“They took something that was supposed to be a vacation from my long work hours, a reconnection with my homeland and old friends, and made it a nightmare from hell,” a Palestinian-American says, describing his forcible deportation from Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport.
SEATTLE — “Boycott,” “apartheid” and “ethnic cleansing” are cringe-inducing terms for many Israelis. They’re terms that would have been labeled “extremist” when uttered by critics just two decades ago, but with the increasingly deteriorating situation in Israel-Palestine, they’ve become more apt by the day.
Ethnic cleansing in particular began as a phenomenon in the minds of early Zionist leaders like David Ben Gurion who, as early as the 1930s, wrote about the need to rid or at least seriously deplete Palestine of its majority Arab population. In a 1937 letter to his son, Amos, Ben-Gurion wrote:
“…It is possible that the Arabs will follow the dictates of sterile nationalist emotions and
tell us: ‘We want neither your honey nor your sting. We’d rather that the Negev remain barren than that Jews should inhabit it.’ If this occurs, will have to talk to them in a different language—and we will have a different language—but such a language will not be ours without a state. This is so because we can no longer tolerate that vast territories capable of absorbing tens of thousands of Jews should remain vacant, and that Jews cannot return to their homeland because the Arabs prefer that the place [the Negev] remains neither ours nor theirs. We must expel Arabs and take their place [author’s emphasis]. Up to now, all our aspirations have been based on an assumption…that there is enough room in the land for the Arabs and ourselves. But if we are compelled to use force…in order to guarantee our right to settle there – our force will enable us to do so.”
For Israel’s first prime minister, it was critical that the Jews be masters of their own fate in Palestine. To do this, they needed to be a majority. Otherwise, outsiders who championed democracy could argue that Israel should be a state in which power was shared equally between Jews and Arabs.
The Nakba, the expulsion of 1 million Palestinian natives of Israel during the 1948 war between Israel and a coalition of Arab states, represented the Zionist leadership’s first opportunity to implement a plan of ethnic cleansing. Those who were driven from their property and homeland were forbidden to return, 400 of their villages were destroyed, and much of their remaining property was expropriated and transferred to Jews.
This process of ethnic cleansing continues today: The Israeli government creates and funds settler NGOs like Elad, which steal property from Palestinians and installs Jewish settlers in their place — all under the guise of redeeming the historical Jewish character of East Jerusalem.
Ethnic cleansing by immigration policy
Israel also enforces the depopulation of Palestinian enclaves by establishing arbitrary procedures which allow the state to remove the residency right of Palestinians born in Jerusalem if they live abroad for more than seven years and three years for those in the West Bank. In this fashion, 250,000 Palestinian natives have been stripped of their residency rights. With natural population growth, if these residents had retained their rights, Palestine would have 400,000 (10 percent of its current population) more residents than it currently has.
As part of this regime of ethnic cleansing, Israel maintains another strange procedure under which many Palestinians who are foreign citizens may not return to Israel, even for a visit. Their citizenship in a foreign nation offers them no rights or protections in their native land. Instead, they are treated as if they are solely Palestinians. Since Israel does not recognize Palestine as a state, it becomes easy to treat these visitors as unwanted interlopers. They are stripped of rights and sent back to their adopted homes.
Those attempting to enter Israel via Ben Gurion Airport, Israel’s largest international airport, are routinely detained, arrested and deported. Israel tells them that they’re only permitted to enter via the Allenby Bridge, and only by prior arrangement with the suitable Israeli authorities. Very few individuals receive such permission.
George Khoury is a professor who lives in the Bay Area. In 1945, he was born into a Roman Catholic family in West Jerusalem, which is now a largely Jewish enclave. Lest there be any doubt about how his family came to leave Israel in 1948, he writes: “Under a shower of bullets…flying over our heads, my father grabbed me and the rest of the family and fled to his native city of Nablus [in the Palestinian West Bank] at the eve of the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.”
In 1961, Khoury entered the Latin Patriarchate Seminary in Beit Jala, a city outside of Bethlehem. He left there in 1968 to travel to the U.S. to study at New Jersey’s Seton Hall University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in French and Spanish. Later, he earned a master’s degree from Montclair University in New Jersey.
