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Saturday, 22 March 2014

Visiting the Middle East’s only ‘democracy’

Nobody knew where I was, nobody… I was simply disappeared’: An Italian tourist’s Ben Gurion nightmare

Andrea Pesce on March 22, 2014 5

My name is Andrea Pesce, I am 44 years old and I’m an Italian citizen.
For 15 years I had the chance to visit Israel and Palestine, thanks to my former job (I used to be a travel agent) and also because I’m interested in the political situation over there. I travelled as a normal person, without any official role or mission.

Last December I have been in Israel and Palestine for one week. I always stayed in a hotel in the Old city of Jerusalem and I went for one day visit to Bethlehem (twice), Ramallah and Nablus, always as a tourist. During my visit in Bethlehem I had the chance to learn about a non-profit organization, named Tent of Nations, which follows a non-violent approach to the conflict.

Between January and February I contacted Tent of Nations staff, and planned a visit in March to volunteer over there. Then I bought an El Al air ticket, from Venice to Tel Aviv and back, departure 18th March, return 16th April.

This is the background to my story and I want to say also that I have never participated in any event, manifestation or whatever against Israel, or have written something or declared something against Israel. On the contrary, in 1999 I wrote a book issued by a Italian publisher, specialized in Jewish Literature and subjects, (Casa editrice La Giuntina) with an afterword by Amos Luzzatto, who at that time was President of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities.

Last 18th March, my day of departure, I arrived at Venice airport at 11 am, 3 hours before scheduled take off. For this kind of flight, there is an Israeli security staff interviewing passengers, according to an agreement between the Italian and Israeli governments. I waited around one hour, as Israeli staff are always allowed to pass Israeli passengers before me and other Italians waiting. Then one woman interviewed me, quite softly, but with some incredible questions like:
“You are going to stay one month away from home, isn’t your daughter sad because of this?”

There is no security reason behind this kind of question, not even to check if you get nervous because you have something to hide: it’s pure harassment, nothing more, nothing less.

I asked, “Why are you asking questions like this ? It’s too personal!”

She seemed to understand, and started to apologize.

Then I was told that my backpack had to be searched and that I cannot bring my camera (old fashioned) with me, it had to go in the hold. They checked everything, which included doing a body search on me.

Eventually they told me that maybe my baggage cannot arrive with me in Tel Aviv on the same flight: I complained a lot, saying that I had been waiting for two hours and I couldn’t understand why they waited so long. At the end they let me leave, I have to say, including my backpack.

During the flight I was tired but also happy: eventually everything was ok, and I was on the way to start my holiday and a wonderful life experience for one month in Israel and Palestine.
I couldn’t imagine what was waiting for me at Ben Gurion Airport.

Once I arrived, at passport control, I was told to wait in a corner of the hall, beside the “passport control office”. Several people were there already. I waited around one hour and then I had the first dialogue. It focused on what I was going to do during this month, I said “nothing special, I will go around”, ok, then wait again other half an hour, and then a second person interviewed me about my job, and what I was going to do it in Israel for one month, and I repeated the same answers again.
Then wait again around half an hour, and then the third interview with other people asking same questions, but in harder way, intimidating me and trying to scare me.

They argued that I was a liar because I didn’t say that somebody was waiting for me in Bethlehem, and that those who lie at the border will be not allowed to enter the country.

At that point I had been traveling for almost twelve hours, I was confused, tired and a little bit scared. But I had nothing to hide and I said, “check whatever you want, I’m a normal person, do what you have to do”. At that point it was pretty clear to me that they had read my emails and knew everything in advance.

Finally around 11.30 pm, I was interviewed by other people (they said they were from the Ministry of Internal Affairs) and after some minutes they told me that my entry was denied because I was a liar: I started to cry, more because of the stress itself, than for the final decision to reject me, even though it has been hard to me to accept the “destruction” of my travel, planned for months.

Andrea Pesci holding his passport with the Israeli “denied entry” stamp.

They started to laugh a little bit, saying that if only I said at the beginning I was going to volunteer they would let me in without any problem. But since I lied about it, I have to be rejected.
Until now, it was hard but not terrifying. But I still couldn’t expect what I was in for.

