Being Palestinian Got Me Barred from Visiting Palestine
“What is your father’s name?”
“What is your father’s father’s name?”
“Where was he born?”
“You have Palestinian passport?”
“You have American passport only?”
“You have family in Ramallah?”
“You don’t have family there?”
“Who do you know in Ramallah?”
“You were born in Ramallah but you don’t know anybody there?”
“You JUST TOLD ME you were born in Ramallah.”
A phone call in Hebrew I don’t understand a word of. A hostile glare.
I tell her I’m sorry, that I misheard her, I thought she was asking where my grandfather was born. He was born in Ramallah. I was born in Detroit. I have only an American passport. I am telling her this calmly, but in my mind, I am thinking I am fucked and this would all go so much more smoothly if the Israeli woman with the bad eyebrows behind the counter didn’t know my grandparents were from Palestine. Of course, the irony of the situation does not escape me. Being Palestinian is making it impossible for me to visit Palestine.
This is my first time at the Israeli-controlled border between Palestine and Jordan. I am traveling with 15 young Arab-Americans, mostly Palestinian, to do community service work and connect with our heritage and homeland.â€‹ We have arrived at the Allenby Bridge anxious & apprehensive, having heard countless stories of harassment by Israeli soldiers, and deeply exhausted from a long weekend of delayed flights, desert nights, and the Dead Sea. Our trip was cancelled due to increased violence in the West Bank, and re-planned after the participants wrote a letter stating their determination and commitment to experience life in occupied Palestine, even if that meant putting ourselves in danger. But despite all this, I am thrilled to be returning to Palestine after months of planning, years of dreaming. Tucked in a corner of my wallet are directions to my grandparents’ homes. Nothing, not even the chills of anxiety the Israelis’ intimidation is sending down my spine, can extinguish the flame that was lit when I decided to return.
She gives me a Visitor Information Form to fill out, sends me to a grid of cold metal benches, separated by thick metal bars from the rest of the people waiting to cross into the West Bank. I don’t know why the Israelis need to know my father’s middle name, the location of my workplace in Michigan, or the address of the second cousin of the brother of the doctor of the shop owner who lived on the same street as the sister of the woman my great-great-grandfather might have met once, but I complete the form. It isn’t long before the rest of my group joins me. And not long after that, interrogation starts.
They take J. first. I am silently praying that she can stay strong, because I know she doesn’t know what to expect. Almost an hour later, she emerges from the tiny room, shaking, wiping tears from her eyes. They yelled at her. Accused her of lying. Told her she could be arrested. She is terrified, but she kept her composure. Already, I am full of this strange but familiar combination of rage and pride, the internal swell and crash of injustice and resistance, of indignity and resilience, of being Palestinian.
They call each of our names. They are the hardest on our boys. A. is shuttled between three different rooms, screamed at and threatened by three different officers. T., who has been leading delegations to Palestine for twenty years, warned us while we were still on the bus leaving Jordan: “Stay calm, don’t let them get to you.” We are trying. We are laughing, joking, and playing games in the waiting area as the minutes tick by, as one by one, we are asked the same questions and the Israelis get the same answers. We wait, and talk, and dream of Palestine. We wait.
A baby-faced boy dressed in olive green, with a rifle slung across his shoulders, chooses to sit in the waiting area with us instead of taking C. to the interrogation rooms. “I’m sorry about this,” I hear him say. “I’m sorry you have to go through this.”
“I don’t even understand why we’re doing this, to be honest.”
“I’m 20. This is only my second week in the IDF.”
I sigh. He’s my age; seems like a sweet kid. But this is Israeli occupation, so because he is Jewish and we are Palestinian, he holds the gun and asks the questions. We can do nothing but wait.
(When it is time for iftar, for Muslims to break their daily fast during Ramadan, Baby Face sneaks N. and R. a bottle of water. We do not see him again.)
They take J. again; the same narrow-eyed woman beckons impatiently. “You know, you’re scaring her,” T. tells her.
The Israeli woman rolls her eyes, turns around. “That’s not us. That’s her personal experience. That’s personal, if someone is scared.”
We have been detained at the Israeli border crossing for hours, interrogated, accused of crimes, lied to, and threatened. There are men with guns casually wandering back and forth. The lines at the gates fill and empty, fill and empty, as we watch, waiting to be granted permission from military occupiers to enter our own homeland. That’s personal.
