Working the Visa System
In any regime that controls people, finding ways to ďwork the systemĒ becomes standard discussion among the systemís targets. Internationals sympathetic to the Palestinians always get extra attention from Israelís border control and finding ways to enter the country and remain here legally is a constant concern.
For Americans and citizens of most western countries, Israel grants a three-month tourist visa at the airport or any border crossing entitling the traveler to move through Israel and the occupied territories with the exception of the Gaza Strip. For foreigners who want to stay longer though, things get dicey. The Israeli interior ministry, which is responsible for visa extensions, is known to deny requests for people staying in or with ties to Palestinians in the West Bank, even if they work or volunteer with legitimate international organizations.
To get around the issue, when the expiration of their visa approaches, most tend to leave the country for a few days and return for a new tourist visa. This leaves their situation tenuous and completely out of their control, not knowing what will come after the next three months.
Israeli border control is notoriously invasive as well, selecting certain people for in depth interviews, highly thorough searches of luggage and frisking. Frequently, activists, scholars, clergy, journalists, and others who are sympathetic or connected to Palestinians are simply denied entry without given an explanation.
I recently returned from such a short trip to Cairo. I left a few days before my own visa was set to expire and came back three days later. In this situation, most tend to cross the border over land to Jordan for a few days and return that way with the hopes of getting their passports stamped for an additional three months. Yet after a few trips there and back, the pattern becomes pretty obvious and they risk being turned away or given a one-month or shorter stamp instead. Luckily I had the resources to travel through the airport in Tel Aviv, which I heard from some was simultaneously harder since the security is tighter, yet easier since in order to deny entry, they must put you on another plane instead of simply sending you back over the border.
Ironically enough, the hassles didnít come when I was entering through the airport, which only took 30 minutes of security delays. Yet, on my way out I had to go through four hours of security checks including three metal detectors, four x-ray machines, two frisks, two hand checks on my bags and more than 10 minutes of questioning.
The worst part was the final check. I thought I was done and heading to get my exit stamp after a handsearch and very intimate frisking. Unfortunately though the immigration officer sent me toward the police booth instead. The police officer inside then took my passport with no explanations and had me wait outside. I came expecting to go through extra security so I made sure I got to the airport extra early, but with less than an hour till takeoff, I was finally getting worried. Then a suited security official came flanked by two plainclothes guards and asked me to follow them all the way back to the screening room I had just left a few minutes ago. There, the officers tore apart my entire carry-on bag, documented everything I carried, read all the papers and business cards I had, searched through my wallet and my phone and gave me the most thorough frisking Iíve ever had, even more thorough than the last one. My laptop was also put under special scrutiny. I had to demonstrate it worked as it should with and without the power plugged in and even after the show, they said I had to check it (and a lighter) in with the luggage instead of letting me carry it on board.
In all though, it wasnít the humiliation or hassle that Iíve heard many go through at the hands of Israeli border control; it just delayed the plane a few minutes. And on the way back I couldnít believe how quickly I passed through, just 20 minutes waiting for my passport and a 10 minute bag search and I was through. Last time I came through the airport, it took three hours of interviews alone plus the physical security checks.
Whatever Israel's system is to determine just how much scrutiny and hassle a person needs to go through is completely lost on me. It seems to be completely arbitrary and every question I asked about why I had to go through all the extra checks were cut off with canned statements about security procedures and that "I just had to wait." With so many redundancies and wasted efforts, the only goal I can see is to make the process so difficult certain people choose not to return. Luckily many supporters of the Palestinian cause seem to be tougher than that.
Michael Khaled is a Writer for the Media and Information Department at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.