National

JNU researcher’s harrowing Israel experience

Mohammed Sirajuddeen

I am a regular PhD candidate working under the supervision of Dr. Ajay Gudavarthy at the Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. My research focus is the extrajudicial violence committed by the Indian state in Kashmir valley and Chhattisgarh, both areas of conflict where security agencies are in outright collision with the political discourses on azadi (freedom) and peoples’ sovereignty (as propounded by Maoists) respectively. My research paper “Militancy, State Violence and Post Traumatic Stress Disorders: A Study of India’s Kashmir Valley” was selected for presentation at the 5th Global Conference on Genocide of the International Network of Genocide Scholars (INoGS) held during 26-29 June 2016.

The writer in Al Aqsa Mosque during Iftar

The conference had taken place at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, Jerusalem, Israel. The conference began with a special address by dignitaries like Adama Dieng, the special adviser on the prevention of genocide to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Harvard historian Charles Maier and Atina Grossmann, Cooper Union. This should be considered as an open note which would narrate my first hand experience of a visit to Israel. Notification of the selection of my paper was confirmed earlier during the first week of February 2016 and after duly completing the registration process, I had decided to proceed with the visa procedure once I returned from my field work iin Kashmir valley. The conference had triggered a big academic controversy and war of words in Israel with prominent stake holders getting involved in push and pull over the theme of the conference. The times of Israel carried a special story on 26 June 2016 titled “Academics go to war over the study of mass killings”. The report opined that with the coming of the conference to Jerusalem a big academic wrangle had erupted through the accusations of anti-Semitism and debates over the Holocaust in Israel. The organisers of the conference had informed the participants of the conference about a perceived manipulation of the pro-establishment lobby who sought to organise a parallel conference just beside the conference venue near the Truman Institute at Mount Scopus. It was learned that the group that organisaed the parallel conference had links with different pro establishment policy institutes and Knesset.

In mid-May 2016 the Israel embassy initially refused to grant me a visa. I had submitted the requisite documents deemed essential for a B2 Business/Meeting/ Conference visa’ as prescribed by the embassy. Additionally, I had convinced the organisers of the conference in Israel to send a letter directly to the embassy by email. After a wait of a week for the visa I decided to visit the embassy directly to confirm whether there was some shortcoming in the application. The official at the embassy told me that a visa would not be issued until a letter confirming my participation was sent directly to the embassy from an official email ID. This happened even after two emails were sent by the organisers at the Hebrew University which delayed my visa.    

Ill-treatment at Tel Aviv

I had begun my journey to Israel on 23 June 2016 early morning from New Delhi via Moscow by Aeroflot. After a smooth and brief transit at Moscow, I had arrived at Ben Gurion airport, Tel Aviv, by local time 11.20 am the same day. During the flight from Moscow, I was seated beside a Russian national who engaged me in discussions. By coming to know that I was a political science student and on the way to attend an academic conference at the Hebrew University he had started showing a keen interest in my research areas. He said it was his third visit to Israel where he a business meeting.

He opined that my research was interesting and liked my analysis of conflicts. But he did not hint at the shocks I was about to encounter at the airport. I walked along with him for the emigration checking and thereby landed up in the queue meant for foreign nationals. Soon the turn of the Russian national who had travelled along with me came. He had a smooth emigration where he passed through the entry in two minutes. It was my turn then and I moved towards the official issuing the emigration entry slips. Seeing my passport she came out of the cabin to call another official. The other official came and took my passport and directed me to a chamber.

I entered the chamber where I spotted several individuals from different countries, most of them sporting beards. I asked the person sitting next to me what his name was. Upon learning that he was not a Muslim and originated from Latin America, I got relaxed. But at the same time it had become clear that most of the persons seated in the suffocating chamber were Muslims or had origins in countries with Muslim population. I learnt that the non-Muslim person sitting beside me had transited through Turkey.

A woman officer walked towards me and asked, as if I was an intruder, “Why did you come to Israel?”  To that I politely replied that I had come to attend a conference in Jerusalem at the Hebrew University. She asked me if I carried any relevant document, after which I quickly gave her the invitation letter from the organisers and the no objection letter issued by my university in India. She took it somewhere inside. Meanwhile, I could see other fellows in the chamber frequently being called in and turned back. After half an hour another official came in and called me to the airport security chamber and the security officer at the chamber asked me what my name was, to which I replied in politeness about all the details, including the purpose of my visit.

