Guesswork, Grievance and Game of Thrones at Ben Gurion Airport
“As of this moment, you have been denied entry to the State of Israel,” says a rotund and tanned security interrogator as we sit in his incommodious office at Ben Gurion Airport. “Now, I can help you out here, but you will have to help me, and I need some names… now.”
I’m three hours into my stay with the Israeli security services and unbeknown to myself, in one of my previous visits to Israel/Palestine, I attended a demonstration and was brazen enough to have thrown stones at soldiers in the full glare of IDF photographers.
Of course, not one bit of that is true, but nevertheless the interrogator has spent the last three hours attempting to extract an admission. This is how it has repeatedly played out so far:
Security Officer: “We have photographs of you at a demonstration, throwing stones at soldiers.”
Me: “That is not possible as I have never attended a demonstration and have never thrown stones! Where was the photograph taken?”
S: “We can’t tell you for security purposes.”
M: “OK, when was the photograph taken?”
S: “We can’t tell you for security purposes.”
M: “Right… Can I have a look at the photograph?”
S: “No – but you need to tell us where you were and who you were with or you will not be entering Israel.”
M: *Unfettered exasperation*
S: “You are not helping yourself! Go back and think about what you want to tell me.”
After the latest futile session of catechising, I am escorted back to a holding area to sit with the other people deemed suspicious enough to pose a threat to the State of Israel or, as seems evident from observing the area, those whose skin colour is a bit too brown and/or are projecting a Muslimy vibe.
Joining me here are just four other white faces out of about thirty-a Russian family that has already been told they are being deported. The majority of the remaining “suspects” are Arabs or of Arab heritage. But I was expecting this. It is my third entry through Israel during the course of a year in which I have spent the majority of my time living and working in the West Bank. Whilst the Israeli intelligence services make no secret of the racial profiling tactics they employ – justified under that ubiquitous and mendacious euphemism, “security necessity” – a white face and a Hebrew name can’t secure you smooth entry forever!
After another hour of tedium I am escorted back into my friend’s office where we once again partake in the charade of questions and answers. Such is the resultant ennui that when he decides to pursue a new approach, with a search through my personal belongings, my resentment is almost matched with relief.
Apart from a half-hearted accusation that I was “coming here to convert” when he finds a book I am reading about the West’s historical relationship with Islam, there is nothing of concern. But then he finds it. Now he’s got me. This is surely a terrorist devise. It’s a cheap old Nokia phone. WITH TERRIFYING ARABIC LETTERS ON THE BUTTONS!
He starts looking through each and every name in the contact list and forensically questions me on who they are and how I know them. Then he moves onto the messages in my inbox. Despite the frustrating invasion of my privacy, I am unconcerned; with the notorious reputation of the Israeli security services, I was expecting this.
Then suddenly he interjects, “Who is Arya!? Who stabbed Arya?!” His abrasive tone catches me off guard.
It takes me a few seconds to work out what he’s saying, and it is precisely because of Israel’s famed intelligence services that I am left incredulous and slightly amused. He furiously asks the questions again.
The text that has alerted him is from a Palestinian friend and it reads “OMG! I can’t believe Arya has been stabbed!”
With a smile I explain “Arya” is a character on the pervasively popular Game of Thrones TV series and I had just been discussing the latest episode with my friend.
“Game of what?!” comes his exaggerated response.
I tell him that Game of Thrones is perhaps the most watched TV series on the planet but resist from derisively warning that cutting-edge surveillance technology and rigorous security protocols are useless if he didn’t already know that.
He seems to believe me and we go for one last round of the usual questions. For the last time he warns me, “If you don’t give me names then you will not be entering Israel,” and I am escorted back to the holding area.
I sit in silence for another hour before a different security officer approaches me with my passport and standard three-month visa. “You’re free to go,” he says.
1. Don’t discuss the world’s most popular (and murderous) TV series with Palestinian friends before attempting to pass through Ben Gurion airport.