same grilling. “I was part of a Church Initiative”, I say, as per security instructions, trying to look relaxed. Three different security officers then separately question me about this initiative until I feel weak and sweat covers my brow.
The truth is that I was sent by the World Council of Churches to monitor human rights and provide protective presence to people affected by the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank, but I couldn’t tell that to the airport security. The feeling of being continually under suspicion for the last three months had taken its toll. I had passed through numerous Israeli-controlled checkpoints where heavily armed soldiers questioned me about what I was doing, took photographs of my passport, and viewed any interactions I had with Palestinians as deeply worrying.
Israel is clamping down on any behaviour it sees as threatening, which includes speaking up about human rights. Not long ago its Parliament passed a law banning entry to their country anybody involved in boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS). This will almost certainly mean that anybody who even dares to question Israel’s actions in the West Bank will be seen as a security threat, be denied entry and sent on the next flight home.
After questioning of my movements eased off, I was given a sticker for my passport and bags, and directed through check-in. But at security the guard took one look at the bright yellow sticker on my passport and promptly escorted me to a different line, where I was one of just a handful with white skin. The others, who had most likely been racially profiled, looked at me with bemusement. They were used to this kind of treatment. I wasn’t.
First my carry-on bag was upturned, and a number of female security officers scrutinised the contents. My electrical devices, personal journal, travel paint set, tampons, reading material, spare underwear, lip balm and other personal effects littered the bench. Meanwhile, I was dragged off to a separate room for a more intense body search using an x-ray machine.
Back at the security counter, a young woman approached, and introduced herself as a senior security officer. She asked again the questions about who I had met and where I had been. As the questioning became more intense, I developed a desperate urge to use the bathroom. Thankfully, I was escorted off to a toilet and by the time we returned, the interrogation was marginally less scary.
Suddenly, with only ten minutes remaining until my flight was due to close, it was announced that I would be allowed to join the flight, but that my carry-on bag would not. “There isn’t enough time for us to properly check it for explosives” one of them carelessly told me. “But don’t worry, we’ll give you a replacement bag, and your bag will be on the next flight to Zurich”. Hmmm. So, the more than two hours that I had been in the security area and the hour or so that my bag and its contents have been strewn across the counter in front of them somehow wasn’t enough time to conduct a simple swab test?
Without the energy to argue out loud, I grabbed the replacement luggage, a large blue sports bag, and began urgently bundling my belongings into it. It became apparent that the zippers didn’t work, and so no sooner had I placed items inside the bag then they would simply slide out the other end, a problem which only added to my stress levels. Somehow I gathered everything together, and after being given the go-ahead to depart I was escorted right up to the gate.
As I marched down the aisle of the plane, with my new, oversized duffle bag clumsily banging back and forth into almost every seat along the way, the feeling of anger began to rise. I had been made to feel as if I had done something wrong, and my bag was being punished for it. This anger remained with me for the 5 hour flight to Zurich.
The indignation that I felt gave me some inkling of what it might be like to be treated with this kind of contempt every day. Such humiliation, indignity and denial of basic rights are the daily experience of Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation. In order to pass through the checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem Palestinians must shuffle off the bus and await humiliating examination of their ID cards and permits before re-entering or being detained, depending on the whim of the soldier on duty. Young people are regularly arrested for minor crimes such as 'throwing stones', and then denied adequate legal representation. And bedouin families face military incursions late at night for little or no reason. All this behaviour, like my treatment at the airport, seems designed to create feelings of anxiety, anger and depression in a whole population who haven't actually done anything wrong.
So, as the plane touched down at Zurich Airport, I grabbed my ridiculously impractical carry-on bag and slung it determinedly over my shoulder. As a few items spilled out and I had to bend and retrieve them, it occurred to me that perhaps this unwanted gift was actually a blessing in disguise. If anybody asked why I had such a stupid carry-on bag, I would take the opportunity to tell them about arbitrary detention, the inhumanity of checkpoints, and the culture of fear that has been created by the occupation. Nobody should have to live like this.