I was sent back again to the virtual detention chamber where I was made to sit for another one hour. Again it was the turn of another emigration official who had come to take my passport away. In the meanwhile, I could see a sign of irritation as well as helplessness in the eyes of other travelers who had been bombarded with difficult questions by the airport security. After two hours of my virtual detention, my passport was returned and the official who had come with it asked why my father’s name was too long and why my name started with Mohammed and if it was the first name and if so what about the second name. Giving me the passport back, the emigration official took me to a different place where two security officials were stationed in an office which included a woman

The office was well furnished with an Israeli flag in a corner and a big artwork attached to the wall showing a bird’s eye view of the east of occupied Jerusalem.  The woman officer, it seemed, had an upper hand in dealing with travelers like me started with the same set of old questions right from name and father’s name and then moving to more provocative questions, a few of which follow:

Why did you come to Israel? Why did you visit Doha and Dubai? How many days will you stay? You have free days leaving aside the conference engagements and what will you do in these days? Are you a practising Muslim? Will you drink a glass of water (it was the month of Ramadan)? Would you visit al Aqsa Mosque and the areas of West Bank controlled by Palestinian Authority? What are your views on Hamas and Islamic State? What is your opinion about Kashmir and Palestine? Do you have a Facebook account?

I had dealt with all these and other questions and the security officers often barked at me telling me recurrently, “don’t lecture us”. After a torturous one hour they started checking the documents I had. Finally, they checked my mobile phone, including contacts, private messages, texts and applications etc. after which I humbly gifted them a “Thanks” and left the security office. When I returned to the chamber where I, along with some other were placed, I did not want to see their faces. I sat in disgust for around twenty minutes waiting for more officers. Finally, one came and let me leave the airport with my belongings. The officials at Ben Gurion airport had detained me for more than three hours. My interactions with fellow researchers at the conference proved that the humiliation and harassment meted out to me at the airport was unique and no one whom I had discussed this with at the conference had to face it.  

Humiliation as a norm

Vindicating my painful experience and signifying the regular discriminatory stance of Israel was the latest development where British Muslims, including a 10-year old child, were arrested, kicked off from flight and sent home after five days of torture in detention. The website Friends of Al-Aqsa, a UK-based non-profit NGO, had carried a story of the deportation of four British Muslims by Israeli authorities after ill-treatment. The experience meted out to Mohammed, a teacher from London, is becoming a norm for Muslims entering the Israel-controlled territory.

Middle East Eye reported that the UK Foreign and Commonwealth office in a statement had expressed its willingness to help the British nationals who were detained at the Ben Gurion airport which gives it an international dimension. Mohammed, along with his family, had arrived on the same day as I did at Tel Aviv Airport (Thursday 23 June 2016 and may be I might have seen them in the virtual detention centre. Maybe some of the helpless faces I had seen were of these British Muslims).

After their arrival they were separated at the airport for questioning like me, many questions pertaining to ISIS, and terrorism. Unlike me, they were questioned for six long hours with unwarranted body frisking and scanning of personal belongings following which they, along with others, were taken to an isolated detention centre which looked unhygienic and disgraceful where they had to spend three days without any contact with the outside world. Their basic rights as foreign citizens were curtailed as they were denied even a chance of contacting the British embassy. Moreover, they were prevented from fasting and prayers. Finally, the British travellers were taken back to the airport to be packed off London. That the four passengers were offloaded from flight on 26 June 2016 was confirmed by the Monarch Airlines to Friends of al Aqsa, says their website.   

Inside occupation

With free days in hand, I spent some initial time in and around the old city of Jerusalem, near Jaffa Gate and al Aqsa Mosque. On the first Friday of my visit I had visited Al Aqsa. Reported by more than two lakh Palestinians gather for prayers on Fridays (including hundreds from Gaza). There was a palpable tension everywhere. The security personnel in and around the Haram al Sharif often put pointed questions. Entry to the historic structure is only after thorough security checks. Al Aqsa has become a symbol of Palestine’s struggle against occupation and it seemed that the freedom of Palestine was contingent upon the control of the mosque (the holiest in Islam after Makkah and Medina). The mosque has become a site of everyday skirmishes in the Palestinian struggle for freedom. This is evident in the charged protests after the Friday prayers amid heavy military deployment.. During Friday prayers, al Aqsa brings together the loved ones of the victims of extrajudicial killings committed by Israel. Thus a gathering at al Aqsa echoes the voices of Palestinians whose nearer and dear ones got disappeared, murdered and detained by the Israeli occupation forces.

After crossing the infamous Qalandiya military check point (a memorable event) I visited refugee camps at al Qalandiya along Israel’s apartheid wall, al Amaari near al Bireh, and al Jalazoun which is east of Bait Al settlement. All these camps come under Ramallah, which is where the Indian embassy is situated. I have been to Mahatma Gandhi Street, and Mandela Statue which were reflections of the international significance of the Palestinian cause. Ramallah is where one of the main buildings of Palestinian Legislative Council is situated, which is closed. The open-hearted Palestinian man who provided a long free ride (in his car) to the interiors of West Bank said that the Palestinian Legislative Council building was sealed and most of the official buildings of Palestinian Authority were dysfunctional. Throughout my movements I had to deal with various questions posed by myself which included the dilemma of identity, ethical aspects of dealing with the situational demands of hiding my interactions with the Palestinians who helped me to travel, the risk factors, securely keeping the materials collected, the sensitivities and last, the emotions stirred by the encounters which are painful even in retrospect.

The author is a doctoral researcher at the Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He may be contacted at siraj.jnu1@gmail.com

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 September 2016 on page no. 7

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