By Joharah Baker – The West Bank
Sticker number six. That is what you should try to avoid at all costs when traveling out of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. For those uneducated in the Israeli sticker system, "six" is the unenviable sticker smacked on suitcases and handbags of all those who then must endure a vigorous security check by Israeli airport authority personnel.
I travelled to Italy last week with a group of Israelis and Palestinians to attend a seminar on improving the media coverage of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Being the proud bearer of a Palestinian passport, I – like my other unfortunate Palestinian colleagues – am by default, at the bottom of the Israeli security food chain. Under normal circumstances, I would not be allowed to travel from the airport at all. Palestinians are banned from leaving the country from Ben Gurion and therefore have to travel the much more circuitous route via Jordan across the Allenby Bridge. This time, however, because we were a delegation of Palestinians and Israelis, we were afforded the very rare airport permit, which is granted solely for the day of travel.
Needless to say, traveling directly out of Ben Gurion saves us Palestinians lots of time, not to mention loads of money. Going through Amman means paying the exit and entry fees into Jordan, taxi fees to the bridge and to Amman and then to Queen Alia International Airport. Most people are forced to spend the night in Amman if they have an early morning flight, which means hotel costs unless you have relatives on whose couch you can crash for the night. Upon returning from abroad, the same procedure applies, albeit backwards.
So yes, as shameful as it is to say, it was a relief to have the opportunity to travel straight out of Israel’s international airport. The Palestinians and Israelis arrived together, stood in the security line and were greeted by a fairly cordial eastern European Israeli security woman. Upon taking out our Palestinian passports, she did not betray a single negative emotion, her face as straight as it had been before she knew our identity. It goes without saying, these airport people are extremely professional and highly trained.
After asking us the routine "Did you pack your own bags" and "Do you have any weapons" questions, to which I am not completely sure they listen to the answers, we were guided to the almighty x-ray machine. At first glance, I thought, wow, this is going to be easier than I expected. Just send our bags through x- ray machines (something we Palestinians have become experts in, given the hundreds of West Bank checkpoints equipped with them), and we are done. Naively, I began thinking about the hour or two I would have to frolic in the duty free shops.
Of course that was not to happen. Still naïve, I saw the security man put the number six sticker on my suitcase and handbag even before it went through the machine. When it came out of the other side, I was politely asked to take my stuff to a square shaped checking station in the center. When I looked around I finally realized what was going on, wanting to slap myself for being so stupid as to think we would not be put through this, Israeli peace partners or not.
The next half hour was a flurry of opened suitcases, explosives inspections with this quirky little gadget that looks like an oversized cotton swab, and personal belongings shoved in the spotlight for all to view. I was not alone, of course. The "security square" was working overtime. All my Palestinian colleagues, without exception, were being checked just like me. Our Israeli partners had gone on ahead long before us. Of course there were others. One man was speaking to the security woman in a clear American accent, telling her patiently that this was the third time his suitcase was being checked. When I took a sideways peek at him and his opened passport, I silently shook my head with the disturbing realization that he was of Palestinian origin and was therefore being treated just like us.
Anyway, once the bags were all repacked and I could finally envision my walk – albeit shorter – though Ben Gurion’s famed duty free shops, I was duly informed that I would need to follow the nice security woman for an even nicer body search. Come on people, I will hardly have time to buy myself a cup of coffee at this rate…
Behind a closed curtain in a small cell-like room, the young Israeli woman proceeded to feel me up and feel me down, inside the hem of my pant legs, my collar and my pockets. Shoes off and shipped to yet another x-ray machine, she even felt my feet through my socks. I had to repress the urge to giggle, both at the ticklish sensation in my soles and also at the completely absurd situation I assumed we both felt we were in. "Ah, the perks of the job," I joked as she ran her fingers under the straps of my bra. She cracked a tiny smile as if she wanted to say something and then remembered that she was there to do her job, make sure this Palestinian was not trying to blow up the airport or hijack the plane with her mascara wand.
Finally, we were done. One by one, I watched as my other colleagues filed out of the little cubicles, some still tying their shoes and rearranging their clothing after the invasive episode. We all looked at each other with a smirk on our faces and resignation in our hearts. We are Palestinian. No matter how polite they were, they still viewed us as potential threats, even if we were traveling with a group of leftist Israelis to attend a seminar on joint cooperation.
I did finally make it to the duty free shops. There was about 15 minutes before boarding so I darted to the nearest coffee kiosk, grabbed myself a cup of filter coffee and managed to buy more of my favorite mascara. The rest was smooth sailing. Once we arrived in Europe, we were finally, without exception, all treated equally.
-Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Originally published in MIFTAH – www.miftah.org – on November 3, 2008)