Deported from Palestine: Why Israel fears journalists

Last September, the UN Human Rights Council called for international action to curb what it described “an Israeli campaign to evict international workers.”

As Israel tightens its grip on Palestinians and their international supporters, a growing number of activists, researchers and journalists have been denied access by the Israeli authorities.

Among them is Eoin Wilson, an Irish-Scottish freelance journalist specialising in social movements and international solidarity activism. Earlier this month, he was refused entry and banned for 10 years.

Here, he reflects on his ordeal at the hands of Israeli interrogators:

We queue, Palestinians and tourists alike, to pass through the metal detectors ahead. Alongside Hebrew and English welcome signs, the Arabic greeting “Ahlan wa Sahlan,” roughly translated as “you have come to your people and your land,” appears cruelly ironic.

It is early November 2016, and we are at the Allenby crossing, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. This crossing, also known as the King Hussein Bridge, is the only crossing between the West Bank and Jordan, and is controlled entirely by Israel.

Palestinian baggage handlers pass by in orange high-vis vests. Like Palestinians who work on the construction of settlements and the Wall, they seem like prisoners employed by the prison.

Beyond the first security measures is the main terminal, much like an aircraft hanger. Large air-conditioning pipes run along the ceiling pumping out cold air, in a constant buzz which occasionally rises to a high-pitched screech.

We plan to spend time in a Palestinian refugee camp, and we are nervous. I have spent time in Palestine before, and written articles about the occupation. We obviously cannot say this to the Israeli officials, so it is a fine balancing act between not saying too much, and not saying too little.

At one end of the building is a line of passport control booths. We see a greying passport officer with glasses, laughing with a tourist. We pick him, hoping he is in a good mood.

Interrogation time

He begins his questioning about the reasons for our visit; we answer “tourism,” careful to avoid any mention of Palestine, Palestinians or the occupation. Instead, we list tourist and historical sites.

He asks my partner, who is Latina, the names of her parents, perhaps looking for an Arab or Muslim family connection. Racial profiling and the targeting and deportation, by Israel, of Muslim and Arab travellers is well-documented . He finds no Arab or Muslim connection and gives her a three-month tourist visa.

His semi-friendly demeanour quickly changes when he realises I spent an extended period in the West Bank several years ago. He takes our passports and tells us to wait. We sit beneath large prints of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, visual assertions of Israel’s claim to Jerusalem as its capital, despite being one of the most iconic symbols of Palestinian identity.

Our first interrogation is by the interior ministry. We are separated and I am taken to a small, grim room. An official asks about our reasons for visiting, our finances and our plans. Using aggressive interrogation techniques to try to rattle me, the official shouts and repeats the same questions, with dramatic pauses and purposeful scribbling.

“What do you want to do in Israel? There’s nothing to do in Israel,” she barks. She is not a good advertisement for tourism, but that is not her job. Her job is to separate the religious pilgrims and bars-and-beaches-tourists, from those who want to spend time with Palestinians and witness the occupation.

After a long wait, it is the army’s turn. This is a bad sign. We are separated again, and I am interrogated by a male sergeant, and my partner by a female soldier. The sergeant asks me very specific questions.

“Do you know any Palestinians?” “Have you ever been a member of an ‘anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian’ group?” “What did you study at university?” “Have you been to Gaza or Iraq?”

I answer carefully, trying to answer truthfully without “incriminating” myself. The soldier asks to see my WhatsApp contacts. I had taken precautions to remove anything related to Palestine from my phone and laptop, and to disable my social media accounts, so I decide to cooperate. He types “972″ into my phone, the dialling code for Israel and Palestine, looking for any numbers of Palestinians.

Your smartphone can be your biggest enemy in the wrong hands, and your social media and internet presence, alongside information on phones and laptops, can betray you.

The soldiers leave, and we compare notes. Besides our plans, my partner’s questioning focused more on our relationship, and whether or not it was genuine.

Crying Palestinian woman

Without being told what will happen next, we again wait, this time for over an hour. A Palestinian woman is led crying from a curtained search room by a customs agent, while young Israeli employees stand around, playing on phones and flirting and laughing with each other, seemingly desensitised to the systematic humiliation and dehumanisation of the Palestinians around them.