It is 8:30 by the time my name is called last and frankly, I’m wondering what took them so long. The woman with flat blond hair, the one who made J. cry, beckons me to follow her into a tiny room. I wink at my friends as I leave our waiting area.
She is coldly professional. I am polite. “Have a seat.” “Thank you.”
“This will be quick and easy,” she says. Great.
“What is the purpose of your visit?”
“What is the group you are with?”
“What will you be doing?”
“Where will you be staying?”
“Will you be going anywhere else?”
“Will you be going to Ramallah?”
“Will you be going to any refugee camps?”
“Have your leaders told you to say any specific information?”
“Was there anywhere else they said they might go?”
“Who do you know in Israel?”
“What are you doing here?”
My heart is pounding but I smile, answer calmly. Tourism; a Christian youth group; visiting holy sites; Jerusalem; maybe Bethlehem—you know, holy sites—So you’re Christian?—Yes—That’s personal; I don’t know; I don’t know; no; no; not that I know of; nobody; excuse me ma’am but what are YOU doing here? Did your great-grandparents walk this earth? Did your grandfather tell you the exact location of the fig tree he planted as a child? What are YOU doing here? Is this your home, your history? Didn’t think so.
“Are you sure,” she asks, “because the consequences depend on your answers.”
I am dismissed, told to stand outside with three other travelers. The blonde woman mutters to a stern-looking man, who instructs us to cross to the other side of the gate, where we cannot see or hear the other members of our group. He points for us to sit. So we sit. And we wait.
T. wanders back to our side, now with a grey sweatshirt on over the Bedouin-via-China dress she bought in Petra. “I think they’re going to deny our entry.”
I am staring down at a spot on the tile floor, a speck missed by the Black man who pushed the cleaning machine around us earlier. I know how Israel treats its African asylum seekers, and it doesn’t escape my notice that the white, European Israelis hold positions of relative power while every Black person I see has been cleaning. We have been sitting on the same metal bench, separated from the rest of our group, for at least an hour. Nobody has told us what is going on. The Israeli officer, who seems to have nothing to do but sit and watch us, spoke only to tell us not to talk to each other, the note in her voice too harsh not to defy—of course we talk to each other. We make sure she hears us laugh. Every small act of defiance feels like resistance to this occupation.
We are still waiting. T. and J. drift back and forth. They are calling the State Department, the Consulate General, waiting for our paperwork, waiting for what? It’s cold inside the Allenby border crossing, and we are tired. The Israelis eventually offer us cheap snacks. How benevolent, how generous they are.
Since I heard we may be denied entry, I am curled in my metal seat, refusing to let the words settle.
I knew before I boarded a plane to Amman that the Israeli border control could simply decide, for any or no reason, not to let me into Palestine. This is the reason I am careful in everything I do, careful to make sure I am never photographed, that I am un-google-able, that my name is not associated with Palestine solidarity activism in any way. I know they harass activists. They harass everybody. I avoid cameras and journalists. I know I am overly paranoid, but staying as anonymous as possible is just a precaution; it can’t hurt, and it sets my father’s mind at ease, as he worries constantly that even my modest activism will get me in trouble. I knew, but I didn’t think I had much to worry about. I expected questioning; I expected to be detained. This much is standard. To be denied entry is extreme, but not unheard of. So I worry, and I wait.
And I wait. The border crossing is still open, and we see a few families pass, a few single men. We are still separated from the rest of our group and from any access to information about why this is taking so long. There is nothing to do but try to make light of the dread, the weight of anxiety, the uncertainty simmering.
Finally, a young woman with a stud in her nose approaches, holding a stack of passports. N. trails behind her, catches my eye, shakes her head. Mouths the words “we’re not going.”
The Israeli woman clutches the stack of American passports, calls out a few names. Tells them they are going with her to get their luggage. Tells the rest of us to wait for our passports. More officers follow, holding our passports hostage, tell us to collect our bags & that we’re leaving. Not leaving the freezing, hostile border crossing to enter the holy land, but leaving through the door we entered from, leaving back to the no-man’s-land between the West Bank and Jordan. “You’re leaving.”
At this point, deportation doesn’t come as much of a surprise. As the words settle, as yet another thin, blonde Israeli woman approaches with my passport, J. emerges from the other side of the gate, biting her nails.
