Days of Palestine

Israeli occupation deports SA activist from airport

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Israeli occupation authorities, interrogated, detained in dirty cell and then deported South African pro-Palestine activist Sarah Robinson.

On her personal blog, Sarah posted the whole story of her journey from Johannesburg to Tel-Aviv, passing through Istanbul and going back to Johannesburg. With tears descending down from my eyes, I read the whole post and insisted to publish it here on Days of Palestine literally.

Here is Sarah Robinson’s account:

I left Johannesburg on Sunday evening, 16 October, and flew to Istanbul, Turkey. The check-in process was smooth and I was asked no security related questions. I had a six-hour stopover in Istanbul which was also uneventful.

I checked-in to the flight to Tel Aviv, Israel and although there was extra security and scrutiny there were no problems. I landed in Tel Aviv at 13:20 on Monday afternoon.

I waited patiently in line at the customs desks for my turn to be processed. A sullen lady called me to the desk, took my passport, and began typing away on her computer.

She asked me the normal customs and immigration questions.

  • How long did I plan to stay in Israel?
  • What was the purpose of my visit?
  • Had I been there before?

I answered carefully and truthfully.
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She then asked me what my father’s name was and my grandfather’s name which I provided.

Staring at her computer screen she called a gentleman to the desk and handed him my passport. He requested I follow him. He took me to a room in the customs area where several other people were sitting.

I waited in the room for about 45 minutes when another lady, not older than 25, called me into her office. Like the first lady, she was tapping away furiously on her computer and didn’t really look at me but rather the screen in front of her.

She began asking me questions similar to that of the previous lady. The interrogation lasted for about 45 minutes. She asked questions like this:

  • What was I doing in Israel on my previous visits? I explained that I was a volunteer with the World Council of Churches and described what that entailed.
  • Do I know people in Israel? I said not really and she asked to see my phone contacts. I reached for my phone and first tried to turn off my international roaming status before handing it to her.

She commented: “Keep deleting your contacts” to which I responded that I was just turning off my data.

She entered Israel’s telephone country code into my contacts and two people came up. One was a lady whom I met once in 2013 and the other someone I had worked with in 2013.

  • Had I ever been to a demonstration? I said no.
  • She asked if I wanted to revise that answer. I said no, I had never been to a demonstration. This was true.
  • She asked if I was aware that the Israelis monitor social networking and photos from such events. I said I was aware of that but my answer remains the same.
  • Had I ever visited, Jenin, Nablus, Bethlehem, Hebron, or Nazareth? I confirmed which cities I had been to.

She handed me a piece of paper to complete. I had to add my phone number, email address, father’s name, and grandfather’s name.

  • Where do I stand during clashes and what do I do? I stand in the middle, observe, and take photos. What do I do with these photos? I share them on Facebook and my blog.
  • Are you a journalist? No. But you have a blog? Yes. What is it? I give her the address of my blog which I have temporarily disabled so she can’t see anything.
  • Do you know that you can be deported for lying or for being a security threat? Yes, I do understand that.
  • Do you like coming here for the rush and the high of the conflict? That’s not my main reason for visiting.
  • Do I know anyone who has been deported? No. But your name was mentioned by someone who was deported. Are you sure you don’t want to give me a different answer? No.

The questions were vast yet detailed and she was continually reading the situation and my responses. I was careful not to lie but I was also careful not to give away unnecessary information.

The purpose of my visit was to join the International Solidarity Movement to work as a human rights observer in Hebron. I didn’t give her this information but rather insisted this trip was a holiday, which it was, just not the kind of holiday most people take. When she was finished she requested I go back to the waiting room.

Half an hour later a man called me into another office where I had to complete a customs declaration form and he took my picture. I was hopeful that they were preparing to let me in, why else would they need a customs declaration. He escorted me back to the waiting room.

Another gentleman came in and sat next to me holding two pieces of paper. He informed me that I would be deported and I needed to sign the document as confirmation. I asked why I was been deported and he said I was a security threat.

I asked why and what it meant but he just kept saying I was a security threat but gave me no explanation. I refused to sign the document. He didn’t seem to care and got up and walked away.

A little while later another gentleman called me to follow him. He led me through the airport to the luggage area to collect my backpack. He attached a large sign to my bag and left it in another room. He returned me to the waiting area.

Then another man called me to follow him. I was led outside with four other gentlemen. There was an armoured van waiting for us. We got in the van and were driven to a detention centre about ten minutes away.

While in the van I called the South African embassy and attempted to explain what was happening to the lady who answered the phone. She basically said there was nothing they could do and hung up.

We got to the detention centre and had to leave our bags in a room and were only allowed to keep our cigarettes but no lighter.

The men with me were taken to a room on the ground floor of the building and I was taken to a cell on the second floor. There were four other women in the room. I think they were all Russian as they could speak to each other but they spoke very little English so I was unable to communicate with them.

The cell consisted of five bunk beds, a toilet, and a basin. The beds held mixed up and dirty sheets and blankets. The walls of the cell were covered in writing displaying messages such as “Free Palestine” and “God loves you”.

There were names of deported activists etched onto the walls and the beds, most written in pencil and some in toothpaste.

I sat on the bed and struggled to refrain from crying. I stared at the wall in front of me and saw the message, “God is good, all of the time” but I battled to believe it. The situation was not good. I was not good.

I managed to fall asleep for a little while. After about an hour or so a guard came to the door, opened it, called us, and took us outside for ten minutes to smoke.

The detention centre was heavily secured with many security personnel, cameras, and bars. We were escorted back into the cell and offered sandwiches. I lay down again and waited. I had no idea what was happening or what would happen next.

At 20:30 a security guard came into the room and requested me and another lady follow him. We were put back into the armoured van and driven back to the airport. We were taken to a security room where all our belongings were searched and checked.

At 21:00 I was again told to follow a gentleman who led me through the airport to a boarding gate. My passport and other documents were handed to the security people at the desk, I was escorted onto the plane, and told that when we landed in Istanbul I would be met by more security.

We landed in Istanbul an hour and 45 minutes later. I waited on the plane until everyone had disembarked and then made my way to the exit. A security officer was waiting for me with my passport and the deportation documentation.

Again I was told to follow him. He took me through the airport to another boarding gate where my passport and documentation was handed to the airline officials. Again I was escorted to my seat.

We landed in Johannesburg, South Africa ten hours later. An air steward requested I follow her to the front of plane where I was met by more security guards and again escorted through the airport.

The security guard took me through customs and immigration and to collect my backpack. He then went to his office to take copies of my passport and other documentation. Once that was completed, he finally gave me my passport and I was able to take the Gautrain home.

Here is the link for Sarah Robinson’s blog: