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My humiliation does not make Israel more secure

The 100-mile journey of leaving Gaza took 12 hours, six checkpoints, and interrogations so humiliating that a year later, I am still reliving the trauma.

By Anas Almassri

Palestinians wait at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, in the southern Gaza Strip. (Mohammed Zaanoun)

Palestinians wait at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, in the southern Gaza Strip. (Mohammed Zaanoun)

On July 31, 2018 the Palestinian Civil Affairs office called me at 10:08 a.m., while I was sitting at my desk in Gaza on what had begun as an ordinary workday morning. The caller informed me that the Israeli authorities had issued my permit to leave Gaza in order to study abroad, and that I had to depart immediately. “The [deportation] shuttle is waiting for you,” said the caller. “You must make a decision now: you either leave right now or you lose the permit.”

I was stunned. Just a few days earlier, the very same Israeli authorities had rejected my application for an exit visa; since then I had received no updates. Now, if I wanted to leave, I would have to walk away from my desk and head straight to Erez Crossing. I would not have time to say goodbye to my family, to hug my parents or my siblings. I would not even have time to pack my clothes, or withdraw cash from the bank to cover my travel expenses.

Worse still was the uncertainty. The Palestinian authorities were telling me that the Israelis had approved my visa even as the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem, which had mediated on my behalf with the Israeli authorities, said that my request for an exit permit had been rejected.

I had three or four minutes to decide, under incredible pressure, while thinking about all the things I had to leave behind: my clothes, my laptop with all my files on it, the friends from whom I had no time to take my leave, the words of love and support I desperately needed from family and loved ones. I did not even have time to inform my employer.

I decided to go. Leaving my laptop open on my desk with my assignment unfinished, I went to my rented room in Gaza City, just a 30-minute drive from my family home. I took my passport and Jordanian non-objection confirmation, and went to the Erez Crossing.

A representative from the U.S. Consulate called again while I was traveling to Erez, to say that my permit had not been issued. Then, there was another call, again from Palestinian Civil Affairs, to say that my permit had been issued. I decided to keep going.

I arrived at the first Erez checkpoint, which is controlled by Hamas. There, I was subjected to a 30-minute security interview. I remained calm throughout, although I knew I was already late for the shuttle. The interviewer barely spoke English and seemed to have little understanding of what it meant to travel to a foreign country for graduate school (remember, these are the people ruling Gaza). My nerves were on fire. Finally, I was done with the interview.

I proceeded to the Erez checkpoint that is controlled by the Palestinian Authority, where Palestinians receive their Israel-issued permit. I submitted my ID and was asked to wait. My heart beat faster, my hands were sweating, my mind almost exploding from overthinking, my body rigid with tension, I waited, and waited, and … my permit was printed and handed to me!

A Palestinian girl sits in a bus as she leaves Gaza with her family through the Erez crossing December 2, 2007. (Thair Alhassany/Flash90)

A Palestinian girl sits in a bus as she leaves Gaza with her family through the Erez crossing December 2, 2007. (Thair Alhassany/Flash90)

The words “allowed despite ban,” were stamped on my Israeli permit. Their meaning: despite the general ban on Palestinians from Gaza entering Israel, I would be allowed on this occasion to travel across the country to reach Allenby Crossing in the West Bank (from Allenby I would travel to Amman, and from Amman I would fly to London). But this permit did not guarantee I would be allowed to cross again.

In other words, as is the case for nearly all Gaza Palestinians who receive exit permits from Israel, I did not know whether or when I would be allowed to visit my family again. And I was still worried about the call from the U.S. Consulate and their insistence that my permit had not been approved. I was afraid the printed permit would turn out to be a mistake on the part of the Palestinian Authority. “You cannot back down now,” I said to myself, as I continued my journey.

I was now at the Israeli side of Erez Crossing. I had only the clothes I was wearing, my mobile phone, passport, and wallet (which was almost empty of cash), so the security inspection did not take long. I proceeded to the last counter, submitted my ID, passport, and Israeli permit, and waited. Three border officers in civilian clothes approached me, each asking the same questions, and then a fourth dressed in military uniform. Still, I was told to wait.