Around 1 am they brought me in another airport room where my baggage has been searched again and I had a second body search. Then they took away my backpack, empty, because they said that it was detained for security reason. They gave me a big plastic bag to put all my belongings in.
Funny detail: the bag has a broken zipper.

They brought me back to the same hall, where I was told to not go around. I had to stay near their office.

Please note that I could only drink some water because another tourist gave me some coins to buy a bottle water from a machine. And security staff gave me a sandwich only because I asked for it. In the meantime every request I made — to have some water or to make a phone call to my embassy or simply to alert my hotel in Jerusalem that I couldn’t go there — was refused. And refused is not the right word: I was not a normal person anymore, I started already to be seen like a second class person. I want to say that for the very first time I really felt what racism is.

As they decided to send me back to Italy, the problem was how and when: flights to and from Venice are only once per week. So I was told that I was going to stay in a separate facility, waiting for the flight back to Italy.

This is the beginning of the nightmare.

The separate facility is a “migration facility”, as they call it, which is actually a sort of prison. Around five minutes by car outside of Ben Gurion Airport, I was transferred to this “house” surrounded by iron net, with bars on windows. I was told to leave everything in a room, including my mobile. Strange, but I definitely realised I was under arrest when I was told I could not bring a ballpoint pen with me to my “room”. But actually it was not a room, it was a jail. So around 3 am on the 19th March started my new life experience: being detained in a prison.

I cannot express my feelings exactly: maybe I can say that, having fallen deeply into a total irrational system, the only way to avoid becoming crazy, was to start to think in a completely different way. But it wasn’t easy.

The jail has soundproof doors, so you cannot ask for anything, not even scream. You can only beat the door until somebody, maybe, is willing to listen to you. But you already feel completely unsafe and you are scared even to ask, because you know that they can do everything with you, about you. I cannot say what I thought and felt during that night.

By 7:00 am I was destroyed, I was imploring them to send me home. One man, never seen before just opened the door and screamed to me: “so you go tonight at 06.30 pm, okay or not ?!” I said “Okay, okay, please let me go, I didn’t do anything, I don’t even know why I’m here”. They say “Okay, you will go tonight”.

At that stage nobody knew where I was, nobody. I was simply disappeared.

At 9:00 am I was allowed to call the Italian embassy: an Italian official told me “once you are in that place we cannot do anything, you simply don’t exist for us if you are in that place”. She also expressed sympathy for what I was going through, but the fact I was leaving in the afternoon was decisive. She also called my wife in Italy, as I was not allowed to do it directly.

Then the wait for departure started: I was in another jail, alone, with the door open. But I couldn’t go out, and it’s hard to explain, but I was afraid to ask anything. When around noon they gave me some food (to consume it in the room, without any table, only sitting on the bed) I did ask for some water, they said “We will bring it to you.” They didn’t and I didn’t ask again.

All and all, during my 14 hours in the “migration facility” I had the chance to stay outside in the open courtyard for a total of around 40-45 minutes (in two visits during the morning, none in the afternoon).
From Andrea Pesci’s passport
Again: I cannot explain my feelings during the time between 4:30 pm and 5:30 pm, knowing that my flight was scheduled for 6:20 pm. I was scared to death that they wouldn’t let me go….

It the end, at 5:35 pm they did open the door, let me take my belongings (always in their plastic bag), transferred me to the airplane and let me go. My passport was delivered to me by an Italian officer at Milan airport, after it was handled to him by the El Al staff.

I won’t share anything about the fact that being flown to Milan cost me more fatigue, finding a hotel that night and then catching a train to Venice the next day (20th March).

Nobody, never, in those 24 hours, declared their identity or role to me (they all have a badge, but it’s not easy to read and you don’t’ have the courage to show that you want to know their name). In the end there is no written proof of what they did to me, not even the reason for my rejection and detention. Nothing, nothing at all. I only have a stamp on my passport saying “entry denied”.

The lessons for me at this moment are two questions:

Why do you want me to hate you ?!

If you can do this to me, what you can do to the Palestinians ?!

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