8 December 2009
Terrorist at the Airport
Every Palestinian citizen of Israel who has traveled abroad has similar stories of the Israeli security at the airport. All stories share a common thread: feelings of humiliation as the number 5 or, in a worse case, the number 6 is stuck to the passport; receiving special treatment because we answer “no” when asked if we served the army; our bags being thoroughly searched through, our most private items being flaunted in front of everybody, and a security “express lane” especially for us, because we constitute a security “threat.”
I was accepted to the 2009/2010 Isis – Women’s International Cross-Cultural Exchange Program Institute on documentation of violations of human rights. How ironic. Participants were asked to bring with them their traditional dress and their country/national flags. I don’t own a traditional Palestinian dress, but I have two kufiyyas, which I couldn’t take with me, as the black-and-white Palestinian kufiyya has become a symbol of terrorism. That would have won me extra-special treatment at the airport, with my own escort and a seat at the very back of the plane – as far as possible from the pilot.
As for the Palestinian flag – that would be even worse, being caught with the flag of the “enemy.” I have a small pouch with the Palestinian flag hand-stitched on its front. I turned the pouch inside out, stuffed it with a couple of sanitary pads, and hoped it would escape being noticed.
I arrived at the airport four hours before my scheduled flight, as I wanted to spend some time in the duty free shops. If lucky, I’d only get the number 5. These numbers indicate the degree of security threat passengers pose. I stood in line and tried to guess the numbers each passenger would get. In front of me, an older couple with large red suitcases waited their turn. Their looks betrayed their Ashkenazi background. I made a mental note to myself: number 1. I then turned my attention to a young Thai man with long hair and a bulking backpack. He’d get a number 5 at least. Young tourists and volunteers usually get a number 5 or, at best a number 4.
A young woman in a uniform approaches me and, with a polite smile, asks me in English, “Do you speak Hebrew?” I smile back at her, “Of course,” keeping the is it that obvious I am an Arab to myself. She opens my passport and, squinting at my name, I can tell she’s struggling to get it right. “Kalud?”
“Khulud,” I correct her. They’re not allowed to ask straight if I’m an Arab or what my religion is. in the past, they’d ask questions such as which holidays do we celebrate at home and to which school one went. They’ve changed their tactics lately, “What’s the origin of your name?” I guess this question is much more straight-forward and it saves some time. And there is no way around it; with the holidays, I used to say that we don’t celebrate any. Here the only answer is “Arabic.” I search for an elusive answer, and within seconds come up with a good one, “It’s the name my family gave me.”
“Did you served in the army, the police, or anything similar?” And my “no” immediately earns me a number 5 – the “almost terrorist” status.
From then on, I received special treatment. The number 5 gave me a “handle with care” status at every stage. After my luggage was X-rayed, I was motioned to a stand where a very polite young lady searched through my belongings. My lap-top and camera were taken away to be processed in a special device. My luggage was meticulously searched for suspicious items. I stood there waiting, the security persons whispering some things to each other, checking their paperwork, while all the light-skinned passengers passed straight to the check-in without a second glance. All dark-skinned were sent to this special line to have their luggage searched.
When they were finished with me, I went to check in, and then proceeded to the next stage, where only passengers are allowed. I already know the drill, so I showed the woman my passport with my number 5 sticker and she immediately motioned me to my own special lane, which was empty of passengers. Five security persons were waiting for me. I didn’t wait for them to ask me if I had a laptop, and I took it out of my backpack and handed it to them. My backpack was put on the X-ray belt, and it entered the black box. Two men stood behind the computer screen, and for a whole minute they scrutinized the insides of my backpack. Meanwhile, I went through the metal-detecting machine, and it beeped. I took off my watch, and went back through. Again I beeped. “Do you have any coins in your pockets?” I said I didn’t, and then remembered, “I have metal bars in my bra.” Two of them looked at each other, a bit embarrassed. I was asked to take off my shoes and my body was searched by a woman. They then asked for my camera, chargers and cables. It took ten more minutes for me to get out of there. And with that, my humiliation ended. Now I braced myself for the return trip, which I knew would be much worse, since I was flying with EL-Al.
[My adventures with the security on my return trip will be posted next time]