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What’s a nice, Reed College sophomore doing in detention at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport? I ask myself this during the hours I am held. What do I have in common with these dozen or so suspected security threats: the gray-haired women who whisper about their treatment, the 8-year-old girl, tears dried on her face and fear in her eyes, the 18-year-old traveling to see family? We have little in common except that virtually all of us are Americans.
But unlike Jewish Americans who breeze through customs in seconds, we are Palestinian-Americans. In treatment reminiscent of the Jim Crow South, we stand in a separate line, are harassed and intimidated. In Israel, the principles we cherish as Americans disappear; we are suspect because we are not the “right” religion or ethnicity.
During my interrogation, an Israeli officer grills me about everything from what classes I took last semester to what my parents do for a living. Another shows me pictures of people – my cousin in California, and my great- grandmother – and asks if I know them. When she shows me a woman I don’t know, she yells at me: “DonÂ’t lie!” When I am allowed to leave the airport, I am advised to make this my “last trip to Israel.”
But this wasn’t a trip to Israel. I will spend my summer at Birzeit University in the Palestinian West Bank. Israel has militarily occupied the West Bank and Gaza for 41 years and controls all border crossings. Nothing gets into or out of Palestinian territory without IsraelÂ’s approval -not students wishing to learn, business people planning to invest in the Palestinian economy, parents hoping to visit their children; not food, medicine, or fuel.
Israel routinely harasses Palestinian Americans traveling to the West Bank or Gaza. The State Department notes numerous reports of “American citizens, of Arab descent, subjected to harsh and degrading treatment at border crossings.” Many are denied entry altogether. Last month, a Palestinian-American filmmaker was prevented by Israel from attending the West Bank opening of her latest film. What threat can she – or I – pose to Israel?
Perhaps because we are not Jewish our presence threatens Israel’s system of racial segregation. In the West Bank, Israelis drive on separate (and better) roads than Palestinians. They have access to more water and enjoy freedom of movement. Palestinians ration water and are prevented from traveling freely without permits. In Israel, more than 20 laws privilege Jews over Israel’s non-Jewish citizens.
From my great-grandmother’s house in Ramallah, I watched Sen. Barack Obama’s speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. He called Israel a shining example of democracy and pledged unconditional support for it as a Jewish state. Palestinians were disappointed to hear him praise what others, like former President Jimmy Carter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, call apartheid.
When will America demand of Israel what we fought so hard to achieve at home – equal rights for all? Maybe we should start by demanding equal treatment for all Americans at Israeli airports.
Celia Hassan, a graduate of Skyview High School, is a sophomore at Reed College. She is currently attending the International Summer Program at Birzeit University in the Palestinian West Bank.