Saturday, May 22, 2010

A white American woman traveling with a Gaza-stamped passport

Apologies to anyone who checked this blog recently and found no new posts! I’ve been in the U.S. for the past two weeks, I arrived in Israel on Friday, and I’m looking to reenter Gaza on Sunday. An article of mine about humanitarian travel through the Gaza-Egypt smuggling tunnels just published in the Jerusalem Post Magazine. Also, from now on, I'll plug all of my new articles and blog posts on Twitter (username: ashleybates) and on Facebook (email address:

Traveling with a Gaza stamp on my passport has given me a fractional taste of the intense security scrutiny that Palestinians undergo as they travel through Israel. When one Gazan friend of mine crossed the border into Israel last year, he watched an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) video offering a ransom for Gilad Shalit as well as a video highlighting Hamas’s alleged crimes against its own people. This friend was then interviewed by a high ranking officer who attempted to recruit him as a spy. He endured hours of questioning and was stripped down to his underwear before finally being allowed to pass. The whole process took more than five hours.

My experience coming out of Gaza was a breeze in comparison. I got into a line designated for non-Palestinian foreigners, gave all my bags to security screeners, walked through a full body x-ray scanning machine, then sat in a waiting room where the contents of my bags were delivered in large plastic trays. I reassembled my suitcase, answered a few questions about what I’d been doing in Gaza, and was free to go. The whole process took less than an hour.

Two days later, I underwent a much more strenuous security check at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport, where my Gaza stamp earned me a “level six” security ranking—the highest possible threat level. For about 30 minutes, three soldiers dissected every item in my bags, using chemical swabs to check for bomb residues. A serious, resolute young lady brought me to a private room where I submitted to a slow, massage-like pat down that took about a minute. This search of my body included a thorough rummaging of my hair, which left me looking like an electrocuted clown. The soldier then matter-of-factly told me to take off my shirt, and I complied. “Where in Israel are you from?” I asked, seeking to lighten the mood. “Why do you want to know that?” she replied nervously.

After this soldier escorted me silently to the gate terminal (a courtesy that prevented me from passing through the standard security checkpoint after I’d already completed a rigorous private screening), I thought that the security questioning was over. However, I had a flight connection in Turkey, where transit passengers apparently undergo additional interviews. The Turkish security guy immediately noticed the “level six” sticker on the outside of my passport, grinned, and raised his eyebrows. “How are you a level six?” he said. “May I ask—Are you Arab American?”

While I was in Chicago, I learned that left-wing author and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Noam Chomsky (see video above) had planned to give a speech at a West Bank university, but was turned away when he attempted to cross the border into Israel from Jordan. He was presumably denied entry because the Israeli government objects to his political views. Chomsky’s experience fueled my concerns that I could be denied entry for a myriad of possible reasons, such as overusing my tourist visa status or spending a suspicious amount of time in the Palestinian Territories—and Gaza in particular.

My fears did not come to pass. Yesterday I met for less than five minutes with a courteous security supervisor at Ben Gurion Airport who seemed moved by my work with Hands of Peace, a Chicago-based dialogue camp for Israeli, Palestinian and American teenagers. She almost apologetically explained that she would keep my Gaza-stamped passport while I retrieved my bags. “We will need to search your bags and put them through an x-ray machine,” she said. “But, don’t worry, it won’t take too long.”


  1. Hi. I really like your blog. I have some questions for you. What is the humanitarian situation in the Gaza strip at the moment? And do you see any evidence of the islamization of the strip?

    Yours Ed

  2. Thank you for your reports from Gaza.
    My experience with Israeli security is also that the level of scrutiny is higher leaving Israel than entering it. The security when I leave the country is always uncomfortable. I get probing questions about my Jewishness by young agents. They seem nervous and very intense. Once, I got held back because my last name - a common one - is the same as an Israeli Jew who is persona non grata in the country. I'm an Israeli so I can only imagine what you went through, coming from Gaza.

    The odd thing is: why is security greater, leaving rather than coming?

    In your case, why was security inspection the you experienced leaving Israel ore involved than when you entered Israel from Gaza?

    My pet theory is that airport security makes more sense as a psychological phenomenon than as a realistic response to danger. (Remember, during the Bush years, the nonsensical announcement; "The Department of Homeland Security has raised the danger level to orange" that ran in a loop at US airports?)

    As you indicated, thank god we're not Palestinians trying to get in and out of Israel through Ben Gurion aiport.

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