1 July 2004 Edition

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A day in the life

Israeli border guards at the Erez checkpoint

Israeli border guards at the Erez checkpoint

Irish human rights worker EOIN MURRAY writes from Gaza in Palestine about the tribulations involved in negotiating Israeli security checks as he travelled to Jordan to get his visa renewed, including one scare in which he was treated as a potential suicide bomber. This article was written before last weekend's upsurge in military activity in Gaza involving Palestinian fighters and the Israeli forces.

Things are normal in Gaza. The worrying thing is what normal means. Normal: low-level intensity conflict, including house demolitions, attacks on civilians and severe restrictions on movement.

Take, for example, the last of these. I have written on a number of occasions about the restrictions on movement imposed on Palestinians — those living in Gaza exist in the world's largest open-air prison.

Two weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to experience at first hand exactly what it is like to be a Palestine trying to go anywhere.

The time had come, to renew my visa that is. A trip to Amman was called for, long desired and (if I do say so myself) much deserved.

This was my first trip outside the Gaza Strip since my arrival three months ago. All I had to do was get out of Gaza, get to Jordan and enjoy myself before getting back into Israel. Easy, right?

Come back the European Union and freedom of movement — all is forgiven.

Erez

The first stage was to get out of Erez, the main crossing point for people from Gaza to Israel. Israeli Forces have closed Erez for the thousands of Palestinian workers who have jobs in Israel for over three months now. That's lucky for me as it means I don't have to queue up in the workers' tunnel behind them, struggling to get through in an area where a number of people have been killed from the crush and the chaos.

However, the checkpoint was busy, with about 20 people waiting at the various stages for exit. There are five stages to go through.

The first gate is where we wait and shout at the Israeli soldiers to let us through to the second stage. One of the people waiting with me knows a soldier and arranges (after an hour and a half clinging to the caged gate, faces pressed against the bars, waiting) with him to get us through quickly.

We reach stage two, the dreaded metal detector. This metal detector detects everything, including metal that doesn't appear to exist. A team from Medicins Sans Frontières ahead of us receives orders from the soldiers as to what items of clothing may be causing the beeping. Shoes are removed, bras are removed (because of the underwire).

The soldiers at Erez are the cream of the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) crop, mostly multilingual. Still, you can imagine my surprise when he requested one of the women to pass through the metal detector 'sans-culottes' (an archaic piece of French dating back to the French Revolution, meaning 'without trousers'). We all turned away as this poor woman complied, keeping the anger carefully bottled up inside as to explode now would jeopardise her chances of getting out of Erez anytime that day, or longer.

When it came to my turn I wondered would this ultra sensitive detector sense my tongue piercing? Would the Israeli Army be the only people who could convince me to take it out? Thankfully not.

Eventually, we all pass through after another series of checks in which unenthusiastic, hungry looking sniffer dogs rifle through our bags and unenthusiastic well fed security guards check us for explosives, three times no less.

Finally, we escaped Erez. The feeling of liberation on walking out of Gaza, and Erez, was wonderful. It should have all gone smoothly from there.

Allenby Bridge

The main crossing between Israel and Jordan is the Allenby Bridge. However, if you have not gotten a Jordanian visa in your country of residence then you must travel to Sheikh Hussein Bridge, further north.

The air as you drive into the basin of the Jordan river is so clear, the oxygen content so high because one is below sea level. It was still baking hot when the taxi arrived, abandoning me to my fate; we arranged to meet four days later at Allenby for the return journey, ensh'allah, god willing.

There is not an awful lot that you can do to hide the Gaza stamp on your Israeli visa. As soon as I meet with the first line of security they are friendly but are immediately calling into their radios that I have come from Gaza. From the shadows I see tall skinhead men wearing plain clothes and expensive sunglasses that indicate maybe they spend a lot of time in the sun watching what is going on around them.

Another team of security takes me to a shed where my bags are passed through an x-ray machine. As we go through this process again, I try to smile and speak a little Hebrew. It is generally a good natured affair as they laugh at the fact that all I can say is 'yesterday I ate Humous'. However, the process of checking my bag seems to be taking an extraordinary amount of time, 45 minutes seems a little unusual for an x-ray machine.

Bomb threat

Suddenly, the woman who is checking my bag runs out of the shed. She is hollering into her radio in Hebrew. About 50 metres out of the shed she turns and looks at me. She puts her hand over her mouth in shock before running back to get me. In the excitement she forgot to take me with her - she left the terrorist with the bomb... not very clever. However, before she reaches me, three men grab me. One holds my arms down against my body and another holds my head straight.

Another grabs my bag and tries to move me as quickly as he can. As I am built for comfort, not for speed, he doesn't get me anywhere very fast.

