By Lidwien Wijchers
After having completed my Bachelor’s degree in Islam and Arabic at the Radboud University in Nijmegen, I chose to pursue a master’s in Conflicts, Territories, and Identities at the same university, with the Palestinian conflict in mind. It was easy to decide where I would complete the internship and research necessary for my master’s thesis. In September 2011 I started searching for organizations in the Palestinian Territories that could offer me an internship. My dream would come true! The first organization I applied to sent me good news – I could not believe my luck. At the end of March I was ready to leave for Palestine for a six-month internship at an environmental organization. Parallel to this, I would do research for my thesis.
I emphasis the word, “would”, because the experience turned out different than expected. On March 26, 2012 I said goodbye to family and some friends at Schiphol Airport, not expecting to see them again barely twenty-four hours later. The time I “spent” in Israel was the most tumultuous I have so far experienced. What follows is a brief, minimally biased version of my story.
Because the first name in my passport is Arabic, Sumaiya, and because of stories I heard from others, I prepared myself for interrogation upon arrival. Thus I wasn’t surprised when the customs officer asked me for the names of my parents and grandparents. The officer, however, seemed suspicious about the fact that both my grandfathers were named Cornelis, in combination with the fact that I would not return to the Netherlands until November. I was asked to wait next to a booth seating two partitioned officers, until my passport was given to a woman with icy green eyes and awful clunky shoes.
She commanded that I follow her into a waiting room, in actuality a small area separated from the customs hall by dividing walls. This was where I would spend the next few hours, waiting for the judgment passed by my two female interrogators. The first asked me about my travel plans, why I was traveling on my own, why I was staying so long, why I was so interested in these places if I was not religious… I was adamant in saying I was a tourist, as people preceding me had advised. I explained I would not stay only in Israel until my return flight on November 11, and that I often traveled alone because one always meets people. The woman took notes in Hebrew, and sent me back to the waiting area. There I briefly spoke with an Indian man, who told me he visited Israel frequently, was always questioned and always admitted – this reassured me and I expected to be able to pick up my suitcase from the luggage belt shortly.
While waiting, I texted my parents that I was being questioned and did not feel at ease with lying. The wait took a while, and I needed the bathroom. I was not allowed to go by myself and had to wait for someone to accompany me. The woman even followed me into the restroom, staring at me impatiently while I washed my hands and filled my water bottle. After some more waiting my name was called and I was taken to another office.
The following conversation took much longer than the first, though its content was largely the same. Political, personal and odd questions alternated. Again my travel plans were scrutinized, and the fact that I often traveled alone raised eyebrows once more. I had to specify where I had traveled to by myself, list the Arab countries I had visited, and names and addresses of people I met there. I also had to indicate how often and through what medium I contacted these Arabs. The interrogator wanted to sign into my email account to my view my plane ticket (which I had not printed). When I said I had already admitted to flying back in November, she didn’t inquire further. Instead she asked what I knew about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and my opinion thereof.
After a while the woman seemed satisfied, and I was glad I had persevered in my white lie, as I was advised before leaving. After some concluding remarks the officer looked at me intently. “If you have something to hide,” she said, “we will find out. If you’re planning to do anything other than traveling, now is the time to tell me.” She said I would not be denied like the young man I had previously seen in the waiting area, anxiously making phone calls. I believed her and said I would have a meeting in Bethlehem, but due to poor communication I did not know specifically what I would be doing and the duration of my activities. Not entirely untrue. After taking down the organization’s contact data, she thanked me for my honesty, adding that I was no security threat and the only potential problem could be a visa. Finally I stood up, and the officer urged me never to lie to customs officials, and to pass the message along to anyone who had advised me to do otherwise.
After more waiting, a fat man took me to get my suitcase. Since I hadn’t gotten my passport back, I began to suspect that my adventure in Palestine would end sooner than expected. After sitting down on an iron bench with my suitcase next to me, followed by a Peruvian woman wanting to visit her husband, I was told I was denied entry: “Because you lied.” Reiterating what my questioner had promised, the female official snapped that this was no discussion. She told me, nevertheless, to go to the Israeli embassy in the Netherlands, apply for a volunteer visa, and try again. This was a relief, but when I asked whether I couldn’t do this in Israel, I received another snarl that this was not a discussion. Even when I was on the phone with the Dutch embassy to see if they could help me, the phone was literally snatched from my hands by the same young lady, forcing me to end the conversation prematurely.
