Friday, January 26, 2007

Palestine for Non-Palestinians Only? (Sympathizers not included.)

After almost two years of book production, touring, organizing, and advocacy work, I'm back in the chilly IWPS apartment the West Bank. I flew into Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport yesterday afternoon. As usual, there were smiling faces and big signs greeting me at the airport with "Welcome to Israel" until I reached passport control. After she'd entered my identity information and agreed not to stamp my passport (an Israeli stamp in your passport can keep you out of several Middle Eastern countries), the passport controller began to make small talk and I looked around, knowing what was coming.

Within 30 seconds there were three security guards around me, asking me how many bags I had and what color under the plane, and radioing the information out immediately as we hustled to the security area (Only in Israel do I never have to retrieve my own baggage!). There they left me in a waiting room, where I exchanged smiles with the other half dozen or so people waiting to be screened, most with skin color darker than my own. I figured it would be a while so I pulled out leftover salad and eggplant that I'd packed in little saran-wrap pouches off the plane, which seemed to amuse the guard watching me. I offered him some, and he looked at me like I was crazy. I told him I didn't like to waste things.

Before I could finish my meal, the other security guards came back with my bag and we were off to the next security area. I could have led the group myself I've been there so many times, but I decided to let them walk in front. "They must think I'm very important!" I commented cheerfully to one of the five guards carrying my bags and escorting me as we passed the fifty or so people waiting in line.

The search itself was better than usual—patted down in all my crevices in a closed room by a very gentle nice woman, and I didn't have to remove any clothing. My bags suffered a more thorough search as the guards examined seemingly every inch of every item I'd brought. I was expecting this, of course, and had deleted any photographs, details, or contact information about my work, IWPS, or any Palestinians off of my computer, iPod, and telephone (Although they are only supposed to be looking for weapons, implicating any Palestinians in resistance work could make them a target, even if they are committed to nonviolence) . This is not only a big hassle—I have to reprogram dozens of numbers into my cell phone every time I go, and transfer practically everything I've created off of my computer—but also completely absurd. Why dissect every mechanical pencil and cassette tape that I've carried in, when to my knowledge there is no precedent for international human rights workers carrying out or aiding in violent attacks against Israel? Do they really believe that I will be the first international peace activist to bring in explosives (in my mechanical pencil), or are they screening for something else—information perhaps? Or is it simply a kind of harassment to establish their authority or make me think twice about coming?

Of course, I do pose a kind of threat, that is, a threat to the status quo. Israel could not continue its policies of occupation and settlement if people all over the world—particularly in the United States—knew the details and spoke out. There is a lot of information out there, and awareness is increasing as more Palestinians' voices and stories are heard. If Israel is the thriving democracy and peace-seeker that it claims to be, why is someone observing Israel's actions and giving voice to the voiceless such a threat?

Reports about the Occupation have become such a problem for Israel that last June they denied entry to my friend and colleague Paul Larudee, a 60-year-old piano tuner, Fulbright Lecturer, and former contract US government advisor to Saudi Arabia, who also volunteers with the International Solidarity Movement. The ISM is a "Palestinian- led organization of Palestinians, Israelis, and internationals" devoted to "resisting the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land using nonviolent, direct-action methods and principles" (www.palsolidarity. org). On the plane I'd read a print-out of Paul's story of being refused, resisting involuntary deportation, making friends and jokes in detention, and eventually losing his court case, all in the spirit of compassionate nonviolence (I left the incriminating literature in the seat pocket in front of me as a surprise for the next traveler. If you're interested in reading, see the July 10 "Detention Diary" at the bottom of his blog: www.hurriyya. blogspot. com).

The irony, of course, is that activists like Paul and me aren't even trying to enter Israel. We're trying to reach the West Bank, on internationally- recognized Palestinian land where Israel has no authority according to international law and dozens of UN resolutions. Yet Israel prevents Palestine's only airport—in Gaza—from functioning and controls all the borders, so solidarity and humanitarian workers have to pass through Israeli border police even if they have no intention of going into Israel. Of course, as foreigners, Paul and I shouldn't automatically be allowed into Palestine—but that should be Palestinians' decision, not Israel's.

The other irony is that Paul's and my work are exclusively supporting nonviolent resistance, even in the face of great brutality. Paul has put it best in various reports and statements: "Israel's repression of human rights workers is a cynical contradiction of their oft-stated wish that Palestinians and their supporters should use nonviolent tactics... [To] those who in ignorance of the persistent and pervasive Palestinian nonviolent movement continue to ask, 'Where is the Palestinian Ghandi?' it is instructive to consider the lengths to which Israel will go to assure that dissent and nonviolent resistance are eliminated.. . If Israel chooses to treat these movements [with such aggression], it should come as no surprise if the victims of its repression resort to more violent means of expressing their grievances."

Inspired by Paul's anecdotes from jail of creative resistance, I was ready for anything yesterday, but at the end of my search and a series of repetitive questions a security guard handed me my passport and told me, "Ok, you can go now. Have a nice day." Inside my passport was a prominent stamp of Ben Gurion Airport. I looked up and the guard and said, "Did you forget?"

"No," he said, "we knew you didn't want it stamped, but we stamped it anyway."

"To be mean?" I asked, incredulously. He shrugged. I guessed again. "So that I won't visit other countries in the Middle East?"

"No, you can get a new passport."

I've got it, I thought: "Spite?"

He smiled and turned around to return to his work. I had to smile too, not just because it reminded me of a Seinfeld episode, but because I was in!

I was obviously happy to not be turned away, but as I took the train into central Tel Aviv I thought about all the people who haven't been so lucky in past years. Over 15,000 foreign passport holders have been denied entry into the Palestinian territories by Israel in the last five years, many of them Palestinians and their spouses with homes, children, land, jobs, and other livelihoods in Palestine. Many of those denied had been living in Palestine for decades on permits expiring every three months, which they would perpetually renew. Israel recently began issuing "last permits," so the residents are forced to leave. Here's an example scenario:

A Palestinian couple moves to the United States. They have two children there, both American. They decide to move back to Palestine, where Israel refuses to issue their American children residency (on Palestinian land, mind you. American-Israeli dual citizenship, on the other hand, is common in Israel and West Bank settlements) . For five years the couple renews their children's permits every three months, until one day Israel says their children (ages, say, 6 and 8) aren't allowed to live there anymore. The couple is then forced to leave Palestine. Just one of many aspects of Israel's new practice, which legal experts say could be the emptying the West Bank of over 500,000 Palestinians in a very short time as Palestinian residents leave to keep their families together.

Among those targeted have also been foreign academics and lecturers working at Palestinian universities, medical teams, musical groups, journalists, and human rights lawyers. Combined with the US-led international embargo sparking a humanitarian crisis and preventing aid to alleviate it, Palestinians are now more isolated than ever from international assistance. And for a society that values family, education, and life as much as Palestinians seem to, Israel's policies are strong incentive for emigration, which means fewer Palestinians and a stronger Jewish demographic.

About six million Palestinian refugees around the world can never visit Palestine, their homeland. But I, Anna—white, American, Jewish—got in yesterday, and I'll try my hardest to do what those refugees cannot: struggle inside Palestine for Palestinian rights and freedom. Of course they are the experts, not me, but privilege is what it is. It got me in yesterday, and it surrounded me like a bubble today as I breezed through security at the bus station in Tel Aviv with three huge bags (two bag-free Palestinians behind me were patted down) and as I was whisked through the West Bank on a bus on Israeli-only roads. Privilege is everywhere, but maybe it doesn't always have to be that way.

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