On an untypically chilly September evening last week, my cousin and I departed from my grandmother’s Jerusalem home and began the 45-minute journey to Ben Gurion Airport in order to catch a 5am flight. As I passed through the eerily dark hills of Jerusalem and neared the airport, my thoughts began to transition. At first, my thoughts focused on the events of the past two months, guilt about not spending more time with my grandmother, and worries about whether I would ever see her again. About half-way to the airport, my thoughts began to focus on the obstacle ahead: Israeli airport security. I began to recount my last departure from this airport almost nine years ago. At the time, I was 15-years old and traveling with my 11-year old sister. I recalled snippets of the experience: airport security opening up and going through a box of cookies I had, being separated from my little sister, being prevented from bringing a carry-on on the plane, and being asked to remove most of my clothes for a security check. As I approached the airport, I couldn’t help but to expect the worst; there was no getting around the fact that I was a female, Muslim, Palestinian-American. As my cousin pulled up to the checkpoint just before the entrance of Ben Gurion Airport, one thing was certain: Israeli Airport Security would not have any mercy on me.
The road leading towards the airport ended abruptly at an airport checkpoint. Cars in front of me drove through the checkpoint without being stopped and I held on to the unlikely hope that our car would not be pulled over. However, once we got to the front of the line of cars, the security person took a peak into our windows and saw that we were clearly Palestinians. We were then instructed to pull over into an area on the right. Next to us were four parked cars, all belonging to Palestinian families. As soon as my cousin pulled over, an Israeli security person came to our windows and demanded our ID cards. My cousin handed over her Jerusalem ID card and I handed over my US passport. The security person walked over to my cousin’s window and spoke to her in Hebrew; luckily, she knew enough to get by. Then, the man walked over to my window and began to question me in English. He asked me my name, where I had "stayed in Israel", where I resided in the United States, which flight I was taking, and how many bags I had. Then, I was instructed by him to get out of the car, grab one of my bags he had chosen, and to follow him into a small building. In this small building, I was told to lift my heavy bag and place it on top of a table and to walk through a metal detector. Once I went through the metal detector, he told me to open up my luggage. I did as I was told. He then came over with some sort of device with a small sheet attached to it. He used the device to swab the contents of my luggage. After he was done, he ran the sheet through some sort of machine. Once he got the results, he told me to take my luggage and go wait in the car. Then, he came to the car, returned my passport, and told me I could proceed to the airport.
We drove for about a half-mile to the departures building at the airport. My cousin and I unloaded my bags and put them on a cart, we said goodbye, and I started walking towards the airport door. About half-way there, a security person came up to me, took my passport, and asked me which flight I was on. After I answered his questions, he returned my passport and let me go.
At midnight, I entered the departures building and headed for the check-in counter for my flight. However, in order to get to the check-in counter, everyone has to get in line for a security check (the opposite of the United States, where we check-in and then go through security). I got in the very long security line and waited for my turn. Finally, I reached the front of the line. The male security person took my passport and asked me my name, where I had stayed during my trip, and which flight I was taking. Then, he instructed me to put my bags through a large screening machine. Both of my bags were overweight with all of the gifts my grandmother had sent with me and I had trouble putting them on the device. Fortunately, some Norwegian tourists behind me noticed I was struggling and lifted the bags up for me while the Israeli security person simply watched. I then walked through an x-ray machine. Once my luggage had gone through screening, the Norwegians stepped in again and helped me load my luggage back onto my cart. The male Israeli security person then handed me back my passport and told me to head to a secondary luggage screening station while the Norwegians and everyone else were told to head to the airline check-in counters. They were done with security; however, my ordeal had just begun.
Once I got to the secondary luggage screening station, I saw that there were approximately 12 counters. There were maybe 10 security workers within this station, some of whom were wearing tags that said “trainee” and “trainer”. There were a couple of other Palestinians whose luggage was being checked. I was told to place my two bags on top of two counters by a female Israeli security person. She and the other security workers looked to be no more than 18 or 19 years old. She noticed I was struggling with my bag and helped me lift it. Once my bags were on top of the counters, I was asked to open up each bag. I did as instructed. Then, two more security workers came to my section. Three security people began going through the entire contents of my luggage: two security persons were assigned to my two large bags while a third person was assigned to my carry-on, purse, and laptop. Every two minutes, one of these three persons would question me about items in my luggage such as dried fruit, travel mugs, and chocolate. At one point, I was told that if I wanted to take the chocolate with me, she needed to move it from one bag to the other. I had no idea what the logic behind this was, yet I said okay. Then, I was asked by one of the females if she could puncture my travel pillow. I said “fine”. Finally, I was told that they were done going through my luggage and I could repack all of my bags. This process took over one hour. Silly me, I thought I was done.
Once I had repacked, I was told by a young female security person that I needed to go through screening in a room outside of the departures hall. I was asked if there was anything I wanted to take with me to the room such as my money. I became confused as to what she meant; all of my stuff was valuable to me and leaving it out here unsupervised bothered me. I wanted to take everything and leave already. It was now 2am and I was exhausted, more so because of security procedures than the time. Anywho, I told her I wanted to take my wallet and then I followed her across the departures hall and into a large room. Once I got to the room, she took me to a corner with a chair and closed us off from the rest of the room with a curtain. She told me to remove my headscarf and shirt. Once I had done so, she told me that I need to untie my hair. Then she apologized and began to pat down my body and my hair. Once she was done, she told me that she needed to run my hijab and shirt through a machine and that she would be right back. I sat in my chair and waited for a few minutes. She then returned, without my clothes, and told me she was sorry and that they needed to do some additional screening. Due to her repeated apologies, I sensed that she wasn't enjoying this process much and was following the instructions of someone else. She once again stepped out of the curtain and this time when she returned, she told me that I had set off security alert. I was really confused as to how I had set off security with my leopard scarf or top. The female security person then began to talk on her walkie-talkie. A minute or two later, as I’m still sitting there without my hijab and top, she told me that the head of security wanted to speak to me.
