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From Optimism to Fear: My experience of the Israeli border force

El-Al Airways is the official Flag Carrier of Israel. Source: David Adamson (Tomas Del Coro)

by Aliraza Manji

It’s often easy to relate the red passport of Great Britain to safety, freedom and a sense of pride. Perhaps it was a case of naivety because in spite of all the horror stories regarding travel to Israel, could it just be that? The idea that a British passport holder could face any major trouble was a fallacy. The belief that my passport would protect me from any major mistreatment was resoundingly corrected, and the passport which allows for safe travel to 174 countries worldwide became useless as my trip to Israel led me from optimism to a state of perpetual fear.

The moment I stood in line for El-Al Security in Heathrow Terminal 4, a sense of anxiety had befallen me, and what would happen next would change my impression and experience of Heathrow Airport, the British Passport, and Israel for good. The prior sense of security, relaxation, and comfort changed to one of distinct confusion and above all fear for my safety, as I was being considered a threat to Israeli National Security or an accessory to terrorism.

As someone who has travelled to the Middle East on many occasions, I had an understanding that due to the volatility of the region there was always going to be a certain amount of questioning; our tour organiser had cautioned us that we may get questioned about our intentions for this trip, who we were going with, and whether we had packed our own luggage. That’s all okay, so I thought!

Never would I have expected that El-Al security would take my passport for an hour, passing it around staff-to-staff as if it was a toy; changing hands consistently, followed by continuous questioning by various members of staff. The staff would question me about not only regarding the purposes of this trip, but also ask me to prove that I am indeed travelling with the Union of Jewish Students, a student at Cardiff University and that I reside in the United Kingdom. Furthermore, I was asked to provide the residence of other persons who I have travelled to the Middle East with, the mosque I attend and was faced with questions about my heritage. It became very clear that these long questionings, which lasted over 30 minutes and up to an hour for some, were carried out on the students who had an Islamic background, who are studying Islam, or those of a non-white background.

Following this intense questioning, we were held back and an unsanctioned strip-search took place where it was made clear that it would be required of us if we were to board the flight. The search delayed the flight by two hours, after which the pilot announced that this was due to ‘serious security concerns’.

In the distance sits the golden dome of Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam where Muhammad ascended to heaven. Source: Haley Black (via Pexels)

However, a question arises when we consider that a collective of Muslim university students were being considered to be a serious security concern, or were we being racially profiled in a way signifying that people of an Islamic faith or related to the Islamic faith are the same as terrorists? A case in October 2017 found that three Palestinian-Arab women were subjected to a two-hour strip-search on their way back from a holiday in Belgrade and were threatened with denial to board the plane “if they did not agree to the strip-search”.

Following this ordeal at Heathrow, a wider case of discrimination became clear as all my belongings, and that of my colleagues, were taken including my earphones, headset, and chewing gum which were all considered to be a ‘bomb risk’, while on the flight other passengers had access to their chargers, laptops, and headsets while we were given the third-degree.

A student from Cardiff University described this treatment as both “dehumanising” and eye-opening, as it showcased to everyone the “wider problem of deep-rooted prejudices that still exist”. This systematic prejudice had altered my viewpoint, and upon arrival in Tel-Aviv, I found myself visibly distraught as many other students came to ask if I was okay. The customs officer at Ben-Gurion airport told the five successive Muslim students to head to the back room, as they wanted to confirm that we were not affiliated or acting for ‘Al-Qaeda’, and I was told to be “thankful that [I was] not being arrested”. This treatment was direct and not underlying like at Heathrow; we were widely being considered a terrorist threat and sent to a back room filled with people of majority-brown background, with Muslim names. Zainab Ahmed, a Politics and Economics student at Cardiff University, accounts that this entire ordeal was simply to “waste as much of our time as possible as it was later revealed that we had been pre-screened”, she goes onto state that the staff in Ben-Gurion outright told her to join her friends “Mohammed and Omar” whom she did not know, at the time. 

Over an hour later, we were finally cleared through security at Ben-Gurion, and I cannot thank the UJS staff enough; they were supportive, and consistently trying to go above and beyond to help us including showing a letter from the Israeli Ambassador. This experience, both at Heathrow and Ben-Gurion became a cornerstone of my understanding of Israel, and the situation of certain citizen groups. It became clear that while this experience has only happened to us once, it allowed me to understand the stories of various residents of occupied Palestine including the account of Dr Amal Jadou, the Minister of European Affairs at the Palestinian Authority, who mentioned in her speech that while coming to work some mornings, on her daily route, she is stopped at checkpoints by Israeli Defence Force soldiers and occasionally held for two hours. 

Over the week-long trip to Israel and Palestine, the other Muslim students and I were stopped from time-to-time even when showing our passports and were questioned unless we showed the letter from the Israeli Ambassador or our UJS passes. This experience initially put me in a state of shock, but later has become a key part of my understanding of the wider social prejudices held within society. While Israel, due to its distinct threats on various borders, requires the extra security, this does not justify the outright racial profiling and mistreatment shown at the airport and at various checkpoints in the country. This only highlights the divisions in society which have perpetuated generations of fear and mistrust. For anything to change, this treatment needs to change, ensuring that all peoples are treated equally, regardless of their citizenship cards, religious or ethnic backgrounds.

Disclaimer: Gair Rhydd contacted El Al in search of a response to the points raised in this article. In a statement issued by the airline, they stated, “Whilst we are unable to comment on specific security issues, we assure you that all such procedures are undertaken in accordance with the requirements placed upon the carrier by the State of Israel.”

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  • If this is what you experience when you are part of an official delegation with an officially approved organisation and a letter from the Israel ambassador, imagine how much discrimination at the airport and elsewhere is encountered by Muslim and Arab citizens and travellers. even if the Heathrow profiling relates to a genuine security threat to El Al (and quite a few plots have been foiled) and none of us want to blown up in the air, your experience at Ben Gurion is purely political and designed to put you in your place. How Israel expects to win friends like that is a mystery, but really they don’t care. With the backing of so many powerful world actors, they feel unconstrained. It’s a common attitude of past settler societies to the natives.

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Israeli Stats

Why Did Gair Rhydd Visit Israel and Palestine?

• To hear from people on the ground about the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

•To encourage greater understanding of the complexities of the conflict to help us facilitate discussion about the situation upon returning home outside of the traditional media narrative.

•To prompt us to begin considering how discussions can move forward in the hopes of one day finding a solution to the conflict.

•To show us first-hand how fragile Israeli-Palestinian relations are to broaden our understanding of the struggles faced by all who are intimately affected by the conflict.

Palestine Stats

The UJS

This trip was facilitated by the Union of Jewish Students (UJS). They have been around since 1919, addressing the concerns of 8,500 Jewish Students in Universities. They aim to lead campaigns fighting prejudice, creating inclusive environments, and educating people on divisive issues. To find out more about the work UJS do, head over to their website.

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