27 July 2006

freedom yells, it don't cry.

20 - 21 July 2006

Crossing the border back into Israel after the Jordan trip gave me a taste of real border security, and the humiliation that comes from the power dynamic contained therein. As we waited in line to go through the metal detectors (shortly after passing through those on the Jordanian side, which apparently weren't good enough), a distinctly Arab-looking family (husband, wife, and three kids, the oldest maybe 12) was pulled out of line and into a separate room for additional searching and questioning. It took our group over an hour to get all the way through security and passport control, and the family was still in the questioning room. They had Israeli passports, too - they weren't Jordanians or Palestinians trying to enter on a visa, they were Israeli citizens returning home. I can't even imagine what it must feel like to know your own government doesn't trust you because of your ethnic background.

After I went through the metal detector (without beeping) and showed the security guard my passport, he saw that I had the exit paper instead of my passport stamped, so he sent me to a bench outside the questioning rooms, keeping my passport. I waited maybe ten minutes until two female security guards came over with my passport and took me into a private room for "additional security screening." They told me to take off everything removable and proceeded to conduct a metal detector wand scan while questioning me about my time in Israel and Jordan and lack of stamp. I had just passed through the metal detector successfully, and in a linen skirt and thin t-shirt, I didn't even have a pocket to hide something in. The only thing metal on my person was the hook-and-eye closure on the back of my bra. Because I didn't have a stamp, it meant that I had visited or planned to visit the Arab world, and thus warranted extra scrutiny. It was humiliating to sit there as though I had done something wrong, my passport carelessly in some security guard's pocket as he talked about me with his colleagues. Anyone who's traveled understands the helplessness and virtual nudity you feel when your passport leaves your control, and I can only imagine what it must feel like to endure that repeatedly at checkpoints all over the West Bank.

At passport control, I was further interrogated about my missing stamp, and I explained that I was planning to study in the Middle East the following year and didn't want to have to buy a new passport. I wanted to add "and if everyone could just get along, we wouldn't have this problem." The four times I asked not to have my passport stamped, the guard always complied, but not without first making me feel like a criminal for wanting to visit Syria or Lebanon. I'm equally annoyed at Syria and Lebanon for not recognizing the stamp - it seems like such a petty battle to fight in the grand scheme of things. I could have easily been visiting the West Bank and had my passport stamped when I flew into Tel Aviv, and I still wouldn't be welcome in a fellow Arab nation.

After artfully packing 18 kilos of books and such into my carry-on suitcase on Thursday, Erin and I went to the post office to ship it home so we wouldn't have to drag it across Europe. Per standard policy in Israel, as we walked up to the door the security guard approached us to search the bag. As he strained to lift it onto the table and took one look at the mess crammed inside, he asked for my identification. When he saw my American driver's license, he gave the bag a cursory wave with the wand and let us pass. While this attitude is horribly racist, I've never been so glad for my pasty white skin. Had Erin and I looked less "American" or had IDs from a less-friendly country, we would have been there for an hour while he tore through our bag the way he did the purse of the Arab woman who entered after us.

At the airport, we encountered a similar conveniently racist sentiment. After luggage is scanned through the x-ray machine, airport security staff searches each bag by hand. Seeing our American passports, they quickly went through Erin's open shoulder bags and my carry-on, but when they saw the outline of a two-foot metal vase inside my tightly packed hiking backpack, the guard just asked me if it was a vase and let us pass. They were opening shampoo bottles, unfolding socks, and digging through every nook and cranny of the suitcases of other passengers, but mine went unopened. Aside from the blatant racism present, this is also a ridiculously large security risk to take. For all the security measures being taken at Ben Gurion, it seems just plain dangerous to slack on searches in a consistently predictable manner.

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