The Interrogation Terminal

Buses_and_vans_in_parking_lot_on_West_Bank_side_of_Hussein-Allenby_Bridge

Have you ever come across those feelings of intense anxiety, when you are very close to your goal? But also aware of the greatest hurdle that you have to overcome before you can finally reach your goal.

I was experiencing such a feeling of intense anxiety when I stepped out of the bus at the Interrogation Terminal. And here I am referring to the Israeli terminal of the Allenby Bridge.

Stories abound of how at times people encounter lengthy, unreasonable and erratic periods of interrogation which might continue for several hours. After all, it is an Occupied Territory and, in the eyes of the Israeli border agents, people cross Allenby Bridge to go to the West Bank, and they are always sceptical and wary of the motives for such visits.

But at times, people might not be asked anything at all and the whole process could go very smoothly. So we were told to deal with the Israeli border agents in a calm, composed and pleasant manner and not to panic even in adverse situations, safe in the knowledge that we had the necessary permits and documents.

Such stories and instructions did worry me a little but still could not dampen the excitement of being just a few kilometers away from Jericho, the place where we were going to stay.

After we stepped out of the bus, we handed over our luggage to be put on a conveyer belt to be taken to the terminal building. I was asked to show my passport to a woman sitting behind a glass screen in a booth. She first examined my passport and then looked at me. She again inspected my passport and then me. She did it several times. I was beginning to get a little anxious but I tried to appear unruffled and maintained a subtle smile. Finally she pasted a small sticker on my passport and asked me to go to the next counter.

It was such a relief, though there was much more to come.

Then I was taken to another counter where another woman checked my passport again. She had a grim look on her face. She started to flip through the pages of my passport. Thoughts started to run through my mind once again. I started to ask myself if the grim look on her face was a reflection of the drudgery of her work as a border agent or rather a manifestation of the bitterness and animosity instilled into her by a system that feeds on fear.

I was examining her face, when suddenly she lifted her head and handed me my passport back. I immediately moved away from her so as not to invite any kind of trouble. You never know how an erratic mind works! I then went through a metal detector. Everything went fine. I felt almost happy and relaxed. I collected my handbag, and went to a hall where there were many counters and people standing in queues.

I stood in one of the queues to get my visa.

Israel nowadays issue separate cards like lose leaf visa so that the traveller can keep their passport free from Israelis travel evidence. Many countries in Middle East and North Africa might deny entry in their countries, if they find Israeli stamp on your passport.

After waiting in the queue for about half an hour, my turn came. I provided the border agent my passport and permit. The lady examined my documents and issued the visa without any hassle. I felt extremely lucky. She was a middle aged lady and maintained a very cold look throughout. No smile and no sign of happiness. I wondered if they are trained to look like that. I started wondering if she has to hide her happiness or good mood when on duty. Whatever…

I got my visa and I was very happy.

Then I had to go to another counter, where they again checked my passport and the visa just issued.

Here, to my surprise, the border agents smiled at me. I should have smiled back but I didn’t. I had gotten so used to the stern and cold faces of the border agents in the Israeli terminal that I had almost stopped smiling by then. When they smiled at me, I got confused and couldn’t react. I felt bad but it happened so suddenly that I just couldn’t react.

I thought I had finally escaped the whole  interrogation process. I saw the other Indian participants also coming towards me smiling. It felt good to see everyone smiling. It meant nobody had been subjected to an unreasonable interrogation. When we did the headcount, we realized one girl from our group was missing. When our group leader enquired about her, he was told that she had been taken for interrogation. We could not understand why she was picked out of all of us for interrogation.

We later found out that she was held back because of her father’s name. Her father is a Muslim. However, she got married to a Hindu and practises Hinduism. If Islam is the criteria upon which they base a decision about who to select for interrogation, then their ways are quite erratic. There was a Muslim guy in our group but he was neither bothered by any Israeli border agent nor interrogated.

The whole interrogation process started to look like some kind of random exercise where travellers are picked for interrogation, depending completely on the whims and mood of the border agents. So finally, we encountered the arbitrariness of Israeli security forces’ everyday conduct.

However, many assert that such arbitrariness is a façade and all actions and decisions are well-orchestrated to intimidate, punish and thus discourage foreigners visiting Palestine. I am speaking here about the treatment meted out to foreigners on the Israeli side of the Allenby Bridge. The treatment of Arabs, and especially Palestinians, was of a different magnitude altogether.

After about one and a half hours, we were informed by the Palestinian coordinator who was assisting us that the Australian delegation had been stopped for interrogation. We decided to wait for them. It was around 5 pm by then. The Indian girl who had been taken for interrogation was finally allowed to leave and given a visa.She looked lost and baffled when she came out. When we asked her what had happened, she started to weep.

She said she felt very intimidated and humiliated. She told us that they kept her waiting in a room, and did not answer any of her queries. Then she was taken out of the room and made to stand near one of the counters. They asked her to stand there till the border agent had investigated her passport. After around one hour, she was given her visa and allowed to leave.

The Australian delegation was still going through the interrogation process. We chose to wait for them. We stood near the final exit of the terminal. Since there was nothing much to do, I and a friend of mine, decided to observe what was happening all around, rather than reading a book or chatting. What we saw was not pleasant though.

Almost all Arab travellers, if not every one of them, were stopped again at the final exit and made to open their luggage before they could finally pass through the exit gates.

The border agents were all dressed in casual clothes: jeans and t-shirts. At first glance, they looked really bold and assertive. But gradually some, but not all, of them, started to look over-confident and arrogant. I had read about the treatment meted out to Arabs at Israeli checkpoints and entry/exit terminals, and what I saw there just validated these assertions. However, I did not want to stereotype those Israeli border agents even in my mind. Every Israeli citizen who has attained the age of 18 has to compulsorily serve in the Israeli army for two years in different capacities.

The border agent’s insolent behavior was a fact, but I realized that this is what happens when young people are indoctrinated to hate and then given unrestrained power.

It was 7.30 pm already when the Australian delegation were finally given their permits to enter the West Bank. We had no idea why “Australians” had been subjected to interrogation for almost four hours. Later on we heard that one of them was a diasporic Palestinian and had a Lebanese stamp on her passport.  However, she looked unflustered even after those four hours of interrogation. She was just smiling. When I asked her if she was fine, she replied, “I have set my foot on my country for the first time. I don’t care about anything else”.

We all came out of the Interrogation Terminal and boarded the bus which would carry us to Jericho. The mood was exuberant in the bus. After waiting for almost nine hours, we were finally heading towards Jericho. Yes, finally I was on Palestinian land. It was dark by then and we could hardly see the landscape around us. However, the loud Arabic music in the bus and the chitter-chatter of the Palestinians in their language when we got off the bus was enough to feel what I had been longing to feel since morning.

Credits

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Buses_and_vans_in_parking_lot_on_West_Bank_side_of_Hussein-Allenby_Bridge Buses_and_vans_in_parking_lot_on_West_Bank_side_of_Hussein-Allenby_Bridge Daniel Case CC BY-SA 3.0