24th October 2016 | Sarah Robinson | occupied Palestine
On Monday, 17 October 2016, I was deported from Israel. This is my story.
I left Johannesburg on Sunday evening, 16 October, and flew to Istanbul, Turkey. The check-in process was smooth and I was asked no security related questions. I had a six-hour stopover in Istanbul which was also uneventful. I checked-in to the flight to Tel Aviv, Israel and although there was extra security and scrutiny there were no problems. I landed in Tel Aviv at 13:20 on Monday afternoon.
I waited patiently in line at the customs desks for my turn to be processed. A sullen lady called me to the desk, took my passport, and began typing away on her computer. She asked me the normal customs and immigration questions. How long did I plan to stay in Israel? What was the purpose of my visit? Had I been there before? I answered carefully and truthfully. She then asked me what my father’s name was and my grandfather’s name which I provided. Staring at her computer screen she called a gentleman to the desk and handed him my passport. He requested I follow him. He took me to a room in the customs area where several other people were sitting. I waited in the room for about 45 minutes when another lady, not older than 25, called me into her office. Like the first lady, she was tapping away furiously on her computer and didn’t really look at me but rather the screen in front of her. She began asking me questions similar to that of the previous lady. The interrogation lasted for about 45 minutes. She asked questions like this:
- What was I doing in Israel on my previous visits? I explained that I was a volunteer with the World Council of Churches and described what that entailed.
- Do I know people in Israel? I said not really and she asked to see my phone contacts. I reached for my phone and first tried to turn off my international roaming status before handing it to her. She commented: “Keep deleting your contacts” to which I responded that I was just turning off my data. She entered Israel’s telephone country code into my contacts and two people came up. One was a lady whom I met once in 2013 and the other someone I had worked with in 2013.
- Had I ever been to a demonstration? I said no. She asked if I wanted to revise that answer. I said no, I had never been to a demonstration. This was true. She asked if I was aware that the Israelis monitor social networking and photos from such events. I said I was aware of that but my answer remains the same.
- Had I ever visited, Jenin, Nablus, Bethlehem, Hebron, or Nazareth? I confirmed which cities I had been to.
- She handed me a piece of paper to complete. I had to add my phone number, email address, father’s name, and grandfather’s name.
- Where do I stand during clashes and what do I do? I stand in the middle, observe, and take photos. What do I do with these photos? I share them on Facebook and my blog.
- Are you a journalist? No. But you have a blog? Yes. What is it? I give her the address of my blog which I have temporarily disabled so she can’t see anything.
- Do you know that you can be deported for lying or for being a security threat? Yes, I do understand that.
- Do you like coming here for the rush and the high of the conflict? That’s not my main reason for visiting.
- Do I know anyone who has been deported? No. But your name was mentioned by someone who was deported. Are you sure you don’t want to give me a different answer? No.
The questions were vast yet detailed and she was continually reading the situation and my responses. I was careful not to lie but I was also careful not to give away unnecessary information. The purpose of my visit was to join the International Solidarity Movement to work as a human rights observer in Hebron. I didn’t give her this information but rather insisted this trip was a holiday, which it was, just not the kind of holiday most people take. When she was finished she requested I go back to the waiting room.
Half an hour later a man called me into another office where I had to complete a customs declaration form and he took my picture. I was hopeful that they were preparing to let me in, why else would they need a customs declaration. He escorted me back to the waiting room.
Another gentleman came in and sat next to me holding two pieces of paper. He informed me that I would be deported and I needed to sign the document as confirmation. I asked why I was been deported and he said I was a security threat. I asked why and what it meant but he just kept saying I was a security threat but gave me no explanation. I refused to sign the document. He didn’t seem to care and got up and walked away.
A little while later another gentleman called me to follow him. He led me through the airport to the luggage area to collect my backpack. He attached a large sign to my bag and left it in another room. He returned me to the waiting area.
Then another man called me to follow him. I was led outside with four other gentlemen. There was an armoured van waiting for us. We got in the van and were driven to a detention centre about ten minutes away. While in the van I called the South African embassy and attempted to explain what was happening to the lady who answered the phone. She basically said there was nothing they could do and hung up. We got to the detention centre and had to leave our bags in a room and were only allowed to keep our cigarettes but no lighter. The men with me were taken to a room on the ground floor of the building and I was taken to a cell on the second floor. There were four other women in the room. I think they were all Russian as they could speak to each other but they spoke very little English so I was unable to communicate with them.