I can't help laughing at their techniques, which are used to stop suicide bombers. Traditionally, suicide bombers detonate by lifting their arms and pulling on wires. When the Israelis copped onto this, the bombers began to put touch pads on their shoulders. By placing your chin on your shoulder you complete the circuit and... well, the rest is gruesome. I look around me. Security has formed at least three concentric rings around me in case I try to escape. In the corner of my eye I see two women and a man being evacuated from the area.

I am made to kneel in an area that looks like an empty car park. A young security guard of almost 21 years approaches me. The questions begin.

Why were you in Gaza?

What were you doing in Gaza?

Describe the contents of your bag?

Are you carrying presents for anybody?

Describe the contents of your bag?

Tell me again why you were in Gaza?

What CDs are in your bag?

Tell me about the radio?

How many speakers does it have?

Did you buy it in Gaza?

What were you doing in Gaza?

We waltz around these issues for almost three hours as I kneel in the car park. This is part of the ongoing harassment of human rights defenders, which the Israelis seem to implement as policy.

MPs, humanitarian aid workers, doctors, teachers, even stand-up comedians have all been notoriously held by Israeli security and quizzed extensively about their whereabouts, who they met: it is, apparently, for our own security.

Who do you know in Gaza?

What were you doing there?

Why are you going to Jordan?

Do you speak Arabic?

Describe the contents of your bag?

It is appropriate to treat your interrogators with a certain degree of disdain, even flippancy. This is particularly the case since they appear to be a bunch of amateur security guards who want to have a bit of excitement on an otherwise quiet Friday morning. All my friends in Gaza are called Mahmoud, Mohammad and Mustafa (which is, more or less, true). If my bag managed to pass the almighty security check at Erez only hours before, I fail to understand how these kids, who look like the cast of Grange Hill, only spottier, can have found something that warrants treating me as a threat to the security of the state of Israel.

Eventually I am allowed to go, no apology, no explanation. nothing.

However, I notice that from that point on I benefit from the shadowy presence of three of the tall tanned men I saw earlier lurking in the background. They follow and watch from a distance. I try to be friendly and treat them as if they are fellow travellers. I offer them water and ask them how long they are going to Jordan for. As soon as I try to approach them they walk away from me, looking confused. It is over the course of this time that it begins to dawn on me that the Israeli security apparatus is not as clever as I thought it was.

Amman and back again

Amman was really nice. Unfortunately, I didn't get to Petra as I only had three days and had a strong urge to relax. I have to admit that I spent one whole day in the cinema, wondering where will I be the day after tomorrow when I have to return to Israel? I was guided around Amman by a friend of a friend working in a human rights NGO who managed to negotiate half price on everything by telling people that I worked in human rights in Gaza.

The return journey was less then pleasant, although it didn't involve an arrest. When I arrived in Allenby, ready again to go through hours of security checks, I failed to understand the woman at the passport control who asked in a thick Israeli accent "are you a tourist?"

"Am I a terrorist? Of course not!"

Maybe that was the reason I had to sit for four and a half hours in Allenby border crossing — not so much intimidating as boring.

However, eventually they let me in, with a caveat from one of the burly men holding a gun: "If I was in your shoes I would never come back to Israel after this visa runs out."

After all, I'm a terrorist, not a tourist.

Security Check at Allenby Bridge

from In Exchange for a Homeland by Yosefa Raz,

an academic and former Israeli border guard

I took an old man's nail clippers

safety pins

chocolates.

I tore wrappers off birthday presents

that were never meant for me.

Shook out a thin, quiet woman's underwear.

Every cup the woman in the dusty black dress

packed in newspaper

so carefully -

white china with a green stripe -

went into a plastic cart.

She pulls at my sleeve.

Perhaps she is saying,

"Don't break them."

They told me:

Protect the security of the State.

Wear the uniform with pride.

How to say,

hada mamnua: this is confiscated;

ruch min hun: go in this direction;

how to take the women aside to a booth

when the metal detector goes off,

make them remove bracelet after golden bracelet,

pass the hand-held detector

over arms and legs, chest and back.

Little prices to pay

they say

there is no choice.

A humiliation of small details -

I fingered a businessman's toothbrush

I tried to untie the knots of string

holding together the pilgrims' striped blankets

with my clean white gloves.

The week the pilgrims returned from Mecca

they were detained on buses at the border for three days,

ate cucumbers and yogurt they brought in string bags.

A tall man carrying a beige suitcase told me,

"We are so glad to be home."

The Jordan river slowed to a trickle;

the lowest spot on earth.

Shed your silver sandals.

Shed your stained white robes.

The concrete is burning.


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