In the early hours of Monday morning, 21 April, journalist Abir Sarras was denied entry into Israel by border guards at the international airport in Tel Aviv. She was detained in a jail cell for several hours before being put on a plane back to the Netherlands. Her intention was to document stories about the 60-year history of the state of Israel. Instead, she is back home, at Radio Netherlands Worldwide, and now has a very different story to tell.
A sigh of relief and a feeling of homecoming overcame me. It was 3 am when the plane touched down at Ben Gurion airport, whose white stone buildings are surrounded by palm trees as if they were guarding the premises. At the passport control I presented my Dutch passport. With an uncomfortable glimpse the young lady behind the desk asked why I was born in Jerusalem. "Wait on the side", I was told.
Minutes later, she escorted me to the waiting room. After a short talk with another security agent, I was told that I would not be allowed to enter Israel via the airport because I had a Palestinian passport.
"According to the Oslo Accords, Palestinians are only allowed to enter from Allenby bridge".
"But sir, I am Dutch, and I've come to report from Israel, not the Palestinian territories".
At this point I presented him with my accreditation papers and a press card. He hardly took a look at them, and I was instructed to wait. It quickly became clear to me that I would be sent back. But despite my disappointment I was not too worried, because I knew that I could board a return flight an hour later.
Three female security agents escorted me to a separate room where I was subjected to a thorough check. All my belongings were inspected one by one. Then I was told that I had missed my flight and would have to wait for the next one, a day later.
I called the Israeli Consul in the Netherlands to protest. I woke him up:
"I told you they would send you back."
was his quick reply.
"But they are keeping me here, I am being arrested",
I said. I handed my mobile telephone to the security agents, hoping the consul would tell them to put me on the next KLM flight. But they refused to talk to him.
Because I protested against the fact that I was being held for another day, a female police agent threatened to remove me by force. She took me to another highly secure building just outside the airport. A sign hung outside: "IMMIGRATION".
As I was led into the jail building, I was told that I could not keep my luggage with me. The guards, who spoke Russian to each other, had difficulty commanding me in English. They let me keep my mobile phone, but only because it did not have a built-in camera.
In the hallway hung a poster with the rules of detention, in several languages. The guard opened my cell and ordered me to move. I was not allowed to read further.
As I entered the cell it became clear to me why no cameras were allowed. There were two bunkbeds with plastic-covered mattresses, a filthy toilet next door, and a shower. A few used towels were on the dirty floor, along with broken pieces of used soap.
On the table were leftovers from the previous guests: an open can of Coke, a stack of matzohs, a few dirty but colorful plastic cups. A pair of slippers and two bags of trash were waiting to be picked up by the door. The walls were decorated with graffiti in several languages: Arabic, English, French, Russian. But no Hebrew. One scrawled message reads: "This holy land is holy no more".
The night wore on.
In the next few hours, more guests arrived. They were Africans, eastern Europeans, Arabs, and three Chinese. Next door, in cell 104, a mother is detained while her children are allowed to play in the hallway.
Hours later breakfast is served: more matzohs, half a tin of tuna on a plastic plate, and some white cheese.
"Where is your cup?"
The guard reaches out to the sink, grabs one of the dirty and discolored cups, and pours in my breakfast tea.
I ask a guard what the procedure is if I want to find an earlier flight home.
"You have to pay for it yourself",
the guard replies. The chief guard tells me to have my employer fax the e-ticket to his office. As I write down the fax number on the back of my notebook, he grabs my pen.
"You are not here to write your memoirs".
He goes after my notebook:'
"I want to read what you are writing".
After many phone calls with my colleague Nicolien den Boer (a fellow journalist from Radio Netherlands Worldwide who is now travelling in Palestinian territory, ed.), and with my family in Hilversum, I was asked to hand in my mobile phone. I protested. This was my only way to communicate with the outside, I said. The agent threatened:
"You will not leave soon, I will see to that".
Contacting the embassy
When I gave up my mobile, the agent in charge offered to let me use his phone. But then I found that I could not make international calls. I quickly called the Dutch Embassy in Tel Aviv. Consular Affairs explained to me that the embassy could not help, because Israeli rules on the entry of Palestinians apply to all Palestinians, regardless of what other citizenship they might have.
However, the embassy offered to help me contact my employer so I could get a return ticket. She spoke to the chief guard, Yakov, who told both of us that my departure depended on "good behaviour".
An hour later, Consular Affairs called with the news that I was to leave aboard an Alitalia flight at quarter past one in the afternoon. Thirty minutes before the flight, agents came to get me from my cell and gave me back my luggage. They brought me to the runway. As I boarded an aircraft filled with lively, tan-faced Italians, I whispered to myself:
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Dutch journalist deported from Israeli airport
© 2008 Abir Sarras