Sunday, May 29, 2005

Fear and Loathing in Israel

I have been travelling for about 24 hours now, and just a few minutes ago finally reached my destination: the warm, friendly and hospitable Faisal Hostel in East Jerusalem near the Damascus gate. Though my experience at the Israeli airport was more benign than my most recent encounters with the security there, I emerged from the place feeling more confused than angry, frustrated or dismayed.

Walking off the plane, I thought about how likely my prospects for undergoing what I will from here on refer to as 'special treatment'. The special treatment accorded me today was quite different from what I have experienced in other trips through Israel's border crossings; indeed, after asking a few questions about the nature of my trip, they simply stopped talking to me (other than to issue commands about where to go and what to do). This was a welcome change, but left me with somewhat of an eerie feeling. The police in the airport had my passport for over an hour---'just checking' I was told. Checking what? Who knows. No one was about to tell me anything of substance.

The strangest part of the day, and what left me feeling so confused, was a bizzare incident related to my camera bag. It is a smallish bag, made for holding a camcorder and various smallish instruments to go along with a smallish camera. The security folks took everything out of all of my bags, performed the whole search, and as I was packing my things I was told that my camera bag---only the bag, not the camera or anything else...just the empty bag---was a security threat and that it must be boxed up until I leave the airport. 'Are you serious?' I asked. The two bodyguards and search-o-rama experts---who are, incidentally, even younger than I---responded in kind: 'Yes, ma'am. For security reasons.'

Naturally I asked them what kind of regulation forbids the putting of cameras into camera bags in Ben Gurion airport. And, naturally, they responded at once: 'We cannot tell you. It's a security measure and if we told you it wouldn't be secure.'

So after they had finished rummaging and the last police checks were checked I was handed my boxed up camera bag and shuttled outside into the Mediterranean dusk. Upon exiting the building I promptly opened the box, took out my bag and refilled it with the proper contents. I will let readers draw what they may from this bizarre interaction, this almost perfect example of the wasted energy and time Israel spends on keeping out peace activists. Heaven forbid! Peace activists coming through the borders like roaches! With insecure camera bags!

The second experience of note is, unfortunately, less humorous and, well, plain depressing. In my last trip from the airport I took a sherut---a shared taxi---to the Faisal and was dropped off directly in front of the door. Tonight was quite different. I ended up having somewhat of a heated argument with the sherut driver because he would not enter the Damascus gate area. Why? 'This is the Arabic area,' he said, 'and I am Israeli. I will not go there. You can walk.'

I suggested that there was very little chance of a violent encounter with the Palestinians in East Jerusalem were he to drive me to my hostel as he drove the many other riders to their respective destinations. He suggested that I had no idea what I was talking about, that I obviously didn't know 'the Arabs', and that he couldn't possibly go 'there'---living, as he does, in West Jerusalem himself.

Frustrated and somewhat horrified, I walked the rest of the way myself. A Palestinian man who had witnessed the argument smiled at me and shook his head knowingly, laughing an unmistakably Palestinain, sardonic laugh.