(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski/The Jerusalem Post))
When is a border not a border? When it is a security barrier. Or so, our
politicians will tell us as they continue to live in a state of denial that the
heavily fortified and electrified security fence/wall which has been constructed
during the past six years around much of the West Bank is no more than an
antiterror prevention device and that it has little, or no, significance for the
eventual demarcation of borders between sovereign and independent Israeli and
How many readers of this newspaper have actually seen
the security barrier in operation? If you are an Israeli citizen, or
identifiably Jewish, the process is simple. You drive straight through
and are normally waved in automatically. But if you are a Palestinian, or
perhaps even a foreign tourist, who happens to be interested in seeing up close
what is happening in the West Bank, the experience is quite
different. Palestinians are only allowed into Israel if they have a work
permit, while they are not allowed to drive over the border – sorry, security
barrier – in cars which have Palestinian license plates.
Nor is it equal
among Israeli citizens. Go to any one of the crossing points and spend an
hour checking which people and which cars are stopped and checked, as compared
with those which are just waved through. No one wearing a kippa or speaking in
Israeli Hebrew will ever be stopped, while those having ID cards which identify
them as Arab citizens of the country, or speak with a clear Arab accent are
invariably asked to step aside for an extra question, or for their car to be
searched for smuggled goods, drugs or weapons.
IT IS a system of security
profiling with which we are all too familiar when we travel abroad. While we are
aware that Ben-Gurion Airport is one of the most secure in the world, many of us
feel uncomfortable when we see the security process in operation and the person
next to us in the queue, who speaks with a different accent or comes from an
Arab village in the Galilee is treated differently than us. A Jewish resident of
the Diaspora is often given preferential treatment to an Israeli citizen, whose
only crime is that s/he is Arab. But we rarely protest or ask questions as we
speedily move on unhindered to the restaurants and duty free shops.
then there are the foreign visitors and tourists. Invariably, colleagues
visiting for joint research projects or international conferences relate
unpleasant experiences of passing through border controls and security checks,
in most cases accompanied by an unnecessary harshness and interrogation which
leaves all of them with a bad impression of the country – even after they have
had an enjoyable stay – and a vow never to come back. If they also visited the
West Bank to meet people at Palestinian universities, or simply to see what is
going on, they can often be stopped for hours by the security personnel, taken
to separate rooms and interrogated as though they were criminals.
BECAME all too macabre just a week ago when I was accompanying a group of 40
professors, who were visiting for a conference, from Beersheba to Jerusalem
through the West Bank on a daylong field trip. We returned via the crossing
point between Gush Etzion and Jerusalem. It is a crossing point which I pass
through in my private car some two or three times a week, rarely having to slow
down or to stop.
Earlier that day, the group of visiting border scholars
had passed through the Meitar crossing point at the southern entry to the West
Bank, where they had also had a guided tour of the border installation. Like
most of the transit points from the West Bank, the Meitar crossing has been
semi-privatized and is managed by a civilian defense contractor acting according
to guidelines of the Defense Ministry.
But some crossing points are still
managed by the army. The young soldier at the Gush Etzion-Gilo crossing point
informed us that since we were a bus of foreigners who had spent the day in the
West Bank, we were not allowed to enter. No amount of convincing, of showing
Israeli IDs and the armed security guard with the university accreditation, the
conference program or the fact that this was a group of invited scholars did the
trick. The border guards were adamant that we had to return to the West Bank,
and the bus was ordered to turn round.
Eventually, only through the
direct intervention of the head of the Gush Etzion Local Council, with whom the
group had spent the previous three hours on a briefing tour of the region, were
we eventually allowed to continue unhindered. A small mistake, a
misunderstanding, a sheepish smile on the part of the soldier, but too late, the
damage was done.
Ironically, we had only just switched buses, from an
fortified bus of the South Hebron Hills Regional Council (without which the
university would not have allowed me to take our visitors into the West Bank) to
a private bus. Had we remained on the original bus, no questions would have been
asked – we probably wouldn’t even have had to slow down at the crossing
My colleagues had spent an intensive week of workshops at
Ben-Gurion University. Many of them had come despite the pressure from
some of their colleagues to boycott the country and its academic institutions.
But they had come to see for themselves, not be influenced by others. And see
they did! They witnessed the stupidity of the border guards and their inability,
or unwillingness, to understand the situation. They witnessed the blind
acceptance of a regulation (which, as it turned out, was irrelevant in this
particular case) rather than using their brains for themselves.
incident certainly made an impression on our visitors – of the most negative
kind that one can possibly imagine. A year of planning the conference, a week of
workshops and meeting Israeli scholars, and all the hard efforts thrown away as
yet another group of foreign visitors left with the most negative of
We don’t need to be naïve. Israel has some real security
problems and it has to be on guard continuously. But that does not
country’s security personnel, or the policy makers, for creating a
which is so negative and damaging to our image that the long-term harm
greater than the short-term flexing of one’s security muscles.
incident at the Gush Etzion crossing point may have been exceptional,
out of Kafka, but we hear complaints of this nature every day from the
It is time to put in place a much more responsible and user friendly
apparatus, without compromising in any way on security itself, so that
country can welcome its visitors and not leave them with the sentiment
should never have come in the first place.The writer is professor of
political geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the
Journal of Geopolitics.
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