After the 1967 War, Khoury received an Israeli residency permit, which lapsed after he left for the U.S. He is one of those 250,000 Palestinians who lost residency rights when they left Israel and moved abroad. He was later granted Jordanian citizenship, but after the Oslo Accords in 1994, even that was revoked. He earned U.S. citizenship in 1975. Currently, it is all he has.
He moved to California in the 1970s, and was granted U.S. citizenship in 1975 — currently, it’s the only citizenship he holds.
Since completing a PhD program in Theology at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, in 1990, Khoury has taught at several Bay Area colleges. He entered a diaconate program in 2012, which would allow him to serve various Catholic parishes within the Archdiocese of San Francisco. He is currently an Arabic and French language instructor at Skyline Community College and San Mateo College.
He and his friend Father Bernard Poggi planned a religious pilgrimage to Khoury’s homeland last month. It would’ve been his first trip home in 21 years. Khoury describes the interrogation he received from the Israeli security agent upon his arrival at Ben Gurion:
“An airport security agent (who I believe to be a Shin Bet agent) began:
Agent: ‘Oh so you came through Ben Gurion airport?’
Me: ‘Yes. What’s wrong with that?’
Agent: ‘You can’t do that.’
Me: ‘Why? I have an American passport. I came with father Bernard, to spend a few weeks in Jerusalem and that’s it. We are coming here on a religious pilgrimage and to visit some friends and family.’
Agent: ‘No no, you cannot go to Israel. You should have gone through the Allenby Bridge.’
Me: ‘Why should I do that? I’m not coming through as a Palestinian. I’m coming as an American citizen.’
Agent: ‘No. You are a Palestinian. Why are you denying that you’re a Palestinian?’
Me: ‘I’m not denying that I’m Palestinian. I am Palestinian from head to toe. My father is Palestinian. My mother is Palestinian…My grandfather is an Orthodox priest and I can trace my Palestinian roots for the last 500 years. What do you mean I am denying? I am denying nothing.’
Agent: ‘No no, you belong with the Palestinian people. This is our Israel. This is for the Jews. No Palestinian should come to Israel [emphasis added]. You should have gone through the Allenby Bridge.’
Me: ‘Why do you say that? Did I ever have a Palestinian passport? Did I ever live under the Palestinian authority? When the PA was constituted I was never in Palestine and I was never issued a Palestinian passport.’
Agent: ‘But you have an Israeli ID.’
Me: ‘An Israeli ID is not a Palestinian passport. The Israeli ID was issued to me when I was…was studying for the priesthood but you cannot equate that to a Palestinian passport…I was never a citizen of a country called Palestine. I am coming with an American passport and you should honor it.’
Agent: ‘How do you want me to honor your American passport? Do you want me to kiss it, to hug it, or to worship it? Moreover, you are rude and ill mannered. How did you get to be so rude? You are a Palestinian and you are rude and ill-mannered.’
Me: ‘I am neither rude nor ill-mannered…I’m just telling you I’m an American, who has been an American citizen for the past 40 years and I’ve lived in America for 46 years. So you disregard all these legal facts and you only focus on my Palestinian heritage?’
Agent: ‘You will be deported to Jordan and come the Allenby Bridge to continue your visit to the West Bank.’
Later, two other security agents told him he could not go to Jordan. Instead, he had to return to the airport in Rome from which he flew to Israel. He says he was told that if he wished to return to Jordan from Italy, he might do that. He made plans with Fr. Bernard, his traveling companion, to meet him in Jordan the following day. But Khoury never arrived in Jordan.
The Israelis hustled him into a prison van and deposited him and several other travelers in a detention facility outside the airport. Their personal belongings, including their cellphones, were confiscated. (Khoury’s bag has never been returned. Presumably, it was stolen by security officials — something that happened en masse to the 100 Mavi Marmara detainees, who suffered the looting of $2 to 3.5 million worth of personal property).
The guards prohibited the prisoners even from speaking to each other. At night, bright neon lights prevented the inmates from sleeping. Khoury remained in the facility for nearly three days. He only managed to call his wife in the U.S. because an Israeli-Palestinian guard took pity on him and permitted it. Khoury told MintPress News:
“When we complained to our Israeli Jewish guards of their brutal, inhumane treatment they told us a Palestinian guard would come on duty to help us; and that he spoke our language. This man eventually did come. He at least tried to treat us with a minimal amount of respect. I even asked his name and he replied: ‘George.’ He seemed to me a Christian from Nazareth.