The shuttle was full, except for my seat; all the other passengers were waiting for me. Another hour passed. Finally, my documents were returned and I was approved to cross. I was approved to enjoy the most simple, most fundamental right to freedom of movement, and yes I say it in such a way because it is a genuine privilege when/if a Palestinian from Gaza is afforded that freedom.

Now to the fourth border in Jericho, controlled by the Palestinian Authority. I needed to pay for the shuttle and border crossing fee but did not have enough cash. There were no automated teller machines near the Allenby Crossing, and shuttle passengers are not allowed to leave the vehicle for any reason during the journey from the Erez Crossing through Israel to Jericho. I had only 180 shekels (about $50) on me, and the shuttle cost 150 shekels.

I had no money to pay for exit fees at the Palestinian border or for transportation from Allenby Crossing to Amman. Near despair, I called my father. He was shocked to hear about my abrupt departure, but pulled himself together quickly and suggested that I ask the driver if my father could transfer funds to the Gaza-based office of the shuttle service company and the driver would then give me the funds in cash. Yes, it was possible. “Everything is going to be okay,” I kept comforting myself.

Now we were at Allenby Crossing. We arrived at the fifth checkpoint, controlled by Israel. After undergoing yet another body search I submitted my passport and was told to wait. After some time, I was called for another interview with Israeli Intelligence. An Intelligence officer kept me standing while he and a uniformed, armed border police officer interrogated me about every aspect of my life — my personal relationships, my academic records, my professional experience, my financial situation, and my future plans. The officer in civilian clothes interrogated me in broken Arabic, with an arrogance I had never in my life encountered. Nor had I seen anything like it in movies, or read about it in literature.

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Only when the officer claimed to doubt my stated purpose of travel did I become truly angry. “You do not have clothes or a suitcase, and you do not have any money,” he said. “How do you expect me to believe you are leaving for a one-year graduate program?” He must have known that I hadn’t had any choice in the matter. That if I had stopped to pack and withdraw money from the bank, I would have missed my opportunity to leave.

I invested enormous effort in winning a full scholarship to study conflict prevention and peace-building at Durham University in the U.K. At a security interview with Israeli Intelligence at Erez just seven months earlier, I had responded to every question and shared more than enough to prove that my security record was completely clean. Israeli Intelligence had taken only three days following that interview to issue my security clearance. I was shocked at the questions, accusations, and assumptions my interviewer at Allenby was now making, the worst of which was: “Since you do not have clothes or money, you must be leaving to meet with regional Intelligence apparatuses.”

My strength was fading, but I kept repeating that I had no affiliation with any local or regional political groups whatsoever, nor was I interested in having any such ties. He continued to make accusations and assumptions and I continued to provide the same truthful response: I am a prospective graduate student interested only in pursuing an education; this is what has defined my life for the past four years of study and work, and it is what will continue to define my life in the future. I wish now that I could send that Intelligence officer a copy of my dissertation on peace education at Durham; my traumatic encounter with him further confirmed my belief in the urgency of peace, which is what I pursue in my research.

The interview seemed interminable, with the officer continuing to dismiss my responses, question my integrity, and disparage me. No human being should be subjected to such disrespect and humiliation. Finally, he took my travel documents and disappeared. “How is this conducive to your security, to peace between us,” I wanted to yell at him as he turned away. “How will you sleep peacefully tonight, knowing the fear and distress you have caused me?” I was afraid that if I opened my mouth to yell at him I would burst into tears.

Palestinians wait to cross into Egypt through the Rafah border crossing after it was opened by Egyptian authorities for humanitarian cases, January 29, 2017, Rafah, Gaza Strip. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Palestinians wait to cross into Egypt through the Rafah border crossing after it was opened by Egyptian authorities for humanitarian cases, January 29, 2017, Rafah, Gaza Strip. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

My legs hurt from the long journey in the overcrowded shuttle and from standing as I was interrogated. Waiting. Waiting. Still waiting. Still waiting. I felt that I was seconds away from collapse when I was handed my Israeli exit visa. And now I crossed to the sixth border, which was controlled by the Jordanians; they were professional, efficient, and kind.

