In April I began planning what I believed would be a straightforward trip to Israel. But nothing is simple in the Middle East.
I was born in the Gaza Strip, but left 12 years ago for the United States, where I applied for political asylum and, in 2014, became a naturalized citizen. I hold a U.S. passport and have no Palestinian ID card, as I left the Strip before the age of 16.
I decided to visit Tel Aviv and Jerusalem this month to see my sister, who had received a scholarship to attend Hebrew University, and my parents, who were going to be in Israel for my father’s medical treatment. I also planned to visit some Israeli friends who share my commitment to peace and coexistence. After checking with the Israeli Consulate in San Francisco, I began making plans.
The craziness began on Facebook. A week before my trip, I posted about how excited I was to visit Israel. Within minutes, dozens of angry, hateful and at times threatening comments appeared. Why? Because I dared to use the word “Israel” to describe my destination. The comments came from Palestinians, Palestinian Americans, “solidarity” activists and many others with seemingly no direct ties to the conflict. There were human rights advocates, a well-known musician, a founder of a startup incubator in Jerusalem funded by the U.S. Consulate and Cisco (who recruited several of his friends to send me hateful, threatening messages), NGO managers and a few academics. More than 200 people unfriended me within a span of 24 hours.
It was very painful to receive so much anger, hate and even threats of violence for simply stating what is an indisputable fact. As someone who strongly cares about his homeland and is dedicating his life to the service of its people, I think it is absurd to accuse me of betrayal, of selling out, or of naiveté for the mere mentioning of Israel’s name.
Still, I was determined to enjoy my upcoming trip and was consoled by the generous support and encouragement of many of my Palestinian, Jewish and Israeli friends who were eager to host me and show me around.
Unfortunately, what followed was more agony and disappointment.
Upon landing in Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, my U.S. passport was taken away at the border control booth and I was instructed to sit in a holding area. After a lengthy wait, I was directed into a room where I was asked numerous questions about my family, places of residence and other details. Though I had expected some degree of questioning, I was alarmed by the focus on my Gazan background, despite the fact that I left as a young teenager.
After answering all the questions, I was sent to another room with three officers, who gave me a terrible piece of news: “You will not be admitted into Israel because you have a Palestinian ID number.” I argued that as a U.S. citizen, I had essentially given up my Palestinian citizenship; I have no official status in the Territories. The officers ignored my repeated offers to show documentation, including my communications with the San Francisco consulate, and pulled up a program on their computer that included a picture of myself as a child. As far as Israeli records were concerned, I was still an “active Palestinian citizen,” and would be treated accordingly.
I offered to put down a $3,000 security deposit, and showed thousands of dollars of hotel and tour reservations in Israel, but was still told no. I asked if it would be possible to be routed through Jordan; the answer was no.
I was next taken to a security room for an invasive strip search in which every part of me was probed and scrutinized by an officer. My body and my personal effects were swiped repeatedly by bomb-detecting probes. I felt humiliated. I felt violated.
I was told that I would be deported, and that I would not have access to my passport until I was back in the U.S. I asked if I could get it back in Turkey so that I could stay in Istanbul for a few days with my brother and friends. An officer yelled at me: “Stop talking! Be quiet! We are the border police: We control what happens to you, and only we decide what to do with you.”
I lost thousands of dollars on this trip. I was tormented, isolated, humiliated and made to feel like I was a criminal. I lost my credit and debit cards, and with no passport, no access to funds, zero support from the U.S. Consulate and Embassy in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and no idea how this deportation would proceed, the feeling of statelessness that I had last experienced over a decade ago was upon me again, under the most terrifying of circumstances.
This began as a journey to reunite with family members and to meet my peace and coexistence-promoting Israeli friends. It ended as a demoralizing and degrading experience that created more barriers and obstacles. Both sides brought me to points at which I felt like giving up.
But I won’t. I will not be hateful or bitter. I forgive the Israeli officers who treated me badly. For their attitudes and behavior to be different next time, I know that ceaseless, committed grassroots Israeli and Palestinian efforts towards mutual respect and understanding must prevail.