Of all the places I have wanted to visit, Palestine has always been at the top of the list. So when I got an opportunity to go there on reporting assignment, I was beyond excited.
But that initial enthusiasm soon gave way to doubt and worry.
I had heard horror stories about Israeli security checks and intense interviews from others, and as a result I was anxious about the visa application process.
My travel agent, who had helped me obtain visas for Europe, Brazil and South Africa was clear; as a Kashmiri Muslim, my chances of getting an Israeli visa were slim.
Nevertheless, I travelled from Doha to New Delhi to apply.
After two days of waiting, I got a call asking me to attend an interview the next day at the Israeli Embassy in New Delhi.
I was told not to carry any belongings with me. A friend accompanied me and we stopped some 500 meters before the Embassy. I gave him my phone, laptop bag, and wallet and kept 100 rupees with me.
The moment he left, a member of the security team ran towards me and told me to call him back.
Since he had already walked some distance and I didn’t have my phone, I had to shout until he could hear me.
‘A flurry of questions’
The security guard asked him why he had come with me and thoroughly checked him, even taking his ID before finally letting him go.
At the gate, there were further security checks.
There were two other men waiting for an interview alongside me and we were asked to remove our belts and keep them on the pavement outside the embassy.
Then came a flurry of questions:
“Are you carrying chemicals on your body?”
“Did somebody give you something to leave at the embassy?”
As if my word was not enough, one of the security guards sniffed my belt to make sure it did not contain any scent of chemicals.
I remember feeling as though I had been accused of a crime, as did one of the men beside me who protested.
“It’s not easy to enter Israel,” was the response he got.
“You are welcome to leave if you have a problem.”
The eventual interview was short and curt. I picked up my passport three days later to find I had been given a visa for just 12 days instead of the usual three months.
I returned to Doha and left for Israel a few days later, flying via Cyprus as there isn’t a direct route between the two.
Upon arrival at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport, I was taken to a waiting room and spent the next three hours being interrogated by eight different officials, each playing either good cop or bad cop with the same set of questions.
I was made to write the names of every family member, including my grandparents, before being allowed to leave.
Wherever you travel, here’s a relief that comes with passing through airport security, picking up your luggage, and finally collapsing on to your hotel bed.
In Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories there’s no such thing; the checks rarely seem to end.
I was out there to work on stories, and most of our travel time would go in passing through various security checkpoints dotted throughout the area.
I have only heard and read about apartheid in South Africa, and I often wondered how it was possible to segregate public facilities and social activities.
Nothing quite prepared me for what I saw in Jerusalem.
Life is segregated for Israelis and Palestinians to the extent that there are even different buses for Jews and Arabs.
|A young Palestinian mother was made to stand in the sun with her baby while officials at the checkpoint sat in their vehicle and questioned her. [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]|
I was travelling on one such bus with Palestinians leaving Jerusalem for the occupied West Bank when soldiers stopped the bus and demanded to see identification documents.
The soldiers checked ID cards for everyone on board – Israel issues military permits to a few Palestinians who are allowed to visit Jerusalem.
A young Palestinian carrying a baby in her arms was asked to get off the bus as her permit had expired.
Even though the woman kept telling them that she was leaving Jerusalem and returning to the West Bank, they took her off the bus regardless.
She was made to stand in the sun with her baby while officials at the checkpoint sat in their vehicle and questioned her.
I was watching from my window growing increasingly frustrated because I could not intervene and help her.
If it was a free country, people could have gone out to help her and challenge the officials. However, this is what occupation looks like, where repressed people are forced to endure every injustice thrown their way.
Since we were getting late for an interview and the bus had been standing for nearly an hour, we decided to get off the bus and cross the checkpoint on foot. I don’t know what happened to her.
Racial profiling is routine on the streets of Jerusalem and I witnessed three men thoroughly searched in a span of just 10 minutes.
Such treatments come coupled with widespread hatred for Palestinians. A day before we reached Jerusalem, Israeli forces killed 34 unarmed Palestinians on Gaza border. We decided to interview people in West Jerusalem about those killings.
“Just 34 killed?” Asked one Israeli.
“They should have killed 200. I want them to kill all the Palestinians there,” he said.
I was still confounded by shock as he went on: “My life is before (that of) the Arabs,” meaning his life is worth more than an Arab’s.
‘I could breathe again’
On our last day in Jerusalem, my colleague and I decided to visit the Old City in occupied East Jerusalem. I went to the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Al-Aqsa mosque compound.
At the gate of the Al-Aqsa compound – Islam’s third holiest site – an Israeli soldier asked me to recite verses from the Quran before allowing me inside the compound.
I told him that I was a Muslim but he insisted that I recite something. It was a strange feeling; I was reciting because someone with a gun was telling me to do so.
I have thought about that moment every day since. It wasn’t normal.
With the trip over, it was time for one last hurdle.
At Tel Aviv airport, your passport is given a sticker with a 10-digit figure. The first number of the ten digits ranges from one to six.
One and two are typically given to Israelis and those not deemed a “security threat”, while those who receive a higher figure must endure rigorous security checks.
As expected, the first number on my sticker was a six, and I had to go through four hours of security checks.
Even with world-class body scanners, you are still subjected to thorough pat-downs.
It feels as if this is being done to ensure that you’ll never return; they intentionally humiliate you and make you feel unwelcome.
My flight to Doha was via Jordan. The moment I landed in Jordan’s capital, Amman, I felt I could breathe again.