Four days in Israeli detention

July 19, 2011

Laura Durkay, one of dozens of international activists who flew to Israel to challenge its apartheid policies against Palestinians, reports on her experiences in detention.

"WHAT IS your father's name?" "James."

"What is his father's name?" "Andrew."

"Where are you going?" "Bethlehem."

"Where are you staying there?" "At the Lajee Center in Aida Refugee Camp."

That is as far as my conversation at Israeli passport control goes. I am at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, one of dozens of activists who have flown in from across Europe and the U.S. for the "Welcome to Palestine" mission, a week of cultural and solidarity activities organized by Palestinian civil resistance groups across the West Bank.

As part of our mission, our Palestinian hosts have asked us to honestly declare our intention of traveling to the West Bank to visit Palestinians. Israel controls all access points into the West Bank. While traveling to the Occupied Territories is not strictly illegal under Israeli law, internationals and Palestinians living abroad are commonly interrogated, searched, harassed and often denied entry if they state their intention to visit or work with Palestinians.

Israeli activists support the "Welcome to Palestine" action at Ben-Gurion International Airport
Israeli activists support the "Welcome to Palestine" action at Ben-Gurion International Airport

The political policing at Israeli-controlled borders is just one facet of an elaborate system that keeps Palestinians in the Occupied Territories isolated and under siege. The Welcome to Palestine mission is intended to be a mass challenge to these policies--so of course, the Israeli government is doing everything it can to stop it.

In the days before July 8, when hundreds of nonviolent activists were scheduled to arrive at Ben Gurion Airport, the Israeli government's hysteria about the action reached a fever pitch. On July 5, Israeli Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch said of the activists: "These hooligans who try to break our laws will not be allowed into the country and will be returned immediately to their home countries"--conveniently ignoring the fact that none of the activities of the Welcome to Palestine campaign are illegal under Israeli law.

In the days before our arrival, Israeli government officials issued numerous threats against us in the media, and airport security was beefed up despite our clear statements that we were not planning to stage any demonstrations inside the airport and were committed to nonviolence in all our actions.

In a last-ditch effort to stop Welcome to Palestine activists from reaching Ben Gurion Airport, the Israeli government sent a blacklist to major European airlines, containing the names of 374 passengers to be barred from boarding their planes in Europe. Most airlines seemed to comply with this list, sending last-minute letters or phone calls to some activists to tell them in advance that they would not be allowed to fly.

Many more, including the majority of the French delegation, the largest component of the campaign, arrived at the airport and were simply refused permission to board their flights. If the siege of Gaza extends to the shores of Greece, it seems the blockade of the West Bank covers all of Europe.

In London, the night before departing, our group of about 15 British, Irish and American citizens discussed what we would do if we were kept off our flight out of Luton Airport. Those of us who had been speaking and writing openly about the Welcome to Palestine mission were quite sure we would be on the blacklist.

At the airport the next morning, one American was, in fact, kept off the plane by security at the very last minute. But as the plane took off, I and the other participants realized that we had cleared the first hurdle and were on our way to Palestine.

FROM THE moment we land at Ben Gurion Airport around 4 p.m. on Friday, it's clear that the security presence is intense. Plainclothes officers line the hallway leading from the gate to passport control, watching us as we disembark. Mick Napier of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, our delegation leader, gives us hushed updates about other groups that had been stopped in Europe or here at the airport.

As we approach passport control, he turns back to us and says simply, "Now it's our turn." And it was.

At passport control, anyone who lists their destination as "Bethlehem," "Palestine" or "the West Bank" is quickly pulled aside, their passports disappearing into the hands of Israeli immigration officials. After most of my group has been waylaid by security, we are herded into a basement immigration holding area, where a number of French, Belgian and German activists are already being detained. There are about 40 of us packed into the small waiting room. The immigration officials are not interrogating us. We think they are mostly just trying to figure out what to do with us.

We are held in the downstairs waiting area for about three hours. During this time, I am taking non-stop press calls from Israeli and international media. I am shocked that the Israeli officials let me keep my phone (and even let me charge it), but determined to let as many people know what is happening as possible. I also contact the U.S. consulate in Tel Aviv--not that I expect them to do anything to help us, but on principle, I think they should know that Americans are being detained.

