As I walked up to the passport control counter the woman in the booth sneered at me and asked "what are you doing back here?" after seeing that I had been in Israel recently. She asked why I didn't have a different visa - why was I trying to sneak past them? She did an additional computer check and exclaimed, "you sneaky girl! You were denied entry in Jordan - you sneaky little girl!" I felt my stomach drop like I was on a rollercoaster, I knew what was coming, but I stayed calm as I was led from one interrogation to another, as my passport was taken from me, and as I was informed that I would not be allowed to enter the country.
When we met with Sam Bahour in Ramallah, the situation of visas and entry to Israel was explained to us in stark terms. We were aware that Sabeel staff from overseas had to leave every 3 months, before their tourist visa expired, and that there wasn't always a guarantee that they'd get back in. Just before the conference, one member of staff was stopped coming in from Jordan. Last week it happened again and she's got no idea when she'll go back. A recent e-mail described her experiences, and it's shocking...
Finally [after interogation; luggage search; body search; photographing & finger-printing] I was taken to a detention facility and held for 13 hours before I was put on a plane back to the US. I was treated decently but locked in a room with no door handle on the inside, bare bunkbeds, and a bathroom...On the airplane my passport was given to a flight attendant with instructions to only return it to me when I got off the airplane. When I got my passport back at the end of the flight it had "denied entry"stamped in it.
Obviously, every country has its visa requirements and they can be a nightmare to live with. Working for an international organisation, I hear lots of these stories: a family having to travel 2 days to Kathmandu once a month because of legal issue with their long-term visa or the bribery required to satisfy officials. But those working in the OPT face major issues, because the Israeli government will not issue employment visas for those working there. Especially if they're working for an organisation like Sabeel.
But, as my friend reflected, her experience was nothing compared to what can happen to Palestinians trying to return to their homeland, or even simply to travel within it.
But for Sam [Bahour] - and the thousands like him who are foreign nationals- Palestinians holding foreign passports who are often the highly educated, committed, creative contributors to the fabric of Palestinian society - this is a much larger issue. This policy of visa renewal takes away the ability to plan, and the stakes are much higher when denial of entry could mean separation from your family, your business, and your home.
As I sat in that cell, I was so tired. I had been travelling for over thirty hours and I was about to board another twelve hour flight. I reminded myself that I could leave, Icould choose to quit, and I won't because this is NOTHING compared to what my Palestinian friends and colleagues deal with daily.
I may have been denied entry, but I was not a Palestinian being denied access to my homeland, as many are. I may have been detained for half a day, but Palestinians can be put in administrative detention for up to six months without a reason being given. I may have had to wait while my things were searched through, but that is something that happens every day at the terminal checkpoints to enter Jerusalem or the checkpoints that separate Palestinian villages from one another throughout the West Bank. I know that I need to keep some perspective.