The cell consisted of five bunk beds, a toilet, and a basin. The beds held mixed up and dirty sheets and blankets. The walls of the cell were covered in writing displaying messages such as “Free Palestine” and “God loves you”. There were names of deported activists etched onto the walls and the beds, most written in pencil and some in toothpaste. I sat on the bed and struggled to refrain from crying. I stared at the wall in front of me and saw the message, “God is good, all of the time” but I battled to believe it. The situation was not good. I was not good.
I managed to fall asleep for a little while. After about an hour or so a guard came to the door, opened it, called us, and took us outside for ten minutes to smoke. The detention centre was heavily secured with many security personnel, cameras, and bars. We were escorted back into the cell and offered sandwiches. I lay down again and waited. I had no idea what was happening or what would happen next.
At 20:30 a security guard came into the room and requested me and another lady follow him. We were put back into the armoured van and driven back to the airport. We were taken to a security room where all our belongings were searched and checked. At 21:00 I was again told to follow a gentleman who led me through the airport to a boarding gate. My passport and other documents were handed to the security people at the desk, I was escorted onto the plane, and told that when we landed in Istanbul I would be met by more security.
We landed in Istanbul an hour and 45 minutes later. I waited on the plane until everyone had disembarked and then made my way to the exit. A security officer was waiting for me with my passport and the deportation documentation. Again I was told to follow him. He took me through the airport to another boarding gate where my passport and documentation was handed to the airline officials. Again I was escorted to my seat.
We landed in Johannesburg, South Africa ten hours later. An air steward requested I follow her to the front of plane where I was met by more security guards and again escorted through the airport. The security guard took me through customs and immigration and to collect my backpack. He then went to his office of take copies of my passport and other documentation. Once that was completed, he finally gave me my passport and I was able to take the Gautrain home.
So I am back in Johannesburg after a very expensive and invasive two and a half days. I am still trying to process what happened and what that means for my dreams of returning to Palestine.
The overarching feeling I had during this experience was one of complete helplessness. I had no control of the situation and no matter what I said or did there was no impact on what was happening. The Israelis were exceptionally guarded about the information they shared with me so most of the time I didn’t know what was happening or what would happen next. They were in charge. I was utterly helpless. This experience has given me a new understanding of what the Palestinians go through every day. They are a people rendered helpless by the Israelis and no matter what they say or what they do nothing seems to change. This helplessness was deafening and frustrating and I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for Palestinians to live with this each and every day.
Labelled as a security threat is an indication of just how scared the Israelis are that the truth about the occupation is shared. I am one person with a blog following of several hundred people, Facebook friends, and 300 Twitter followers and yet I was deemed a security threat. As my friend Nigel Branken commented: “I think you can be proud that an oppressive regime sees you (without any weapons) as a security threat to their ability to continue practicing their repression.”
Israel works hard at portraying themselves as the victims of varied security threats, as the only democracy in the Middle East, and the world’s most moral army. These are their words not mine. And yet they are so afraid of individuals like me telling it like it is on the ground in occupied Palestine. If they were truly on the right side of this conflict they would have no problem with the truth been shared. But they are not on the right side of this conflict and they know it and are terrified that their image be tarnished by the truth.
I don’t know what happens next. The document I was given by the Israelis states I need to apply to enter the country again and no mention of a ban is documented. However, I have my doubts, that even if I do apply, they will let me back in.
Since first visiting Palestine in 2013 I have felt a distinct and powerful calling to work in Palestine toward ending the occupation. I believed it was what I was meant to do. Now I don’t know. I am confused. I believe God gave me this heart and this desire to see justice prevail and I don’t understand why He has taken this away from me. I travelled to Israel knowing that the possibility of been deported was real but still feel shocked that this has happened. I don’t know what God’s plan is for my life and I am struggling to believe that He is good, all the time. The reality is that there is really nothing I can do. I am helpless. I have to trust that there is a bigger and better plan coming that God has specifically designed for me. This is difficult at the moment.
Not many people can say they have been deported from two countries (I was deported from the United States in 2003 and my entry banned for five years) but it is not an accolade I hoped to achieve. What I believe is that the Israeli occupation of Palestine is devastating and illegal and ultimately not sustainable. More and more people are seeing the truth of the situation and have the courage to voice their disapproval. I have to believe that change will come at some point, that justice will emerge, it is not in my nature to give up and give in. I will continue to do what I can where I am to change the narrative of the Israel and Palestine conflict and express the truth of the oppression and the occupation.