December 20th, 4:39 am
It’s almost 5 in the morning and I’m going to bed in a very nice hostel in downtown Tel Aviv where the owner was kind enough to accept me at this time of the night.
This wasn’t the plan: I should have landed, gotten out of the airport and met Alon -my couchsurfing host- to go sleep at his place.
Instead I spent four hours in a cramped little room and underwent four questionings, one more unpleasant and more invasive than the other; in the end I was exhausted. It all started at the passport control, where to the question: “What is the purpose of your visit?” I answered candidly :“Tourism….and a volunteer camp with a Palestinian organization”. I rushed to add that it was a peaceful, a-politic and a-religious organization, but I was immediately sent to “The suspected people room”.
My arrival was greeted with a compassionate smile by the other people who like me had been asked to wait to be questioned. It was a small square room with a few chairs and a coffee machine that was saying: “You’re gonna need me”. I checked my misadventure’s fellows: there was an American family with Pakistani origins, two Pakistani men, an American man with his Turkish wife, an Italian businessman and a young Dutch girl. More people joined us afterwards: an Austrian guy, a French girl, two Turkish men. Quite immediately we established a tacit ritual: a smile, a “Welcome” and the question “What brings you here?”. Each of us had something suspicious apparently: the Austrian guy had an Iranian father, the Dutch girl’s name was Leila, the Italian men had already been in too many Arabic countries, the French girl vas visiting her boyfriend who’s an activist in Palestine and all the rest, well, they were Muslims, duh…
The atmosphere was really cheerful and we tried not to think about how unrealistic and ridiculous it really was; the Pakistani man -who has been living in Miami for the past 25 years- told us that this was nothing compared to what he was submitted to after 9/11. Once in a while a woman would come in and call one of us only to send him/her back after some minutes. This procedure was repeated at least three time for each person. When they finally called me, after about an hour, I was taken in a small office where a really tired young woman asked me all those questions for which I had already prepared an answer: who is this Palestinian organization that you’re going to work with, what do they do, how do you know them… She noted down names and numbers and tried to be tough, but her exhaustion after a whole day of work showed that she was just mentally going through every question without giving to much importance to the answer, just because she had to do it.
I had to wait another hour before being called in again, this time by the ” real tough” guy. The interview with him revealed to be much more intriguing: he was very superficially nice and I was very ironically sweet. His questions were quite typical but he didn’t want to know what I was doing, he wanted to know why. Why do you study arabic? Why did you choose the Palestinian territories and not some other place? Why did you underline this passage of your guidebook and not this other one? Why do you have two credit cards? Why do you want to go to Nablus? Why did you write this name on your notebook? Why did this guy with an Arabic name wrote you a message? Why did you go to Lebanon twice? And why in such a short time? It felt like regardless of my actions, they were my feelings and my opinions to be wrong. I felt the little kid confessing his sins to the priest in church, almost feeling the need to apologize. Apologize for what? For having Muslim friends? We are in 2013 and I live in Italy, who doesn’t have at least a Muslim friend? He wrote down my name in Arabic to test if I could read it, went through my notebook and my guidebook and took my phone to check my last calls and messages. The first three were from Joey, Amira and Mohamad: a Lebanese, a Tunisian and an Iranian. The coincidence almost made me burst into laughters. “So you’re going to sleep at this Israeli guy’s place that you met on couchsurfing right? and what would this couchsurfing be?” I was laughing again, couchsurfing must really be a suspicious name… The fact that he called me in three times was the most ridiculous part: by the third time I had realized that between one questioning and the other he probably just drank coffee and didn’t really do any checking. He just wanted me to walk back, sit, wait and get up again. He wanted frustration. Unfortunately I was always the cutest girl ever, making jokes and smiling like I was at the fairground. Every time I went back to the waiting room my companions were shocked: “Again? You must really be a bad girl!”. The Austrian guy tried to comfort me: “Don’t worry, they will let you in: last time I came it was a nightmare, but when he finally told me ‘You can go’ and I said ‘Okay, you’re the boss’, the guy answered ‘No, you are the boss’.
When after the fourth questioning they gave me my passport back I realized that he was right. They had to let me in because I was not doing anything illegal. The purpose of these four hours of waiting was not defense, it was not checking if I was a terrorist: it was a mere demonstration of their power, it was showing me what they can do. Not security measures, but intimidation. It was as Oded Na’aman -ex Israeli soldier and co-founder of the NGO Breaking the silence– wrote about the checkpoints:
“The checkpoints’ primary mission is to demonstrate presence, to exhibit the army’s constant surveillance and its overwhelming force. Because the checkpoints are pervasive and involve intense interaction with the civilian population, they have become the clearest expression of the IDF’s dual message to West Bank Palestinians: you cannot hide and you cannot fight; Israel is both omnipresent and omnipotent“.
I took my passport and walked out wishing good luck to all the new people who in the meanwhile had re-filled the waiting room. Outside that bubble of crazy paranoia I found a whole different world, made up of some of the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever met. I’ve been here only for two days and I already met an old guy who shared his life with me at the bus stop, two super-old ladies who walked me for a while without speaking a word of English and a man who kept his shop open on Shabbat only to let me buy a charger and three wonderful guys who are hosting me in their apartment. A whole different world, but I will never forget the infinite loveliness of the Israeli airport security.