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(photo credit: Courtesy)
'Israel is a free society." This is a claim Israeli governments are proud to make. It's true too - most of the time.
However on one issue this country seems to lack respect for individual freedom which would be deemed unacceptable in Europe and which even surpasses some of her neighbors' attitudes.
That is that when it comes to dealing with enemy states, anybody tainted by even the most fleeting association with them is treated at customs like a guilty man. That, at least, has been my experience.
I went to Lebanon for the first two weeks of June to write about the Palestinian refugee situation there. On my arrival back at the Sheikh Hussein border point I had to wait for around 10 hours, answering questions and having my bags searched by security guards who generally tried to intimidate me. (At one point one threatened to throw my possessions into the Jordan River.)
Eventually, I passed through security only to be told at customs that they had decided not to let me back into the country. Their reasons shifted from me being uncooperative with security to them receiving an order from the Interior Ministry.
When I protested that I had to get through, explaining that I had sublet an apartment and most of my possessions were in Jerusalem, the only effect it had was to anger the officer in charge, who threatened me that he had the power to stamp a "no entry for five years" stamp on my British passport.
Since then every time I have left or entered the country I have been taken aside to be searched and questioned, usually for a minimum of five or six hours. I even now get a private escort through the airport (apparently I'm too dangerous to be let out of their site for even a second).
I am clearly a marked man.
ALL THIS is incredibly inconvenient though hardly unusual. At the Allenby crossing near Jericho this type of treatment is par for the course for most of the Arabs who want to pass through.
When I crossed there I was left with a bitter taste in my mouth seeing how the Israelis talked down to the people trying to cross, for whom the experience was clearly extremely stressful.
In one particular case I remember them refusing to let an old man in a wheelchair with a metal leg support pass through because they could not use a metal detector on him. But common sense suggests that, bar Sheikh Ahmed Yassin rising from the dead, this man's entrance into Israel wasn't going to ring the death knell for Zionism.
My own battle with Israeli security reached an unacceptable level when I re-entered the country at Ben Gurion Airport two weeks ago. In the course of another eight or so hours of detention I had both my note pads, which I use to keep work notes and phone numbers in, taken for examination. I was then taken for questioning, under the threat that, if I was not cooperative, I would not be allowed back into the country.
For reasons of journalistic integrity I felt very uncomfortable with the fact that they were going over phone numbers that had been given to me in confidence. If one had no name by it they would demand to know whose it was. Then they went through my mobile phone, taking numbers and demanding information about them.
I guess my two weeks in Lebanon really must make me fit the profile for a terrorist infiltrator - at one point they even broached the theory that I had been sent by the Lebanese to perform certain nefarious activities in the Zionist state. Later, at home, I realized they had not even returned all my possessions to me. A stack of a dozen music CDs had disappeared from my bag.
What angers me about this treatment is that people I speak to here usually try and justify it in some way. Apparently security needs allow the authorities to take any information they want off you without any solid grounds for suspicion and even to stop you from coming back in on a whim.
In Lebanon I actually had a similar experience. I was taken in for questioning because they realized that I had been in Israel. What they did was similarly dubious legally. They held me for 24 hours without charge (I had to spend the night in a cell) before releasing me.
But in their favor they showed a certain respect for my private information. They asked my permission to look at my notebook and then only took a most cursory glance through it. But what was perhaps more reassuring there was that, when I got out, the people I spoke to were generally angry that the authorities would act in such a way and encouraged me to make a complaint.
Israelis can be grateful for the many freedoms this country offers but at the same time they should be aware that those of us who are foreigners here regularly face a real attitude problem at border control. It's undeserved and its annoying.
The writer is a Jerusalem Post intern.