I needed to take my insulin shot and asked George to permit me to do it in a separate room where I could have privacy. When I went to my bag to retrieve my medication I told him I needed to have a book to read as well to relieve the boredom of the cell. He asked me what the book was and I showed it to him [it was “Sacred Fire” by Ronald Rolhauser]. I said it was about spirituality, how to be a good human being. George replied: ‘So you don’t think I’m a good human being?’ I told him: ‘It isn’t a question of you. It’s the system in which you work.The system is evil.’”
When Khoury was returned to Ben Gurion Airport, he was driven directly to a plane waiting on the runway. When he asked where the plane was headed, he was told it was destined for Bogota. The security services had confused Khoury with a Colombian detainee. Once the error was realized, Khoury was returned to the detention center for another exhausting interlude.
After another sleepless night, he was driven back to the airport. Until that moment, he believed he was flying to Rome, where he would catch another flight to Jordan. But the security officer handed him tickets for a flight to San Francisco via Italy. Israel was prohibiting him even from visiting via the West Bank. His passport, which had been confiscated by authorities, was only returned to him when he boarded his final flight from Italy to the U.S.
When he called his travel agent to ask for reimbursement for his return ticket, he learned that Israeli authorities had cashed it in to pay for his return flight. Israel had even managed to evade financial responsibility for his deportation!
Speaking to MintPress, Khoury summed up his experience:
“They took something that was supposed to be a vacation from my long work hours, a reconnection with my homeland and old friends, and made it a nightmare from hell. I was disrespected, demeaned and treated like I committed a crime. I tell you my story so as to encourage people to visit Palestine to challenge th[is] thuggery…and do it here in the U.S.A. as well as in Israel.”
The final indignity of this visit for Khoury was Israel’s refusal to permit a Roman Catholic to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to visit sites that are sacred to Christianity. Israel prides itself on its so-called respect for the religious traditions of Jews, Muslims and Christians. General tourism constitutes a major portion of the Israeli economy, generating $12 billion in revenue. Christian pilgrims, who represent 56 percent of all tourists visiting the country, provide a major portion of this economic boost to the economy. Even Pope Francis has made a historic visit.
Christians contemplating such travel to Israel should beware of the treatment accorded Khoury, since it could befall any pilgrim Israel deems dangerous or suspect.
Israel’s domestic agency responsible for airport security, the Shin Bet, is monitored by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Repeated attempts to solicit comments from the PMO and foreign ministry on this case via e mail and telephone were unsuccessful.
Susan Abulhawa’s deportation for being an ‘uppity’ Palestinian
Lest one think Palestinian-Americans who do travel the Allenby Bridge to enter Palestine are treated differently, listen to the ordeal of noted novelist, Susan Abulhawa, who attempted to return to her homeland in late July. In Gideon Levy’s account of her ordeal, note especially the level of “support” offered to her by the U.S. Embassy in Jordan:
“Last week, she [Abulhawa] arrived at the Allenby Bridge crossing between Jordan and Israel, en route to see her family in Jerusalem, visit the playgrounds she has built and conduct interviews in honor of the publication of her latest novel. Her U.S. passport was in her pocket. After seven hours of waiting, and an exhausting and humiliating interrogation by six security officials, Abulhawa was expelled in disgrace – allegedly because she hadn’t cooperated with her interrogators.”
They asked her invasive questions about her family and the objectives of her visit, and she eventually lost her cool. “You wish you had the same roots as I do,” she shouted. “You should be the one to leave, not me! I’m a daughter of this land.” Nor did she mince her words on Facebook: “Denied entry to my homeland by a bunch of fucking Zionist colonizers who didn’t think I was sufficiently deferential. Livid.”
The following day, she appealed to the U.S. Embassy in Jordan for assistance. The embassy staff didn’t allow her to enter and wouldn’t accept her complaint.
It turns out that this is business as usual. American citizens of Palestinian origin are routinely humiliated upon entry to Israel, and representatives of their country refuse to come to their defense. This, of course, is an issue for the U.S. to deal with: How is it that Israel treats American citizens so rudely and humiliates those holding its passport, and the U.S. government forgives this with such ease?