Around 7 p.m., a large number of plainclothes and uniformed immigration officers, police and Border Patrol soldiers suddenly enter the room. I attempt to sneak a picture of the Border Patrol soldiers with my phone, only to have it roughly grabbed out of my hands by a burly immigration officer in a suit. I knew I wasn't going to be able to hang onto it indefinitely, but the loss of my only connection to the outside world still makes me nervous, especially since something is clearly about to go down. We notice several officers filming us, including one who climbs onto a desk to get a better angle.

Suddenly, a couple of the officers grab a French man who looks to be of Arab descent and try to pull him out of the room by himself. He protests that he wanted to stay with the group, and his comrades tried to nonviolently resist him being removed from the room. This is all the excuse the police and soldiers need to move in and start punching, hitting and shoving anyone they can reach.

It's clear the whole event is a deliberate provocation staged for the camera--perhaps to demonstrate what "hooligans" we are. At the same time, it's hard to imagine us passively allowing someone to be removed from the group against their will--particularly someone of Arab origin who is quite right to believe they are more likely to be mistreated.

The upshot of the scuffle is that we are not removed from the room one by one, but in pairs or small groups. (We still have no idea where we are being relocated to, and no one will tell us.) I pair up with a British woman named Fiona, and we link arms so we can't be separated.

I am still trying to regain possession of my phone, which I can see the immigration officers playing with behind the desk. "I'll turn it off, I'll delete the pictures, I just want my phone back," I tell one of the men in suits. No go. We are forcibly shoved out of the room, with one of the immigration officers pinching Fiona hard on the arm to make her comply. When Fiona says something along the lines of "That's not necessary, we're going," the only response is "You fucking bitch."

We are taken up to a women's bathroom inside the airport where our bags and persons are searched (thankfully, we are not strip-searched). From there, we're taken outside to an isolated corner of the airport, where what looks like a normal tour bus with dark windows awaits us. "Get in the limo, you're going to the 'Hotel of Immigration,'" one of the officers says sarcastically. We are pretty sure the "Hotel of Immigration" is prison.

Once we enter the bus, we realize it has been converted to a police wagon on the inside, with metal grates on the windows and hard metal seats. Men and women are separated and put in different sections of the bus. While none of the women are handcuffed or shackled, several of the men are. It is night by this point, but still quite hot, and the bus is stifling and crawling with roaches. We sit there for three hours, with no ventilation, no food or water, no toilet access and no information on what will happen next.

We finally get a few bottles of water by banging on the metal walls to demand them. Everyone is nervous. If this is how we are being arrested, are there worse things to come?

Around 11 p.m., we finally start driving. No one has told us where we are going, but those in the front of the bus are able to look out the tiny window and identify street signs for Ramla, a Palestinian town conquered in 1948 that is about 19 kilometers from Tel Aviv. I know there is an immigration detention center there, which is normally filled with migrant workers who have lost their visas and African refugees who have attempted to cross Israel's border through the Sinai.

Sure enough, Givon Detention Center, with its massive gate and barbed-wire-topped walls, is exactly where we end up.

WE'RE BROUGHT into a large open room to wait while we are processed for detention extremely slowly. Around 1 a.m., after nine hours of detention, we're finally given some food, which the guards film us eating so they can demonstrate how "humanely" they're treating us. We're allowed to keep our carry-on luggage with us, although our IDs, money, credit cards, and any media and electronics are confiscated.

Those of us (like me) who had been stupid enough to check a bag have not been reunited with it, and therefore have no toiletries and no change of clothes. I'm finally processed and put in a cell with five other women around 2:30 a.m.--only to be woken up for a head count at 6:30 the next morning.

It doesn't matter how "humane" the conditions are--waking up in prison sucks. There's a lot of anxiety on the first day, since no one knows how long we'll be here and how the guards might treat us. At one point, a rumor goes around that they're trying to photograph and fingerprint us all, and we must all resist because we are not criminals.

I imagine being in a room full of guards, alone, outnumbered, having to physically resist being fingerprinted, and get quite scared. That threat turns out not to materialize--either the rumor wasn't accurate, or they gave up that project after they realized we were all going to resist. But it's a shaky first day or so.

