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100 Hours In Israeli Detention

Earlier this month, dozens of international activists spent 4 days in an Israeli prison for simply stating their desire to visit Palestine.
 
 
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“What is your father’s name?”

“James.”

“What is his father’s name?”

“Andrew.”

“Where are you going?”

“Bethlehem.”

“Where are you staying there?”

“At the Lajee Center in Aida Refugee Camp.”

That is as far as my conversation at Israeli passport control goes. I am at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, one of dozens of activists who have flown in from across Europe and the US for the Welcome to Palestine mission, a week of cultural and solidarity activities organized by Palestinian civil resistance groups across the West Bank.

As part of our mission, our Palestinian hosts have asked us to honestly declare our goal of traveling to the West Bank to visit Palestinians. Israel controls all access points into the West Bank. While traveling to the Occupied Territories is not strictly illegal under Israeli law, internationals and Palestinians living abroad are commonly interrogated, searched, harassed, and often denied entry if they state their intention to visit or work with Palestinians.

The political policing at Israeli-controlled borders is just one facet of an elaborate system that keeps Palestinians in the Occupied Territories isolated and under siege. The Welcome to Palestine mission is intended to be a mass challenge to these policies, so of course the Israeli government is doing everything it can to stop it.

In the days before July 8, when hundreds of nonviolent activists were scheduled to arrive at Ben Gurion Airport, the Israeli government’s hysteria about the action reached a fever pitch. On July 5, Israeli Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch said of the activists: “These hooligans who try to break our laws will not be allowed into the country and will be returned immediately to their home countries”—ignoring the fact that none of the activities of the Welcome to Palestine campaign are illegal under Israeli law. In the days before our arrival, Israeli government officials issued numerous threats against us in the media and airport security was beefed up, despite our clear statements that we were not planning to stage any demonstrations inside the airport and were committed to nonviolence in all our actions.

In a last-ditch effort to stop Welcome to Palestine activists from reaching Ben Gurion Airport, the Israeli government sent a blacklist to major European airlines containing 374 names of passengers to be barred from boarding their planes in Europe. Most airlines seemed to comply with this list, sending last-minute letters or phone calls to some activists telling them in advance that they would not be allowed to fly. Many more, including the majority of the French delegation, the largest component of the campaign, arrived at the airport and were simply refused permission to board their flights. If the siege of Gaza extends to the shores of Greece, it seems the blockade of the West Bank covers all of Europe.

In London the night before departing, our group of about 15 Brits, Irish and Americans discussed what we would do if we were kept off our flight out of Luton Airport. Those of us who had been speaking and writing openly about the Welcome to Palestine mission were quite sure we would be on the blacklist.

At the airport the next morning, one American is in fact kept off the plane by security at the very last minute. But as the plane takes off, I and the other participants realize that we have cleared the first hurdle and are on our way to Palestine.

From the moment we land at Ben Gurion Airport around 4pm Friday, it’s clear the security presence is intense. Plainclothes security officers line the hallway leading from the gate to passport control, watching us as we disembark. Mick Napier of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, our delegation leader, gives us hushed updates about other groups that have been stopped in Europe or here at the airport. As we approach passport control, he turns back to us and says simply, “Now it’s our turn.” And it is.

 
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