Other officers took me to a room with an orange curtain functioning as door, followed by a search in three different ways. A sound caused by the button on my jeans caused confusion, so I had to drop my pants to my ankles, after which the scene repeated itself. Subsequently, my bags were thoroughly inspected for three hours. My carry-on suitcase was held back because of “suspicious content”, even though the officer had already emptied it and put all my belongings on display. After completing a form that was taped onto the suitcase, they assured me the special machine used to scan the suitcase would probably work fast enough for me to be able to take it back with me on my flight the next day. I haven’t seen it since.
This was the moment desperation struck, and I realized I would be in this situation for at least twelve more hours. Every object – packed only two days prior – was investigated with a plastic metal detector, all my electronics went into another room, presumably through a metal detector. I had to provide the password of my laptop. As it was not allowed back into my handbag, it was put into a box. I was taken back to the waiting area for a short while until an armored car encased in iron bars drove me to a complex outside the airport grounds. I had to leave all my belongings in a room, except my wallet, which I was allowed to take with me into the cold cell where I would spend the next sixteen hours. The cell was spacious enough for ten people, but the Peruvian lady and I were the only ones in it. We sat on the plastic-coated mattresses and looked at each other. The tears in the eyes of the Peruvian woman triggered my own. There we were, in a cell with bars and bunk beds as if we were criminals, while all we wanted was to enter Palestine.
Luckily by that time I was so tired I spent most of the time in the cell sleeping, only awakened by the Peruvian woman leaving, the coming and going of two giggling Russians, and a meal being brought into my room – dry El Al sandwiches, tea and water. At last my name was bawled at me from the door opening. I jumped up to get back home. A minivan took me to the airport, right up to the plane. When almost everyone had boarded, I was taken to the plane by side stairs. Again I waited, being eyed suspiciously by remaining passengers. My passport was handed to the pilot, and my guard wished me a pleasant journey. When I had taken my seat, I heard a stewardess say to her colleagues that the guard had stood at the cabin door until it was locked.
Thankfully my hours as a “criminal” were over, my desire to go to Palestine unbroken. I applied for a new passport, and decided to go to the Israeli embassy after having tried to reach them in vain. A waste of time: I was not admitted to the building because I had no appointment. After somebody finally answered the embassy phone and I was able to make an appointment, I gathered all the necessary documents and set off to the building in The Hague with newfangled hope. The woman behind the glass-shielded desk treated me kindly. Nonetheless she told me she could not provide me with a visa, but I would not encounter any problems entering Israel. She proceeded to say that my internship organization should apply for a visa at the Israeli Ministry of Internal Affairs and expressed her belief that it was the least they could do for me, after all I had already endured for the unpaid internship. The organization, however, told me it could only apply if I was in Israel, believing that this time I should succeed.
So, exactly three months after my first denial, I set off on the road from Amman, Jordan to the Allenby / King Hussein Bridge. On the Israeli side I was once more told to wait, not surprisingly. What did surprise me was that after a long wait, a fierce, short lady called my name and asked why I came, to which I replied I was coming for an internship. After some wrangling about why in Bethlehem, this woman told me I was banned from Israel for ten years. My jaw dropped in surprise. I said I was never informed of that, which I was told was a lie. While walking to her office she snapped at me that I was facing some long and tough hours before I would be sent back to Jordan, yet told me to cooperate with the questioning. Logically, this confused me, but the official said there was a chance to be allowed in, if I cooperated.
Again I had to write down names of people I knew and my email addresses. Furthermore I had to hand over my phone for inspection. I sincerely hoped others would not get in trouble because of this, but the small glimmer of hope that the woman had given me led me (to my great regret) to obey. The outcome, of course, did not change; I was sent back to Jordan across the King Hussein Bridge I had traversed only hours earlier.
I had hoped to find a balanced view on the conflict based on my own experiences with both populations in Palestine. That chance was taken from me, and the experience of being treated like a criminal brought me closer to the Palestinians and their cause. It has also given me a new life motto, an adaptation of the cliché, “What does not kill me makes me stronger”, namely: “Those who deny me, fortify me.”
– Lidwien Wijchers is a Dutch/Czech student in the Netherlands, with a Bachelor’s degree in Islam and Arabic, currently doing her Master’s degree in Conflicts, Territories, and Identities at the Radboud University Nijmegen. She was going to do an internship in Bethlehem with an environmental organization, which she is now doing in Amman, Jordan. She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.