Unwelcome in Israel

Want to visit the West Bank? Don’t try flying to Ben Gurion airport: you won’t be welcome

Sunday, 10 July, 2011 - 11:43
London, UK

It is impossible to visit the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) without going through Israeli border control.

One of the recent campaigns to protest Israel’s occupation is called “Welcome to Palestine.” Answering the call of 15 Palestinian civil society organizations, about 600 international activists bought tickets to come and visit Palestine, with most of them traveling on 8 July. The one thing that these activists planned to do differently from the thousands of activists who visit Palestine on a regular basis is to tell the truth. The Welcome to Palestine activists decided to declare their intention to visit the OPT openly. Normally, activists know that it's best to lie about their intentions.

When internationals land at Ben Gurion Airport, they are frequently interrogated, and asked personal questions. Having an Arab-sounding name is grounds for extra suspicion. Having a Jewish background is a good way to get through border control quickly. Saying that you plan to visit the West Bank is grounds for deportation.

Israeli reaction to what they called “The airborne flotilla” (alluding to the attempts of the Freedom Flotilla to break the siege of the Gaza Strip by sea) was nothing short of panic. Hundreds of police officers were deployed in the airport while flights were re-routed to another terminal. Airlines received lists of names and complied with Israel’s demands by forbidding activists on the lists from boarding planes to Israel. Israel’s Minister of Internal Security Yitzhak Aharonovitch promised to deport all the activists. He called them “hooligans,” an interesting choice of word for non-violent protesters with an age average of 50-60, who wish to exercise their right to visit Palestine openly. These activists have done nothing yet. But they will be deported because Israel does not allow visitors to Palestine.

Few facts reveal the level of control Israel exercises over the OPT as the practice of its border control policy. While claiming to promote “economic peace” with the Palestinians, Prime Minister Netanyahu signed the death warrant of the Palestinian tourism industry by preventing tourists from entering the West Bank and Gaza Strip. That also applies to visiting academics, business trips, performers and so on. Remember that Noam Chomsky was denied entry to the West Bank, because he didn’t also come to an Israeli university. The activists of Welcome to Palestine proved to the world that Palestinians are in fact prisoners of Israel, and that the Israeli government has no qualms about restricting visits.

However, the activists also reveal the shameful complicity of international governments in Israel’s crimes. When a Canadian (whose name I’ve chosen not to reveal) wanted to do some volunteer work with me in Israel, he made the mistake of saying in the airport that he also planned to visit the West Bank. He was deported after spending two days in the airport prison. When I asked the Canadian embassy why they didn’t do anything about it, and why Israeli citizens continue to enter Canada without a need to arrange a visa beforehand, I was answered with silence.

The hundreds of activists being deported from Israel’s airport, or denied the right to board the planes to begin with, are mostly European citizens, who have the same right which every Israeli enjoys when visiting Europe. As an Israeli citizen, I can take a plane to any European country without worrying about being denied entry. I don’t need to lie at the airport. Tens of thousands of demonstrators who fly to G8 meetings to protest them are also not denied entry. Still, European citizens visiting Israel and even more so if they are visiting the OPT, are interrogated, placed under surveillance and political controls.

The European Union has a reciprocity policy regarding countries whose citizens enjoy a free visa, and expects these countries to offer the same treatment to European citizens that Europe awards their citizens. So far, European governments (as well as the Canadian and US governments) do not concern themselves too much with the rights of their own citizens in Israel.

A proper response by France, Germany and the UK to the current mass deportations would be to suspend the visa agreement with Israel and demand that every Israeli citizen apply for a visa (like citizens of most countries in Africa and Asia), until Israel gives its reasons for expelling each and every activist who wishes to visit the OPT. Such a response is sure to remind the Israeli public that control over the Palestinian population in the OPT also carries responsibilities, and abusing those responsibilities carries consequences.

Shir Hever is an Israeli economist and commentator who researches the economic aspects of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.

commentary rss feed