During the 11 months I studied conflict and peace at Durham University, I would leave the classroom or the library, put on my headphones and listen to music at a very high volume as I relived that deeply traumatic experience. I analyzed it through the lens of the articles and books on peace I had just read — some, very insightful, by Israeli scholars.

My story is far from uncommon. Every single Palestinian — regardless of gender, age, socioeconomic background — is subject to the same humiliation and suffering. If there is one thing I understand about the pursuit of peace between Israel and the Palestinians today, it is that this denial of the most fundamental rights is wrong. It is in violation not only of legal frameworks and the values of peace, but also of the basic Jewish values of kavod (respect), tzedek (justice), and chesed (generosity).

Anas Almassri, 23, is a Palestinian from Gaza. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English and education and will be awarded his master’s in peace studies later this year. Anas is currently continuing his graduate education at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, where he plans to focus his research on peace education in the Arab world.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Bruce Gould

      In September 2018 alone about 75 million people traveled by air in the U.S.,( https://www.bts.gov/newsroom/estimated-september-2018-us-airline-traffic-data ) and somehow the airports are able to check all these people for weapons and make sure they’re safe for boarding, and they can do it in a reasonably timely fashion.

      All these delays and checkpoints and interrogations have nothing to do with security, they’re all designed to send the message that Palestinians have no rights, it’s all part of the apartheid machinery.

      Reply to Comment
      • itshak Gordine

        Are you an expert in security? What is your training in this area? Have you seen these controls with your own eyes?

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          For all I know he’s not an expert in security and he doesn’t have to be. Only a smugly obedient far right Orwellian Jewish supremacist, the kind of obedient little apparatchik dictators all over the world love, would think one has to be an “expert in security” to figure this one out. His qualifications are a well functioning human brain, wide reading in intelligent sources(including this article on this page today), and most of all, a well functioning and non-racist human heart. You wouldn’t know about that, would you? Are you an expert in having a non-racist human heart? I rather doubt it. What is your training in this area? Have you seen one inside yourself with your own eyes? Have you seen one inside your nationalist rabbis?

          (And by the way I do believe from experience he has mentioned that he’s gone through Israeli checkpoints in his life. As if that matters. And so have I.)

          If there is anything someone knows with confidence after reading this Magazine and other similar sources and books, and going through Israeli checkpoints, it is that all these delays and checkpoints and interrogations, and many other practices besides, have nothing to do with security, they’re all designed to send the message that Palestinians have no rights, it’s all part of the apartheid machinery.

          Reply to Comment
        • Bruce Gould

          Under the Guise of Security: Routing the Separation Barrier to Enable the Expansion of Israeli Settlements in the West Bank…The fact that the Separation Barrier cuts into the West Bank was and remains the main cause of human rights violations of Palestinians living near the Barrier. Israel contends that the Barrier’s route is based solely on security considerations. This report disputes that contention and proves that one of the primary reasons for choosing the route of many sections of the Barrier was to place certain areas intended for settlement expansion on the “Israeli” side of the Barrier. In some of the cases, for all intents and purposes the expansion constituted the establishment of a new settlement.

          https://www.btselem.org/publications/summaries/200512_under_the_guise_of_security

          Reply to Comment
    2. Jennifer

      These checkpoints are the outcome of the intifadas. You are reaping the harvest you’ve sown.

      I get that not everyone is a part of this, and not everyone is guilty.

      But none of the terrorists asked who was guilty and who was innocent prior to a suicide bombing, nearly all of which intentionally targeted children, who could not possibly be guilty.