I try to sleep, but when I open my eyes there are two plain-clothed agents standing in front of me. I am now the only suspect.

I follow them past the passport desks, in the direction of the exit. Beyond those doors, Palestine and “freedom.” Instead, we enter a series of narrow corridors, and I am taken to a small room and told to sit down, facing the female agent. Her male colleague hovers in the doorway, silent.

On the walls are some faded “Visit Israel”-type posters. My interrogator is sitting behind two computer screens, with a poorly-printed, pixelated Israel flag on the wall behind her. Though they do not say, I assume they are Shin Bet. She tells me “you should not lie to us anymore. We are different from the others. The consequences of lying will be serious.”

It is cold, and I pull my hood up and cross my legs, trying to keep warm, but also to show quiet defiance. I think how warm it is outside and how much I want to walk in Palestine’s afternoon sunshine.

She starts the interrogation. She knows when I disabled my social media accounts and asks questions about private content which should be inaccessible. She shows me a computer screen with articles for the Electronic Intifada, with “Eoin Wilson” in the bylines.

I say that it is a funny coincidence. She tells me that there was only one person with that name in the West Bank when these articles were written. Another coincidence, I say.

She asks about a Palestinian friend who is now in an Israeli prison, held under administrative detention, which sees hundreds of Palestinians imprisoned by military courts for indefinitely renewable six-month sentences, without being allowed to see the evidence against them. I deny knowing him.

Support of Scottish football is crime

The female interrogator mentions my support of Celtic Football Club in Scotland. I say nothing and the interrogation continues. I later ask why she is interested in which football team I support, and she mentions seeing Celtic clothing in my luggage. Our possessions have been searched without our knowledge or consent.

“Are you a fan of Scottish football?” I ask her. She mumbles something about European football. Perhaps she supports Hapoel Be’er Sheva.

It was against this Israeli club that a group of Celtic fans, the Green Brigade, carried out a display of solidarity with Palestine, waving dozens of Palestinian flags and drawing the wrath of UEFA, who fined Celtic. In response, Celtic fans have “matched the fine for Palestine,” by raising over £175,000 ($217,253), which will be divided between Medical Aid for Palestine and the Lajee Centre in Aida refugee camp.

Though brief, her mention of Celtic shows an awareness among the Israeli establishment that actions in support of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) can take many forms, and Celtic supporters’ solidarity has made an impact in this corner of occupied-Palestine.

This interrogation has continued for over an hour, but she insists that if I cooperate there is still a chance of being given a visa. “But I have to be honest,” she says, “the chances are less than 50/50.” I know the chances are zero. Any hope of a visa has evaporated in this claustrophobic room.

Journalism threat to ‘public order’ in Israel

We both know this is now just an intelligence gathering exercise, and I tell her we are finished. I have walked the fine line of cooperation, and now it is time to stop and accept defeat.

Forefront in my mind is the danger of somehow putting Palestinians in danger, and despite the technical precautions I have taken, I know that intrusive intelligence-gathering is common practice.

After several more hours of waiting, we are finally handed a letter confirming our denial of entry, and told that we are banned for 10 years.

Among the reasons cited for my denial were “public order considerations.” When independent journalism is considered a threat to a society’s “public order,” profound questions must be asked about the values and principles of that society.

Our experience was disempowering and frustrating, but I was not denied entry to my own land by an occupying power. Such pain is intensely real for millions of Palestinians, who are refused the right of return or imprisoned by Israel’s systems of control and collective punishment.

Ours is not an isolated case, and Israel’s policy of deporting foreign witnesses to the occupation goes hand in hand with policies of settlement expansion, land confiscation, killings, mass imprisonment without trial, repression of Palestinian civil society, home demolitions and a myriad of other methods of settler-colonialism.

But while these crimes continue, there will always be witnesses. This is what Israel fears.

Eoin Wilson is an Irish-Scottish freelance journalist specialising in social movements and international solidarity activism. He is currently based in Jordan.

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