When Entering Israel…

21 Dec

Here’s a tale of how entering Israel isn’t always a smooth ride.

Arriving in Tel Aviv airport as a foreigner you are normally subject to a couple of minutes polite questioning by the stern-faced immigration police. Nothing too severe and something  you become pretty accustomed to. As long as don’t state your wish to visit the West Bank or name any Arab-sounding acquaintances in Israel you are unlikely to be held up for too long.

This, however, was not the case for a female American student when entering Israel from Egypt via the border crossing at Taba (near the Israeli city of Eilat and the only crossing open for foreigners). Lily Sussman’s encounter with the Israeli border control ended with her laptop being shot to pieces by police officers whilst questioned. Her crime? Maybe they were suspicious of the many passport stamps from hostile Arab nations, or her possession of an Arabic phrasebook and graphic photographs from Israel’s war in Gaza.

I think I will leave it for herself to describe how the events unfolded:

I was sitting on the deck overlooking the Red Sea. Israeli security officers (most who looked around 18 years old) had completed around two hours of questioning and searching me. They had pressed every sock and scarf with a security device, ripped open soap and had me strip extra layers. They asked me tons of questions–where are you going? Who do you know? Do you have a boyfriend? Is he Arab, Egyptian, Palestinian? Why do you live in Egypt? Why not Israel? What do you know about the ‘conflict’ here? What do you think? They quized me on Judaism,which I know nothing about.

Then they asked me to wait. Since they had asked for friends and families phone numbers I assumed they might be calling to verify my answers to questions or confirm I really had extended family in Tel Aviv.  An announcement played over the sound system, interrupting my break in the sunshine. First in Hebrew, then Arabic, then in English. It was something along the lines of, ” do not to be alarmed by gunshots because the Israeli security needs to blow up suspicious passanger luggage.”

I went inside to check on my bag. I had left it unattended, where they instructed. It was still there so I went back outside.

Moments later a man came outside and introduced himself as the manager on duty. And then, “I’m sorry but we had to blow up your laptop. “

What….all my client case notes and testimony, writing, pictures, music and applications. Years of work. NO!!!! What?? Are you insane?? What were you thinking? THAT’S ALL MY WORK!?

After much yelling, crying and frantic phone dialing (don’t be alarmed if I called you repeatedly this morning), he took me outside to see the wreckage. It turned out it hadn’t been quite blown up, but rather shot through with three bullets. We were able to extract the hard drive, seemingly unscaved. Thank goodness…

Security had never asked for my password. Was it my peeling Arabic stickers on the keyboard? Or something else during the questioning which set them off?

Toward the beginning of the search an officer began clicking through the photos on my camera.  She froze on a picture  of graffiti, which read “Fuck” scrawled next to the Jewish star of David. “Why do you have this picture?” She asked me rather aggressively. “Because I was disturbed by it too,” I answered. She didn’t press the subject but continued clicking…presumably looking at pictures from a photo exhibit about Israel’s January attack of Gaza.

Though I usually delete all my pictures when uploading, unluckily I had clicked save rather than delete when uploading this set and never got around to manually deleting on my camera. Whoops…

Among other suspicious item; an Arabic phrasebook, a journal entry that mentioned a Palestinian(yes, they even flipped through my journal), stamps from Syria, Qatar and the UAE, Palestinians in Palestine guidebook, and a map a friend had drawn with a main street in Jerusalem, the central bus station and my intended hostel. “Who are you meeting there?” They asked me.

Anyway I am in Jerusalem. Years of my life and my RLAP work is not destroyed. *sigh*. Insha’allah I will like Israel better tomorrow….

Lily's laptop after the Israeli police were finished with it.

Unfortunately tales of harassment at Israeli’s borders are not uncommon. Only the other day the Haaretz reported the story (Arab filmmaker wins film award, Israel airline security nabs it) of a Arab filmmaker who when traveling back from a film festival in Barcelona was forced to undergo severe questioning for over 2 hours whilst her award was confiscated and ‘inadvertently’ lost in the process. Were these actions related to serious security concerns, or the “discriminatory attitude and misuse of the security check to abuse, humiliate and hurt an Arab passenger.”

As young blond Westerner I never thought you would have to worry to much about entering Israel but the story of this American student’s laptop goes to show you can’t be too sure about that.


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