My first cell contains one Austrian, one German-Palestinian woman whose father was from Gaza, and three Belgians. We're all between the ages of 23 and 31, and four of us are Muslim. Needless to say, these ladies do not exactly fit the stereotype of the meek, submissive Muslim woman.

Some of the women in my cell had been part of a small group of mostly young Arabs who were separated from the large group at the airport and put in a smaller arrest van with a large number of soldiers and police, who filmed them and made sexually suggestive comments. One French Algerian woman was very roughly arrested, beaten, kicked, and put in handcuffs and leg irons before being thrown in the arrest van.

Someone has markers, and we distract ourselves by graffiting all over the walls and lockers in our cell. When the guards finally open the doors and allow us out into the closed-off hall of our cellblock a few hours later, we see that almost every cell has graffiti written on the walls and doors. Many cells have used soap or toothpaste to write "Free Palestine" on the inside of the doors. The prison toothpaste takes the paint off the doors, which is funny--until you think about the fact you've been brushing your teeth with it.

Consular officials begin arriving that morning. The two people from the American consulate are friendly and do call our families, but they don't seem to have much power or information about what will happen to us. They initially tell us that we will be deported that night--it turns out they're off by three days.

ON SATURDAY, when the consular officials are present, our cell doors are kept open most of the day. We're still confined to a closed hallway, but at least we can move about and talk to each other. The next day, Sunday, we're locked up for 21 out of 24 hours. We demand phone calls, only to be told "later." We start to joke that in Hebrew, the word "later" means "never."

When we point out that it says on the "prisoners' rights" document on the wall that we are to be allowed phone calls within 24 hours, we are told: "You're special--those rights don't apply to you."

On the second night, I switch to the cell across the way without asking permission. It turns out the guards aren't keeping track of us that carefully, and no one notices. I want to be with Donna, the other American, since there are only two of us.

One of the prisoners in my second cell is Pippa Bartolotti, the only Brit who made it through passport control, perhaps because she is very posh and does not look like a "typical activist" (whatever that is). She is a Brit with an Italian name because her grandfather was sent out of fascist Italy as a teenager--other family members did not survive.

On Friday, she made it out of the airport only to get a frantic text from one of us while we were being attacked by security in the basement. Her no-nonsense approach to getting back into the airport was effective (you can, and really must, watch the video here) but did result in her getting thrown to the ground and roughly handcuffed with someone's knee on her back. The marks from the handcuffs are still visible, and the bruises are just beginning to appear.

There is also an older French woman in our cell who has diarrhea. Her requests to see a doctor are being ignored. We take care of her--thankfully, Donna is a nurse--but it's not until the day we're released that she's finally able to see a doctor to her satisfaction. It's pure luck that she doesn't become seriously ill.

A sort of primitive communism develops in which everyone instinctively shares food, clothing, toiletries and the most precious resource, information. Enough people speak either French or English that those become the common languages. When French and Belgian activists come back from their consular visits reporting that our story is huge in the European media and there are protests in support of us in Paris and Brussels, it's like a ray of light.

We find ways to entertain ourselves, sharing stories and singing songs. The light switches for our cells are outside in the hall, so once the doors are locked at 8 p.m., there is no way to turn the lights off. The girls across the hall from us work out an ingenious solution that involves a spoon attached to a mop head and some feeling around for the light switch with the guidance of your cellmates across the hall.

Some of us begin to be allowed to see lawyers, although who is permitted to go seems totally random. We have two wonderful Palestinian lawyers, Anan and Samer, from Addameer, a prisoners' rights organization, who are representing us pro bono. They are allowed to see us between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m.--not nearly enough time to talk to the approximately 120 of us who are here. I am the last person of the day to see them on Sunday, and they spend half our meeting arguing with the guards, who are trying to kick them out before they can give us any information. The guards seem determined to humiliate them, but they somehow maintain their dignity. I guess they've had a lot of practice.

