BY REBECCA AGULE
A warm smile and easy laugh reveal Hebah Ismail’s unthreatening, gentle personality. An American citizen, this 3L of Egyptian descent works with the International Human Rights Clinic on projects related to Bedouin land rights. Hebah wears a hijab. She still does not know which of one, or combination, of these characteristics prompted the immigration personnel at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport deny her entry to Israel.
Ismail flew to Israel to join Clinical Instructor and Global Advocacy Fellow Ahmad Amara and a fellow student for field research related to a 2008 report prepared by the Goldberg Committee. Convened by the Housing Ministry in 2007, the Goldberg Committee examined land disputes between the state of Israel and the Bedouin community and offered subsequent recommendations.
As her colleagues had already been in Israel for several days, Ismail arrived alone on the afternoon of December 23rd and planned to travel from Tel Aviv to Be’er Sheva by train. That evening, as Amara prepared to meet Ismail at the station, the Ben Gurion security services phone to notify him that she had been detained.
“I originally knew something would happen, that she would be held,” Amara said. “And we prepared for that.”
As expected, Ismail was pulled aside in border control for more intense screening. Over several hours, security personnel questioned her reasons for traveling to Israel, often returning to whether or not she intended to visit the Occupied Territories. A signed letter from the Human Rights Program attesting to the purpose of her trip and outlining her agenda did nothing to assuage their misgivings.
After almost seven hours, Hebah was directed to claim her luggage and open it for examination.
“I wasn’t strip searched, but they did pat me down well,” Ismail said.
After going through her computer, including the external hard drive, the line of questions continued. While most of those originally holding Ismail appeared rather young, a man in his 30s and clearly in a position of authority took over the interrogation.
Ismail recounts how this man introduced himself.
“I don’t remember his exact words,” she says. “But basically he told me, ‘Before we get started, we want you to know that this is a democratic country, and we respect other points of view. But we found things on your external hard drive that are very concerning.’ He was sure I had some other objective, but I had no idea what that could be.”
Hebah tried to assure the security officer that her trip related only to the clinical project and a personal desire to visit Jerusalem. But he remained convinced that an article on her computer describing modern Israeli as being on land previously held by Palestinians pointed to a more insidious motivation and began pressuring Ismail to allow him to read her emails.
“He told me, ‘I cannot let you through until I know I can go home and get a good night’s sleep,'” Ismail said. “He kept saying, ‘If you let me go through your email, I’ll let you in.”
Having been counselled by Amara prior to the trip that the security forces had no right to demand access to her emails, Ismail denied his request. Almost eight hours after landing, Ismail’s passport progressed from border control to immigration, who would proceed to ask the same set of questions. Only later would be learn that security had finally granted her entry and immigration ultimately denied her. Again, the demands centered upon her emails, but now the consequences escalated.
“They told me that if I didn’t let them read my emails, not only would I not be allowed into Israel, I would be banned for life.”
Having stood by her initial refusal regarding the personal mail, Ismail cannot ever travel to Israel.
“I always wanted to go to Jerusalem. And this was finally my chance. But I won’t be trying to go back.”
After being fingerprinted, photographed and having her passport scanned, Ismail was moved to van. She assumed this would take her to the departure gate, and she texted family about her imminent deportation. But instead of boarding a plane, Ismail found herself in the “Hedar Mesuravimor”, or “Rejected Room”, a holding pen for those awaiting deportation, a place she describes as akin to “a really bad Egyptian hostel.” This room would become her home over the next day, as she waiting for a flight 23 hours away. Before she could re-inform her family, the phone was taken, along with all of her other belongings.
“Once they asked if I had a heart condition, they even took my medication. I was allowed to keep one small sweater.”
Unable to contact her family, Ismail continued to request that someone contact Amara, so that he could at least reach out to them. Each time, the person on duty would simply tell her she could call later. But no one ever allowed her to make that call.
Morning arrived, and with it a breakfast of cheese and tea. Lactose-intolerant, Ismail could do little more than stare at the food. Hours later, she finally met with Amara, though as her lawyer, not as her professor. Explaining that they could launch a case and arose media interest on her behalf, Amara laid out the various options. However, a best case scenario would take at least a week, during which Ismail would remain in detention. The decision was made for her to return to the US.
Finally boarding a plane on Christmas Eve, Hebah had never managed to leave the Ben Gurion Airport. Arriving in the U.S., three plainclothes Israeli security officials walked her to the Department of Homeland Security and handed over her passport.
“The DHS officer asked if I had been arrested. The Israelis said no. He asked me if I was an American citizen, and I said yes. Then he walked me to the front of the passport line, stamped me and said, ‘Welcome home.’ I turned to my escort and said, ‘Have a happy holiday,’ and walked through to meet my family,” Ismail said.
Of course, they were worried about me going to Israel in the first place, so now they get to say, I told you so!” she laughs.
Ismail joins a growing list of human rights and development workers recently denied entry to and work permits in Israel.
“There is a general practice of denying entry to American citizens,” Amara said. “Its not uncommon with those of Palestinian origin, or anything about Jerusalem, the Negev, human rights. In the past, I had an American student of Pakistani descent who was also denied entry. No matter what you say, they assume you are going to the Territories.”
According to Reuters, in December 2008, Israel denied entry to Richard Falk, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Israeli Behaviour in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and an American Jew. According to Reuters, “Falk had angered Israel by making remarks comparing its forces’ actions in the Gaza Strip to those of the Nazis in wartime Europe.” More recently, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that “Israeli immigration police were involved in the arrest and deportation earlier this month of a Czech pro-Palestinian activist living in Ramallah.” In addition to the UN and pro-Palestinian groups, impacted organizations include Oxfam, Save the Children and Doctors without borders.
Amara cannot determine how Ismail’s adventures will impact the future of the Bedouin land project. Unable to do the research, the group cannot complete the project, which must be put on hold until another trip can be arranged.
“Hebah knew the Goldberg report, there were meetings arranged specifically for her trip,” Amara said. “It means now we won’t have something ready.”