Eighteen hours in Ben Gurion airport

Omar al-Qattan
22 May 2003

On 14 May 2003, my film crew and I arrived at Ben Gurion airport to make a film for European Channel Arté on the journey of the celebrated writer John Berger and the Swiss photographer Jean Mohr to the West Bank and Gaza Strip – the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since 1967. We arrived at the airport at 4pm and were made to wait, without explanation, for two hours, before I was interrogated and told that I was under suspicion of being a terrorist.

This was my second trip to Israel and the Occupied Territories this year and one of many trips I have made there over the last decade. During this period I have been involved in directing and producing films for various broadcasters, as well as setting up the Palestinian branches of a British educational and cultural charity in both Ramallah and Gaza.

The press office at the Israeli Embassy in London had been informed of our trip and, since I have never encountered anything more or less than the usual harassment at Ben Gurion to which anyone who works with Palestinians is subjected, I did not envisage any substantial problems.


The officer interrogating me explained that the recent bombings of a Tel Aviv café by two British citizens had made it necessary to be more than usually vigilant with British citizens of Arab or Muslim origin, but that if the information I had provided turned out to be true, we would be allowed into the country.

Another three hours passed with no developments. The British Embassy in Tel Aviv called the airport but was unable to ascertain whether we would be allowed in or not. At 10pm, we were led into a room where all our belongings were thoroughly searched. This took another two hours.

At that point, I called the veteran Israeli human rights lawyer, Lea Tsemel, to ask for help and she immediately began the procedure of filing a court petition in case we were barred from entering the country – but this could only be done once the authorities had announced their decision, which even at that late hour, they had not.

Half an hour after our first search had ended, we were taken out to another area where we were again searched. This was an absurdly theatrical and humiliating process with no “security” justification whatsoever. Then we were led away and told that our entry to Israel was refused on grounds of “security”. We asked the official to explain exactly what sort of threat we posed, but she refused to expand and announced that we would be put on the next flight back to London.

We were then led to the airport police cell where a policeman told us that our deportation could either be “civilised” (if we complied) or not so “nice” if we didn’t. I protested that under International Aviation Law they had no right to force us to fly anywhere, nor would the pilot have a right to fly us against our wishes. The policeman – by now he had become openly threatening – assured me that no pilot had ever refused to fly in these circumstances, and that our only possible recourse was the court. He then announced that this was not a prison and proceeded to lock us into a small, insalubrious room with three bunk beds and an army of mosquitoes.

In the event, our court petition was rejected. It took the judge three hours to make a decision – probably, according to our lawyer, because she had come under political pressure not to allow us in. The lawyer advised us not to pursue the matter further for fear of receiving a formal court order against our entry, which would be very difficult to overturn, and to fly back to protest our treatment with the appropriate bodies in Britain. Eighteen hours after our arrival we were therefore put on a flight back to London.

Why now?

Why is this happening? Nothing in my past activities could even remotely be suspected of political or any other kind of violence. From the interrogation, it was clear that the Israeli authorities knew all that they needed to know about me. So why now?

There have been many similar cases of arbitrary action by Israeli police in recent months, and particularly in recent weeks, targeting individuals and organisations working with Palestinian civil society. Only last week, the regional representative of the prestigious Ford Foundation, Emma Playfair, who is a British subject, was also denied entry. The crippling effect of this gratuitous action on Palestinian society – already suffering from thirty months of closure, curfew, collective punishment, house demolitions and economic deprivation on an unprecedented scale – has been very severe and will continue to be so.

But this latest incident also seems to be part of a political war which the Israeli government is fighting against the British government and its citizens in response to new political realities in the country: rising popular support for the Palestinians in Britain, the British government’s (belated) defence of Palestinian rights in their recent lobbying of the White House on behalf of the “roadmap”, and most of all the success of the non-violent resistance movement against the occupation, led by international (and Israeli) activists.

In the latter movement, British participation has been substantial and often extremely brave – as in the case of Tom Hurndall, a young man from north London who was shot in the head while trying to save a Palestinian child from the Israeli army and lies to this day in a coma.

Not only activists have been targeted. Consular cars have been shot at and made to wait for hours at checkpoints. Journalists have also become fair game. Following the fatal shooting of British cameraman James Miller in Rafah, the Israeli authorities are now refusing to allow foreign nationals into the Gaza Strip unless they sign a (completely illegal) waiver which absolves Israel from responsibility should they be killed or injured. Interestingly, the government press office no longer issues press passes to documentary makers. Would this kind of treatment of Israeli visitors to Britain be tolerated?

I believe that Israel has been able to behave in this way because of the British government’s timid and contradictory position on the Middle East. It seems, from Ariel Sharon’s viewpoint, that Tony Blair is becoming irritatingly excited over the prospect of Palestinian statehood, and thus no longer a ‘good friend’ to Israel.

Why is Sharon able to humiliate Tony Blair in this way? First, against overwhelming popular support for the Palestinians in Britain and unprecedented public anger at Israel’s aggression against the Palestinian people (what an Israeli colleague of mine, the filmmaker Eyal Sivan, calls “sociocide”), the Blair government persists in equating the Palestinian and Israeli positions as if there could ever be any parity between a military occupier and an occupied civilian population. It has also refused to condemn Israel other than in the most pusillanimous terms.

Moreover, no punitive responses are ever envisaged against the Sharon government, even though Britain is in a position at least to threaten to take them, either on its own or through the European Union. Is it surprising then that Britain’s government is now held in the utmost contempt by its Israeli counterpart?

The only thing which will improve this situation is for Tony Blair to take a much firmer position towards Israel: to make absolutely clear that its army and government cannot continue to act with impunity when British citizens are shot, humiliated and deported – and, above all, when it continues to exercise its murderous and abhorrent occupation.

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