When is a border not a border?

Unpleasant experiences at border controls involving harsh security checks and interrogations leave a bad impression.

Checkpoint (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski/The Jerusalem Post))
(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 Palestinian states.
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.
And 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.
IT 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 point.
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.
The 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 impressions.
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 excuse the country’s security personnel, or the policy makers, for creating a situation which is so negative and damaging to our image that the long-term harm is far greater than the short-term flexing of one’s security muscles.
The incident at the Gush Etzion crossing point may have been exceptional, something out of Kafka, but we hear complaints of this nature every day from the airport. It is time to put in place a much more responsible and user friendly security apparatus, without compromising in any way on security itself, so that the country can welcome its visitors and not leave them with the sentiment that they should never have come in the first place.
The writer is professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.