The main thing they are able to tell us is that we are in a sort of legal black hole. The Israeli government is arguing that we have not formally entered Israel and are still "in transit," as we would be as if we were being detained at the airport. Our lawyers are countering that this is absurd since we have now spent several days in a prison 19 miles from the airport. They warn us in no uncertain terms not to sign anything the Israelis give us. They tell us that it can take up to four days to get a deportation hearing, at which point the judge can decide, arbitrarily, to hold us for another four days--meaning we could be here for up to a week. This seems to me to be a pale shadow of the system of administrative detention that Palestinians face--in which what's days for us can be months or years for them.

At 1 p.m. on Monday--almost three full days into our detention--I am finally allowed to make my phone call. I go with Pippa, whose phone was confiscated and still has not been returned. While Pippa is arguing with the guards, demanding to use their phone (request denied), I'm able to send some surreptitious text messages. I call my parents and tell them to call an activist friend in New York. "Tell her to call the media, tell everyone what's happening, do something to get us out," I say. At that point, I'm promptly told, "Your time is up now."

ON MONDAY afternoon, some people start to be deported. We hear that two of the British men have left. We later learn that there were numerous empty seats on the flight they were on. I think it's just pure disorganization that some of the women were not put on that flight.

On Tuesday afternoon, eight of our English-speaking crew are finally driven to the airport. We are taken to a completely empty security screening area, made to sit down and surrounded by about 20 immigration officers and police. Suddenly, we are told: "You can go to Bethlehem now."

No one is sure exactly what is going on, but being surrounded and outnumbered two-to-one by threatening security officers makes it really hard to believe this is a sincere offer. We are at the airport--surely they have already secured seats for us on the EasyJet flight that's about to depart. We notice they are filming us again.

Maybe the point of this is to film us refusing their offer--which we do on principle, since dozens of our comrades have already been deported--so they can say, "Look, we offered them the chance to go to Bethlehem, and they didn't really want it, so that proves they were just here to make trouble."

At this point, I feel they're just screwing with us and get quite angry. I stand up and start questioning the head immigration officer, the thug who orchestrated the attack on us in the basement holding area on Friday night. "If you say you're letting us in now, why didn't you let us in four days ago?" He says something about there being dangerous people in our midst. "Who?" I demand. "You know." "No, I don't know. Tell me who." I try to get him to say something about "terrorist" Arabs or Muslims among us, which I'm sure is what he means, but he, at least, is too smart for that.

Finally, we are put on the plane, separated from all the other passengers. We get our passports back from a flight attendant. Most people's are stamped ENTRY DENIED, but mine is stamped with nothing. It's as if I never entered the country, even though I've been in prison for the past four days. It is 8 p.m. on Tuesday when the plane finally takes off. We have been detained for 100 hours.

Throughout the whole process, we never saw a single piece of paper stating why we were being detained. If we have deportation orders, we did not see or sign them. We got no information about whether we are banned from re-entering Palestine, although I don't think any of us expect a problem-free entry in the future.

We are well aware, as we fly off from a country we supposedly never entered, that things could have been much worse. We all know that the way we were treated is nothing--nothing at all--compared to what happens to Palestinians.

As internationals, we have the luxury of only encountering the repressive system on its mildest setting. Our prison experience was full of barked orders, petty meanness, and lies upon lies upon lies, but we learned by the end that the guards were very much unwilling to use violence against us. Not because they were particularly nice, but because they knew the story would get out. As Westerners, our lives are still perceived as having some value. Less so for the poor migrants who filled the rest of the prison, and not at all for Palestinians.

Like the response to the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, like the violence against the Nakba and Naksa Day protests and the brutality that unarmed protesters in Palestine face every day, the Israeli government's response to the Welcome to Palestine mission shows that they know only one way to react to nonviolent protest--with brute repression and total stupidity. If they had simply let us in, there would have been no story. Instead, they created a multi-day media embarrassment for themselves and ensured that all of us came out of prison more determined to fight.

By detaining dozens of Europeans and Americans for simply declaring their intent to visit Palestinian cities, the Israeli government has only internationalized the struggle. We will return to our countries and build the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. We will continue to speak out against Israeli apartheid and for Palestinian human rights. And we will return to Palestine. We know we are always welcome.

Further Reading

From the archives