Suddenly, the curtain was opened and a 30-something blonde Israeli security woman with a very stern look on her face came in. She introduced herself as the “head of security” and took my passport. She began to question me about where I had stayed during my two-month visit. She asked for the city I had stayed in. Then she wanted to know the exact neighborhood, with whom I had stayed, and who had slept in my room. After I answered her questions, she informed me that the pants I was wearing had triggered a security issue. As a result, I would not be allowed to wear my favorite black H&M pants on the plane and they would need to be shipped to me in a separate box at a later date. I could not understand how the pants I was wearing had triggered a security issue since they had not been scanned separately. Nevertheless, I was devastated. These were my most comfortable pants, with an elastic band and no annoying pockets. And they were pretty darn cute. I wondered why these pants were such a big security risk, especially considering that there were no pockets or zippers; H&M needs to get back to me on that one. When I asked the younger security person what exactly the issue with my pants was, I was told “sorry, it’s confidential”. Next, my entire luggage from outside was wheeled in and I was told to pick something else to wear. I opened up one of the bags, grabbed jeans from the top, and told her that this is what I wanted to wear. The blonde grabbed the jeans, tossed them to the other security person, and told her to go screen it. Suddenly, it began to dawn on me that the younger girl was being trained. I began to wonder if I was being used an example by which to train the newbie. Things began to make a lot more sense.
The younger security worker returned with my jeans and gave them to me. The blonde told me to take off the black pants. I told her that I wanted to put on a skirt and change under it. The blonde rolled her eyes as I grabbed a black skirt and put it on. I removed my favorite H&M black pants and put on the jeans. Then I removed the skirt. I was then told to spread my arms and legs. Then, the blonde told the younger security person something in Hebrew. Suddenly, the younger security worker grabbed a metal detector and went across every part of my body as the blonde watched. As she was doing this, I couldn’t help but chuckle as I thought of all the x-ray screenings I had gone through this night. Would this ancient-style metal detector really catch something that both of the previous, fancy x-ray machines couldn’t catch? Having now been blessed with the wisdom that this whole “security check” was a sham and that I was being used as practice, the process became far less annoying. Maybe for a second.
Once I had removed my H&M pants, replaced them with jeans, finished up with the metal detector, and put my hijab and blouse back on, the blonde simply turned around and left without a word. I was left all alone with the younger security person. She told me to place my H&M pants in my checked luggage (opposite of what the blonde had instructed), to grab my luggage cart, and follow her. I followed her back to the departures hall to the secondary luggage screening station I had visited earlier. She then informed me that “due to the security situation with your pants, you will not be able to bring anything with you on the plane”. I was dumbfounded. After endless amounts of security screening, I would only be able to bring my passport and cash on the plane. I had had enough and demanded to see her supervisor. Within 30 seconds, her supervisor showed up. He was a bald guy in his mid-30s with an even sterner look on his face than the blonde. He ignored me and spoke to the younger security person in Hebrew. I told her that I needed the contents in my purse. She consulted with her supervisor and with the little Hebrew I know, I was able to understand that the final answer was that I could not take anything on the plane. I began to speak directly to her supervisor in English “I’ve complied with every single thing you’ve done to me tonight… why are you doing this to me? I want to take my purse on the plane and be on my way.” He simply gave me a blank look and walked away. I asked the female security person if I could just take my phone along at the very least. She said fine and took my phone out of my purse. She gave it to a young male standing behind her. He took the phone and put it on a screening belt. After the phone was screened, he handed it back to me. The female told me to unlock the phone. I unlocked my phone, she grabbed it, and handed it to the male. He scrolled through the phone for several minutes and I couldn’t see what he was looking though. When he was satisfied, the phone was returned to me with the iTunes music section was open. Finally, with my passport, cash, and phone in my hand, the female security person escorted me to the check-in counter. The airline check-in person asked me if I had a carry-on and I replied that “they are not letting me take anything on the plane”. She gave me a blank look which indicated that this happens quite frequently. She took all of the bags off my cart, tagged them, and checked them through. Even though I was over the limit of checked luggage, she said nothing. I guess this is normal procedure in Ben Gurion.
Once I was done with the check-in counter, my new best friend [read: female security person] escorted me through passport control. At this point, she wished me a “safe trip” and said goodbye. I arrived at the gate with 30 minutes left until my flight with nothing but my passport, phone and wallet in my hand. I immediately called my family who had been waiting to hear from me. I updated them about the events of the last 5 hours. My parents were infuriated, especially my father who is very protective of me. In hindsight, I wish I had kept the ugly details to myself. If Israel wants to use me as target practice, that’s fine by me. However, I’m not okay with my parents being affected by such practices.
In conclusion, the 5 hours of security procedures I went through in order to board my flight at Ben Gurion Airport were completely worth the trouble; perhaps, this is not the conclusion you were expecting. You see, if this is what it takes to visit the land of my parents, grandparents, and ancestors… then so be it. If Israel thinks that it can deter me from visiting my relatives and Jerusalem's holy places by giving me harsh treatment right before I depart the country with the hopes I will never want to return again, it is dead wrong. If anything, I am more encouraged to return. I am the type of person who appreciates things more when I have to work harder for them. So, thank you Israel for the immense difficulties I had to endure when I arrived and departed Palestine this year. Really, thank you.