Interrogated, detained and deported – when studying became a security threat
Israel controls the borders of Palestine since the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank following the Six-Day War in 1967. As a consequence it is not possible to enter Palestine without passing the rigorous Israeli border controls. Subsequently, it’s up to Israeli border control officers whether people are allowed to enter Palestine in order to spend a semester abroad, do an internship, travel or visit friends. Israel is well aware of this power and uses it to obstruct or even prevent the travels of unwanted visitors.
Palestine’s oldest university in Birzeit offers international students to spend a semester at the university in order to study Arabic or to take courses in Social science. However, it’s impossible for a student to be greanted a visa from Israel to study at a Palestinian university. In addition, an Israeli tourist visa, usually valid for three months, can be hard to come by for visitors interested in spending time in the non-touristic parts of the occupied territories.
An employee of the international program at Birzeit University claim that they feel obliged to advise foreign students not to share information regarding their plans to study at Birzeit. In the past, several students were denied entry after having mentioned their plans of studying in Palestine to the Israeli border control officers. Despite the advice, it is common that one or two students are denied entry each semester. A while ago, five out of 45 students weren’t allowed to cross the border. An employee argues that “there is no clear policy, so you never know what is going to happen”.
As a result of this arbitrary policy it becomes a game of chance for foreign students to spend a second semester in Birzeit because a new semester requires a new visa. A few years ago every foreign student had to renew their visa because the semester for the international program was the same as for the Palestinian students, lasting four to five months. After increased problems for international students concerning the reneweal of their tourist visas, the university decided to shorten their semester to three months in order to make sure that they complete their studies without the risk of having to leave in the middle of the semester.
However, problems still occur when former students try to return to Israel and Palestine to visit friends or to travel. Within three days of each other earlier this spring, two European women were denied reentry after having finished their studies. One of them is Sara from Sweden who was banned for ten years when trying to visit her friends in Ramallah. Sara explains that when arriving in Tel Aviv she was immediately questioned about her return and why she spent three months in Israel at an earlier point. When answering that she had studied in Birzeit and returned for vacation, an officer confiscated her passport and she was questioned five times by four different persons within eight hours. She was then told that she was a “security threat” and would thus not be able to get a visa to enter Israel in the following ten years.
– After the decision, I got my bags and body searched. Then I was shoved into a van and transported to an immigration facility. My bags and phone were locked in a storage, and I was locked in a cell. It was like a prison. The room was tiny and the lights could only be turned on and off by the guards. I got sandwiches three times a day, and only got to spend fifteen minutes outdoors in a fenced yard. I shared a room with a number of other women who didn’t speak English but at least they kept a smile on their and my face.
Initially, Sara was told that she was going to stay the night at the facility and be deported the next morning. However, when the officers checked the flights available her deportation was delayed for another five days. After 24 hours in detention Sara managed to make a deal with the staff that she could leave sooner if she paid for her own return ticket. Later that night, she managed to take a flight back to Sweden.
Despite her experience, Sara says she is glad to have witnessed the treatment of the Israeli border control with her own eyes as she now has a better understanding of the situation of the Palestinians.
– Well, I survived. Really, it was just a small thing. A small thing compared to the lifelong suffering of the Palestinians because of the Israeli occupation.
One can argue that Israel doesn’t do any good with its rigorous and arbitrary border control – on the contrary, it attracts negative publicity. None of the former Birzeit students who have been denied entry or held at the border recently have had any intention other than visiting friends or doing an internship. All of them have now either blog about their experience at the border or share their story with people through other ways.
Moreover, by its behaviour Israel is misses out on the chance of getting get these young and open-minded people interested in its cause. Before the trouble at the border the students interviewed for this article claimed that they were seriously trying to understand the Israeli perspective but gave up after the unpleasant encounters with the border police. Another Swedish student, recently held at the border for several hours before finally being granted a tourist visa for one month instead of the usual three months, was clearly bothered by the incident:
– Until now I was trying to see and understand the Israeli perspective, but I don’t even want to go to West Jerusalem. anymore. That was just too much.