After prodding, congresswoman agrees to meet with Khoury
Dr. George Khoury’s daughter, Linda Khoury, produced a documentary for KPFA Radio which details her father’s experience trying to enter his homeland.
She also contacted California Rep. Jackie Speier’s district office to request a meeting to determine what could be done on her constituent’s behalf regarding this incident. When the staffer didn’t responded to her inquiry, I followed up last week by speaking with the congresswoman’s district communications officer, Katrina Dill. She told me Speier “knows about the case,” but Speier was out of the country and could not respond further until she returned.
I asked Dill to confirm that at this point she was saying that neither Speier nor her staff were making any commitment to meet with George and Linda Khoury. She rejected these terms. I asked when Speier was returning home, and Dill said this coming week. I told her when my publication deadline was and said I’d be happy to report that a meeting would be scheduled if she could arrange this before this article was published.
Two days after this conversation, Linda Khoury emailed to tell me that Speier agreed to meet with her and her father next week.
Dr. Khoury has also emailed California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein to tell them of his experience, but neither had responded as of the writing of this article.
State Department refuses to assist American citizens in gaining entry to Israel
When he approached the State Department to report his ordeal, Dr. George Khoury received this pro forma reply:
“As it regards your father, the Government of Israel has sole jurisdiction over its borders and decisions regarding who is permitted entry. Unfortunately, the U.S. government cannot assist U.S. citizens in gaining entry into Israel. Should your father wish to travel again in the future, we advise him to contact the nearest Israeli Embassy or Consulate for guidance.”
“The U.S. government seeks equal treatment and freedom to travel for all U.S. citizens regardless of national origin or ethnicity. However, dual Israeli-American nationals are treated as Israelis at the port of entry and U.S. citizens who are or may be Palestinian–American dual nationals are treated as Palestinian nationals at the port of entry.”
This statement might as well say: We reluctantly accept that you, as a U.S. citizen, will not be treated with all the rights and privileges accorded most other U.S. citizens. There is nothing we can do about it. And even if there was, we’d prefer not to in order not to rock the boat in our relations with Israel.
Yousef Munayyer, director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, speaking on Linda Khoury’s KPFA documentary, said:
“The State Department has not done nearly enough. And in recent years it has more or less washed its hands of this situation. … Americans everywhere who have ever traveled to a foreign country would be terrified as the prospect of… their government essentially abandoning them in a foreign land.”
During a weekly State Department press briefing on Aug. 17, a reporter asked the briefer about Khoury’s case without mentioning him by name. The press officer said he would have to research the matter before replying. The following day the department posted this on its website:
“Question: There are reports that U.S. citizens have been denied entry into Israel and their U.S. passports have been confiscated until these individuals reach their destination outside of Israel. Has the United States raised this issue with the Israeli Government?
Answer: We are aware of reports that U.S. citizens were denied entry into Israel. We refer you to the Government of Israel for additional information on this case. The U.S. Government seeks equal treatment and freedom to travel for all U.S. citizens regardless of national origin or ethnicity. Specifically, the U.S. Government remains concerned at the unequal treatment that Palestinian-Americans and other Arab-Americans receive at Israel’s borders and checkpoints. We regularly raise with Israeli authorities concerns about the issue of equal treatment for all U.S. citizens at ports of entry.”
There is an error in the question: Deportees’ passports are withheld from them until they reach a foreign country to which they’re being deported. Italy was not Khoury’s “destination” in that sense; the Israelis chose to forcibly deport him there.
At least the U.S. government admits that Palestinian-Americans receive “unequal treatment.” But claiming that the State Department “raises concerns regularly” with Israel indicates a lack of will to make this a major concern in bilateral relations.
Israel lobby seeks visa-less US entry for Israelis
Last year, congressional friends of Israel, at the behest of the Israel lobby, wrote legislation that would offer Israeli citizens preferential immigration treatment. Under the new system, Israel would join a score of other nations whose citizens do not require visas to enter the U.S. for visits.
