SEPTEMBER 24, 2009
Tel Aviv, Israel
Since my arrival in Cairo late August of 2008, I have had the opportunity to travel extensively throughout the region of the Middle East known best as the “Holy Land.” I have traveled through countless border crossings and endured many a security checkpoint across Sinai, Jordan, Israel, and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
As an 18-year-old female student with an American passport, I had never run into any major problems at any border. Even at the Israeli border, renowned for its rigorous interrogation procedures, security never deemed it necessary to approach me with more than the procedural light questioning: “Why do you want to go to Israel?” “Where will you go?” “What is your occupation?” “Do you know anyone in Israel?” “Where will you stay?” “How long will you be here?” Sure, it’s a bit more intense than what us Americans see at JFK or LAX, but as long as you’re not a threat to national security, you should be okay, right?
Nothing I had experienced in my travels could have begun to prepare me for the questing I would endure upon my arrival at the Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv-Yafo on September 24, 2009.
My fabulous flight from London, made memorable by a chorus of loudly crying babies (I was surrounded), a two-hour delay, and a sub-arctic cabin temperature, was made less memorable by the obnoxious amount of airline-quality red Bordeaux I drank. Suffice to say, the British flight attendant was kept very busy by my section of the plane: “Can I get you something to drink, anything at all?” “Can I get you some more wine, any at all?” “Would you like some water with that, any at all?” British people are funny.
We rolled into the Ben Gurion International Airport around 5:30 PM IST- about an hour after our scheduled arrival. Happily and still a bit buzzed (though not obviously), I strolled off the plane, looking forward to three months of exciting investigative research. Not so fast!
I spotted a group of officers from Shin Bet (Israeli’s internal security unit) waiting outside of my terminal. They scanned the large flood of passengers departing my flight. So far, no one had been stopped. Security continued to scan the crowd, but their gaze suddenly stopped on a particular person: 5’5, wavy dark brown hair, blue eyes, clearly sleep-deprived, of obvious Caucasian heritage. A female security officer approached and asked to see my passport. “Why do want to go to Israel?” “How long do you want to stay?” She flipped through my passport, examining my collection of visas, entry and exit stamps. “I see you have been here before? Why?” “Why were you in Jordan?” “What were you doing in Egypt for so long?” Seemingly unsatisfied by my answers, she told me to wait as she conferred with her colleagues in fast Hebrew. There was a tone of serious concern.
They decided to call back-up. “You wait here!” demanded the female officer. I was not particularly concerned at this point, so I got out my iPod. Fifteen minutes later a large male escort appeared. “Come with me.” He gestured for me to follow. “Please walk in front.” I was beginning to feel more and more like a suspected security threat.
Eventually we arrived at Passport Control, where I was intercepted by another officer, a large man named Yak. “Why do you want to go to Israel?” “Why are you here?” “How long do you plan to stay?” “Why do you want to stay so long?” “What are you going to do?” “Who is paying for it?” The questioning at this point was still fairly light, though a little more aggressive, and slightly more intrusive. Still unsatisfied with my answers, I was handed off to a blonde officer who began a more aggressive line of questions. “Why were you in Egypt for so long?” “Why did you go to school there?” “Can I see your student ID?” “What do you study?” “Why?” “Why are you learning Arabic?” “Do you have friends in Cairo?” “Who are they?” “Are you traveling alone?” “Why?” “Where are your friends?” “Why are you here?”
I answered each question as best I could. The blonde officer seemed to be unconvinced. “Please step away from the box.”
She picked up the phone and spoke in fast Hebrew for about two minutes. “Go with these men,” gesturing to my immediate right. Sure enough, there was a group of four burly male officers, waiting for me to follow. “We are very sorry for this inconvenience.” They led me into a large closet-like room with blank walls and about a dozen chairs. “Please sit here.” Two Arab Muslim men sat across from me and glumly waited to be called into the special questioning room.
A little while later, I found myself sitting across a desk from a large but overall-pleasant looking female Israeli security officer. She asked me to explain my situation; who I am, my background, why I want to visit Israel, why I am here, who my contacts are, what my intentions are for the next three months. Finally, she smiled at me and calmly said “Thank you for your time. Welcome to Israel.” I was shocked. “That’s it?” I was surprised that after all that questioning, they were just going to let me go like that. Too good to be true, right? Right.
As I was walking toward the baggage claim, I was once again intercepted by a group of officers. One of them was Yak, and Yak had brought friends! After yet another round of intense questioning, they asked whether I had an Israeli guidebook that I could show them. I reached into my bag and fumbled through it to find my Lonely Planet guide. Let’s just say I should have left Voices of Hezbollah and Jihad in the check-in luggage. Whoops. As I emptied the contents of my bag, Yak’s scrawny friend caught a glimpse of my book selection and gasped in broken English “WHAT are you STUDYING?!??!”
I was led to another room in which questioning continued. I think the only new questions were “Who is your father?” and “Who is the father of your father?” This officer also asked for my basic contact information including phone numbers and e-mail address. I was directed to another “waiting room” with blank white walls, where I would await further questioning.
Half an hour later, I found myself sitting across a polished desk from the Chief of Security. An intense Ashkenazi Jew with strikingly good looks, Ariel’s glare could kill. In front of him sat a piece of paper with my picture as well as information gathered by the previous officers. The paper was covered in scribbled Hebrew writing.
“Before we begin, please bear in mind that I am the last step between entry into Israel and deportation. My colleagues have referred you here because they think there is something ‘not quite right’ with your story. We are concerned that you may be entering Israel to partake in illegal activities. I will determine this. I am the final say.”
Bewildered, I informed him (once again) that I would be in Israel to conduct research.
Ariel: “From this point on, I want you to assume that we know everything.”
You can only imagine my shock. “Excuse me?”
Ariel: “I want you to be completely honest. Be careful what you tell me. If what you say does not match with what I know from my research, I will have no choice but to send you back.”
I reiterated everything I had told the previous Shin Bet officers. After I gave him my San Diego home phone number, my Egyptian cell phone number, and my American cell phone number, we went through my contacts, text messages, and phone calls (“incoming,” “outgoing,” and missed”). I was asked to give a short biography of each person.
All of this was followed by a full examination of my digital camera. As Ariel was flipping through my pictures from Jordan, he came across a picture of me drinking tea with a Bedouin in Wadi Rum. “Who is this?!” he demanded. I explained that it was just a Bedouin I met on a trip through Jordan. “Do you have his contact information?” I shook my head.
Ariel looked down at my printed profile. “Is this your only e-mail address?” I quickly wrote down my two others (AUC and UNASD). Half-smiling, he said, “Thank you for your time, Ms. Logan. I hope you have been completely honest with us. I will conduct the rest of my research and let you know my decision.”
I returned to the blank-walled waiting room. Twenty minutes later, after a tedious three and a half hours of questioning, an Israeli officer entered the room and handed me my passport. I opened it to find a three-month visa and airport security clearance.