Despite adequate preparations, checking with official Israeli contacts, thousands of dollars in reservations, and the intense firestorm against me for saying that I would be visiting Israel, Jerusalem was a destination too far.
Twelve years after leaving the Gaza Strip and settling in the United States, where I was naturalized as a citizen, I wanted to visit the Holy Land and explore the beauty that had been forbidden to me as a former resident of the coastal enclave.
Palestinian youth obtain their ID cards at the age of 16 through a lengthy but relatively routine process. I left Gaza when I was 15. During the conflict between Hamas and Fatah in the Gaza Strip in 2007, I applied for and received political asylum in the US. In most circumstances, this process entails surrendering previous nationalities.
In my particular case, the US classified me as “stateless” due to geopolitical and individual considerations. When my parents inquired about my ID, a Palestinian Authority official was of the opinion that, due to my status in the US, I would no longer be able to obtain one.
In April of 2017 – three years after obtaining US citizenship – I began planning what I believed would be a straightforward visit to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. I had never been to either, and my sister had received a scholarship to attend the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Additionally, my father was going to Israel for medical treatment and I thought it would be a rare opportunity to see him and my mother, who was accompanying him out of Gaza. There were also several Israeli friends I was hoping to meet in person, many of whom share with me an unrelenting desire to work on grassroots level to plant the seeds for peace and coexistence. After checking with the Israeli consulate in San Francisco, I began making plans.
Sadly, as in many things related to the Israel-Palestine conflict, nothing was quite straightforward.
The craziness began on Facebook. A little less than a week before my trip I made an innocuous post, sharing my excitement at the prospect of visiting Israel for fun. I didn’t mention that I’d be seeing my parents or attending my sister’s wedding. Within minutes, dozens of angry, hateful and at times threatening comments began appearing on my post. Why? Because I dared use the word “Israel” to describe my destination. It was Palestinians, Palestinian-Americans, “solidarity” activists and many others with seemingly no direct ties to the conflict that were writing these comments.
There were human rights advocates, a well-known musician, a founder of a start-up incubator in Jerusalem funded by the US consulate and Sisco (who recruited several of his seemingly-elite friends to send me hateful, threatening messages), NGO managers and a few academics. There was even an Ashkenazi Jewish Israeli who scolded me for my “objectionable views,” as well as a Latino American who took issue with the fact that my views were different from those of other Palestinians he knew. Over 200 people unfriended me within 24 hours.
It was very painful to receive so much anger, hate and even threats of violence for simply stating what is an indisputable fact. As someone who strongly cares about his homeland and is dedicating his life to the service of its people, I think it is absurd for some to accuse me of betrayal, of selling out, or of naïveté for the mere mentioning of Israel’s name. Despite the terrible experience on Facebook, I was determined to enjoy my upcoming trip and was consoled by the generous support and encouragement of many of my Palestinian, Jewish and Israeli friends who were eager to host and show me around.
Unfortunately, what followed was more agony and disappointment.
Upon landing at Ben Gurion Airport, my US passport was taken away at the border control booth while I was instructed to sit in a holding area. After a lengthy wait, I was directed into a room where I was asked numerous questions about my family background, family members’ names, places of residence, and other details. Though I had expected some degree of questioning, the type of questions was alarming in that they were strictly focused on my background as someone from Gaza, despite the fact that I hadn’t been in the Strip for 12 years. I knew that something unpleasant had commenced.
After answering all the questions, I was sent to another room with three officers, who gave me a terrible piece of news: “You will not be admitted into Israel because you have a Palestinian ID number.” I argued vociferously that as a US citizen through political asylum, I had essentially given up my Palestinian citizenship and that I did not hold any official status in the Territories. Despite repeated offers to show documentation, including my communications with the Israeli consulate in San Francisco, the border control officers were not interested and said that I need a special permit to enter Israel through Ben Gurion Airport.
One officer said that she had checked with the army, which told her that I was not to be admitted without a special permit. “Can we generate the permit now?” I pleaded, to no avail. The officers pulled up a program on their computer, all in Hebrew, and showed me a picture of myself from when I was a child. “This is me in my early teens,” I said. “What’s your point?” As far as Israeli databases were concerned, I was still an “active Palestinian citizen,” and would be treated accordingly.
This despite my new citizenship, and my lack of any documents pertaining to my previous citizenship – no passport, no ID card. I offered to put down a $3,000 security deposit, and showed thousands of dollars of hotel and tour reservations in Israel, but was still told no. I asked if it would be possible to be routed through Jordan; the answer was, predictably, no.
I was next taken to a security room for an invasive strip search in which every part of me was probed and scrutinized by an officer. I felt humiliated. I felt violated.
A complete stranger was feeling me up in the most intimate way. My body and items were swiped repeatedly by bomb-detecting probes. The officers even made me open my factory-sealed snack bars to ensure that nothing nefarious was hidden in them.
I was told that I would be deported, and that I would not have access to my passport until returning to the US. I asked if I could at least get it back in Turkey so that I could stay in Istanbul for a few days with my brother and friends.
An officer yelled at me: “Stop talking! Be quiet! We are the Border Police; we control what happens to you, and only we decide what to do with you.” The holding area was a disgusting corner of the airport where I practically had to beg a security officer to let me go to the bathroom. He accompanied me all the way to the stall.
I lost thousands of dollars on this trip. I was tormented, isolated, humiliated and made to feel like a criminal. I lost my credit and debit cards, and with no passport, no access to funds, zero support from the US consulate and embassy in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, respectively, and no idea how this deportation would proceed, the feeling of statelessness which I had last experienced over a decade ago was upon me again under the most terrifying of circumstances.
This began as a journey to reunite with some family members and to meet my peace- and coexistence-promoting Israeli friends. It ended as a demoralizing and degrading experience that created more barriers and obstacles.
Both sides brought me to points at which I felt like giving up.
But I won’t. I will not be hateful or bitter. I forgive the Israeli officers who treated me badly. For their attitudes and behavior to be different next time, I know that ceaseless, committed grassroots Israeli and Palestinian efforts toward mutual respect and understanding must prevail.
The author is a naturalized US citizen from the Gaza Strip and based in San Francisco, California. He is the founder of Project Unified Assistance which advocates for the establishment of a humanitarian, IDF-approved airport in the Gaza Strip.