There were a few skeptics in Congress and more in the intelligence and diplomatic communities, who pointed out that this would allow Israeli intelligence agents to enter the country without any oversight or documentation. According to U.S. intelligence reports, Israel conducts the third most intensive espionage program here of any country in the world. Other critics of the legislation noted that Israel was seeking open access to the U.S. for its citizens while it offered restricted access or no access at all to many American citizens seeking to visit Israel or Palestine.
In response to these concerns, deputy foreign minister Zeev Elkin said last year that Israel would begin allowing Palestinian-Americans to enter via Ben Gurion Airport. Given Dr. George Khoury’s subsequent treatment, either Elkin was lying or someone forgot his promise.
Due to the pushback from U.S. government officials, Congress backed off the legislation. It satisfied itself with a Sense of Congress resolution which called on the government to approve the relaxed visa requirements in the future. Khoury’s treatment should serve as a reminder that Israel has not drawn the proper lessons from this episode and doesn’t deserve its citizens receiving expedited immigration treatment.
Writing for The Hill on Monday, James Zogby notes that Israel’s ongoing harassment of these U.S. citizens violates a bilateral treaty the two nations signed in 1951, which pledged to “permit U.S. citizens the right to ‘travel freely, to reside at places of their choice, to enjoy liberty of conscience’ and to guarantee them ‘the most constant protection and security.’”
Zogby continued: “Not only has Israel consistently violated its treaty obligation, but our government has failed to live up to its commitment to protect the rights of its own citizens.”
Racial profiling at Ben Gurion
Though Palestinian-Americans bear the brunt of Israel’s draconian deportation policy, they are not the only ones to suffer. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of American citizens have been deported from Israel on the basis of racial profiling procedures it claims are necessary to protect its security. Many of those deported pose no security threat; they are profiled based on ethnicity, last name, or even skin color.
In 2008, Abdur-Rahim Jackson, a member of the Alvin Ailey Company, a black American dance troupe, was denied entry.
In 2010, Donna Shalala, a Lebanese-American, university president and former Cabinet secretary, was harassed at Ben Gurion Airport. The nation’s airport authority, when queried by an Israeli reporter, denied the incident happened at all.
Heather Bradshaw, a neuroscience professor at Indiana University, was invited to deliver a paper at a conference in Israel in 2010. On her way to the conference, she was forced to disrobe and board the plane without her luggage. A Google search turned up a British woman by the same name, who traveled to Arab countries to work on projects combating rural poverty.
The country’s attorney general has even approved a provision allowing the security police to demand access to foreign tourists’ email accounts as a condition for entry. Refusal to permit such invasions of privacy is grounds for deportation.
And, of course, Israel treats its own Palestinian citizens in equally reprehensible ways. On her way to deliver a paper at a conference in 2006, Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, a Palestinian law professor at Hebrew University, was detained and her laptop containing the paper she would present was confiscated.
When documentary filmmaker Sahera Dirbas flew home to Jerusalem from Europe after accepting an award from George Clooney in 2009, she was forced to strip naked in order to prove she was not a terrorist. Her bronze statuette was confiscated and “lost” by authorities until Haaretz inquired about the matter. Authorities then “found” it and returned to her.
In 2007, Rania Jubran, the daughter of the then-sole Israeli-Palestinian Supreme Court justice, who was a foreign ministry “cadet” (or intern), was harassed by Shin Bet airport security, which refused to believe the ministry documents she carried were authentic and asked her to prove she was indeed the justice’s daughter. Then-Shin Bet director Yuval Diskin promised procedures would be changed. They weren’t.
One of the world’s most distinguished musicians and conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, a Colombian-born supporter of the leftist Hugo Chavez, was harassed both on entry and departure from Ben Gurion Airport in 2013. The Israel Philharmonic, for whom he was to conduct, blamed Dudamel for the ordeal inflicted upon him by security officials. In response, he said he may never travel to Israel to conduct again.
Israel is a state which enshrines racism and denial of fundamental human rights as state policy in cases involving national security. Because the security services enjoy sweeping latitude in defining how the state is protected, there is virtually no oversight of such procedures. And there is no recourse for those whose security and rights are violated.
The only way to address these issues is for the U.S. and other foreign governments to insist on all their citizens being treated equally. If Israel still refuses, these nations must take steps to reciprocate by limiting access to their own countries to Israelis, especially government and security officials, academics and artists. That is the only way to make Israel change its policies to conform to international standards.