“We’re banned for five years,” she says.
I stop breathing.
Banned from the place my grandparents were born, that I’ve heard endless stories and seen countless photos of, that I’ve dreamed of returning to. Forbidden to see the holy land for five years, a sentence handed down arbitrarily by bored officers who don’t know and don’t care what this means. They are laughing, flirting, leaning back in their chairs, killing time until they get off work, when they can travel freely wherever they want within historic Palestine. Our devastation is nothing to them.
I collect my bags. Later, in a hotel in Amman, I will find that the Israelis have searched my luggage and neatly folded all of my clothing, arranged my t-shirts and bras. The woman returns my passport, opened to page 9 to reveal a new scar.
Entry Denied. Not one but two ugly rectangular red stamps on a formerly clean page of my passport.
Five hours of waiting, of interrogation, of reassuring each other the border closes soon, they can’t keep us here forever, they just want to scare us, this is normal. Three hours is nothing. Four, average. Five, entry denied.
Banned. From my own homeland. For five years.
Standing on the street waiting for a bus to take us back to Jordan, I unwrap a piece of gum to mask the bitter taste rising in the back of my throat. A man in a plaid blue shirt and jeans lifts a semiautomatic rifle as he sees me move. Clicks the safety off. I snap a photo, trying to be discreet, as he stands with his finger on the trigger. Not discreet enough. He turns his eyes on me.
Suddenly two men appear on either side of me, speaking Hebrew-accented Arabic, switching to English when they see my blank stare. “Get your passport. Come with me. Give me the cell phone.”
I wait. “Why? Can you tell me what the problem is?” As if I don’t know the problem is the photo, the problem is the potential of sharing Israel’s brutality with the world with a click of a button.
“The security guard gonna ask you a few questions.”
I’m too tired to argue, so I let them lead me away, tell them “I’m sorry, I didn’t know I wasn’t allowed to take a photo, it’s just that I’ve just never seen anything like that in America.”
“Okay, erase the photo.”
“You’re holding my phone. You erase the photo.” He does. “Maybe you took a video too?”
“You’re holding my phone. If I took a video, you’d see it there.”
He thanks me, and in some bizarre attempt to ease the tension, casually asks “So, you going back to Jordan?”
Something in me snaps.
Of course I’m going back to Jordan. Where else am I supposed to go? You and your people just TOLD me I had to go back to Jordan. Because of you—
T. grabs my arm, pulls me away; “stay calm, don’t let them get to you,” murmured in my ear for the thousandth time today.
The man thanks me again with a smirk. I can do nothing but stare back at him.
The next few hours are surreal, blurred memory of chaos and calm. We are silent in our devastation as the reality of what has just happened settles; we are shaking with anger, jaws aching from holding back furious tears; we are finally crying, trying to console each other, realizing some of us may never see our elderly grandparents in Palestine again. The Jordanian tour bus wants to charge us $300 for the drive from the Israeli border across no-man’s-land back to Jordan—hardly more than one mile. We need new Jordanian visas to reenter, though we were only out beyond Jordan’s borders for a few hours. The Jordanians check our passports; we wait; they check our luggage; we wait. Chaos and calm. Rage and disbelief. Exile and acceptance.
Eventually, the Jordanian officers show some sympathy, and taxis arrive to take us back to Amman. At some point during the hour’s drive, to break the heaviest silence I have ever felt, H. points out at some distant hills. “Hatha Amman?” Our driver jerks his lead to the left, “la2, Amman hon.” Amman is over there. And on the right, where she pointed? “Hatha Falasteen.” We are so close, separated from home by just a few miles. Minutes away, but it will be years before any of us can return.
In Amman, we flip through Arabic television channels, desperate for news. Though I can’t understand a word of the anchor’s formal Arabic, I recognize images of Palestine. A photo of a teenage boy wearing a baseball cap flashes across the screen, followed by footage of protests. Muhammad Abu Khdeir has been kidnapped and murdered by Jewish settlers. Israeli soldiers are shooting at protestors in Ramallah and Jerusalem. They have begun airstrikes over the Gaza Strip. It is now 3:00 in the morning, and I am exhausted, struggling to understand; struggling to carry the weight of exile, the burden of my Palestinian blood.
As bombs fall over Gaza, and keffiya-clad youth throw stones at their occupiers, my bones ache to be across the border. To be home.