      So, spare me the sob story. If you want peace, tell your people to stop their ridiculous war against Israel. It’s a war of attrition that you’ll never win.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        You know the first intifada, or uprising, was relatively non-violent and what violence there was was directed at the army and was, against that army, symbolic and not in anyone’s imagination militarily tactical:

        “a protest movement arose, involving a two-fold strategy of resistance and civil disobedience,[12] consisting of general strikes, boycotts of Israeli Civil Administration institutions in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, an economic boycott consisting of refusal to work in Israeli settlements on Israeli products, refusal to pay taxes, refusal to drive Palestinian cars with Israeli licenses, graffiti, barricading,[13][14] and widespread throwing of stones and Molotov cocktails at the IDF and its infrastructure within the West Bank and Gaza Strip.” (Wikipedia)

        And it didn’t budge the Israelis a bit. Not one bit. They just doubled down on brutal suppression. “We will know what to do.” And they did it. About the second intifada it could be said that the Israelis reaped what they sowed. The second intifada was a terrible tactical mistake and moral transgression by the Palestinian leadership at the time. But no one should kid themselves that had the Palestinians engaged in peaceful protest instead that the Israelis would have done anything but laugh at them and smugly conclude “we have time, time is on our side, we can ‘manage’ this for fifty more years; what’s on TV tonight and what’s for dinner?” And shut down peaceful protest as ruthlessly as anything else. The Israelis only listen to violence.

        By Noam Sheizaf |Published March 11, 2016
        Why do we only listen to violence?
        https://972mag.com/why-do-we-only-listen-to-violence/117773/:

        “I get that not everyone is a part of this, and not everyone is guilty.”

        No you don’t get it. Obviously you do not get it because everything else you say shows you do not get it.

        Why don’t you just get honest and admit that these checkpoints are the outcome of the Palestinians refusing to lie down and surrender? And that these checkpoints are just components of the kind of machine that it takes to militarily subjugate an entire people for fifty years.

        Your response is the off-the-shelf, right wing “security” verbiage coated with aggressive self-righteousness. It is past its “sell by” date. Way past. You might be able to sell this to elderly AIPAC enthusiasts in Philadelphia but younger Americans, Jewish and non-Jewish, and Israelis such as those writing in this Magazine know the score. They will not be intimidated. And they are not fooled.

        Reply to Comment
      • Eliza

        Jennifer: Anas’s story is not for you, but in the broad scheme of things this is either no surprise nor of any moment.

        Still, I wonder who you think were the guilty parties who would have been rightly targeted during the first and second intifadas? The fact that you distinguish between the ‘innocent’ and the ‘guilty’ appears to indicate that there were guilty Jewish Israelis who committed crimes against the Palestinian people. Do you think that those who committed these crimes ever stopped to consider if their Palestinian victim was innocent or guilty – and if ‘guilty, then guilty of exactly what.

        BTW probably best to give up on thinking its a good thing for people to reap the harvest they have sown; probably will come around to bite you in the bum some day.

        Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          Eliza.
          It is important to remember that Judea & Samaria were captured by Israel from JORDAN. This happened after JORDAN attacked Israel in the 6 day war (1967).

          From where did the fake “fakestinyans” come from in this history?
          They are an ethereal, non-peoplehood that was imagined several years AFTER the war ended. The aim of this elaborate fabrication was to frame the Israelis as the chief historical aggressors rather than its victims. By buying into the fake narrative, you are participating in the great lie rather than fighting against it.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Why is it important to “remember” these falsehoods? To provide welfare to internet trolls? (I remember you to have been “anti-Marxist” somewhere. A no free lunch kinda guy. What gives?) What seems important to remember, Lewis, is the truth that you yourself said very well:

            “There is nothing “fakestinian” about Israeli Muslims or Christians. It is just putting them into a box belonging to an invented fake nationality. Nobody deserves to be treated as a nonsense people.”

            A very fine statement of concern for truth, human dignity and human rights. And the American Way. Congrats. Try to stay on topic and work on sustaining your growth. Recovery is hard and setbacks are part of the journey.

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            Fresh Leftist nonsense from a guy who lives 5000 miles away.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            You live “away” too. That’s the point.

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            ……………………………………..writes the SJW who lives 5000 miles from here !

            Reply to Comment
    3. Mr Bubbles

      You have a border with Egypt. You are an enemy country.

      Reply to Comment
    4. itshak Gordine

      The three terrorists who killed Rina Shnerb, an Israeli 17-year-old girl, on 23 August have been arrested yesterday. They were preparing several attacks against Israeli civilians. We thank our security services for their continued struggle against Arab terrorism.

      Reply to Comment