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of Israel's 39-year occupation of Palestinian territories.
On Friday, 8 June 2007, my husband Ian flew to
Israel. He is in fact on his way to an IT conference in Vienna, but
we thought that it would be nice for him to make a short three-day
detour to Tel-Aviv to visit my brother and his family and in particular
meet my seven and five year old nieces for the first time.
At Ben-Gurion airport Ian's Australian passport was confiscated with no explanation.
He was taken to a small interrogation room and had to endure an intimidating
questioning about non-existent Saudi and Lebanese visas in his passport. He
was interrogated by a tough-looking uniformed female police officer while a
non-uniformed agent watched. The officer asked him why he had Saudi and Lebanese
visas. When he responded that this could not be his passport because he does
not have such visas, she proceeded to ask him for the names of his father and
grandfather. Despite the fact that Ian answered the question the first time,
she repeated it three more times. By that stage Ian realized that they were
trying to intimidate him and although he did feel some fear, he pointed out
that she asked the same question several times and that he had already answered
it. After about 25 minutes of this, Ian was finally released with no explanation
and a feeble apology about delaying him.
As a former Israeli citizen with military training I am familiar with the psychological
tactics used by the Israeli Border Patrol (MAGAV) and by the military. They
deliberately try to intimidate their victim and keep him (or her) in a state
of uncertainty -- about what is going on, what it's all about, where his papers
are. They know that foreign nationals would feel profoundly insecure without
their passports and that uncertainty would lead to fear and stress in most
people. They also know that most people's confidence would falter under such
conditions and if there is anything to divulge, it is more likely come out
then. Israeli officers are trained to watch body language, micro-expressions,
perspiration, anything. The questions themselves are often just a pretext to
induce stress so that they can watch their victim carefully to see if he has
any secrets. They had Ian's passport. They knew well that there were no such
visas in it. (And you have to wonder: what if there were? What would have happened
to him then? Australian citizens are free to visit any country they wish. But
it appears that in Israel having the "wrong" visas in your passport turns you
into a suspect. Of course we will never know whether the story about the visas
was the real reason for his short detention.)
Israel and its apologists repeatedly portray Israel as "the only democracy
in the Middle East," a uniquely democratic regime in a non-democratic region.
Somehow this is supposed to make us feel more sympathetic and justify our support
of it. But Israeli democracy is a myth.
In my 27 years there I belonged to the Israeli mainstream. I was Jewish, Israeli-born
and secular. I was an ordinary citizen who completed her military service,
the quintessential Israeli, not involved in politics or activism of any kind.
I minded my own business, worried about money, work, study, my own little life.
I wasn't a "trouble-maker" by any stretch of the imagination. Anyone who met
me back then, would have assumed that I agreed with the prevailing Israeli
ideology. And frankly, they would have been right.
Although Israeli daily life could be frustrating, particularly dealing with
the bureaucracy, we felt safe in the knowledge that annoying as they might
be, our authorities would never turn against us. In fact, the thought wouldn't
even occur to us. Because I was a member of this comfortable center of Israeli
society, I was also ignorant of what Israel was capable of, and of what it
could mean to not belong.
My first ever taste of this as yet unfamiliar "status" came around 17 years
ago, when my ex-husband (also an Israeli) and I were planning to migrate to
Australia, and were in the last stages of receiving our permanent residency.
My ex, an engineer and a Captain in the army about to finish his contract,
was told suddenly one afternoon, without explanation that he was to report
to a certain location to have a little "chat" with someone from the Military
Our plans to leave Israel were no secret. Leaving Israel is not a crime, and
Australia was not on the list of countries that Israeli officers involved in
secret military projects were prohibited from visiting or living in after the
end of their service (yes, such a list exists). In any case, there was no reason
for my ex-husband to suspect that this "chat" had anything to do with our plans.
He was taken to a small room and instructed to sit on a chair in the middle
of the room. He was circled by a female Military Police sergeant who began
by saying, "We found out that you are planning to migrate to Australia," to
which he replied "So? It's not a secret." She responded aggressively that he
was to shut up, and that she was asking the questions. She then proceeded to
ask "Why are you leaving?" and, "Does your wife know that you are planning
to leave?" Apparently the military found out about our plans from the police,
while we were in the process of obtaining clearance for Australian Immigration.
They would have known that both of us were involved. The questions were clearly
not intended to be engaged with at face value. Initially, my ex started to
respond to the point, but when he realized the absurdity of the situation he
became annoyed. He then told the sergeant that he did not see the point of
the conversation and unless she was accusing him of something, he was leaving.
When she responded aggressively again, he stood up, reminded her that he was
a Captain and she a Sergeant, and left the room.
In the absence of any information about this incident, we concluded that this
was an attempt to intimidate us out of leaving Israel. Of course it relied
entirely on psychology because the military had neither reason nor a legal
way of stopping us.
Up until the army found out that we were leaving, my husband as a career officer
and myself as the "wife of," were treated with great respect in Israeli society
and in the military. We didn't just belong, we had an honored place. The choice
of a female sergeant was meant to humiliate him (I mean no offense to females
but this is the culture in the Israeli military). Whoever dreamed up this intimidation
attempt wanted to show my ex that his rank and status meant little if he was
choosing the "wrong" path. We were angry but mostly shocked that he could be
treated like this just because we wanted to leave Israel. It's one thing to
encounter the disapproval of friends and relatives in ordinary conversations.
It's quite another to be the subject of a menacing questioning by the MP. Our
decision to leave apparently placed us in a new position in society, outside
that comfortable mainstream. When we finally left at the end of '91 we did
so with a bitter taste in our mouths having seen a glimpse of an Israel we
Ask any Palestinian and they will tell you much worse stories -- frankly, there
is no comparison. Palestinians cannot help but be seen as outsiders, whether
they are citizens of Israel or whether they are refugees in the Occupied Territories,
whether they are children or adults, male or female. All Palestinians live
under constant military and police surveillance. They experience nothing of
the mythical Israeli democracy. "Israeli democracy" is something reserved only
for the privileged and mostly ignorant elite, of which I was also a member,
until I decided to leave. Palestinian citizens of Israel live under an arbitrary
and brutal police state. Their dealings with Israeli bureaucracy are not just
frustrating but can be outright dangerous.
The Palestinians in the Occupied Territories live under a Pinochet-like regime.
They can and do disappear in the middle of the night. They are blindfolded,
cuffed, beaten, humiliated, taken to unknown locations with no information
given to them or their families, tortured physically and psychologically and
incarcerated indefinitely, often without charges and regardless of whether
they are guilty of anything. It is arbitrary and it can happen to anyone. This
is a far worse version of the two incidents I described above but the basic
principles are the same.
In a regime like that you don't have to actually do anything wrong to receive
this treatment. This is because it is not only designed to catch people who
break the law, it is designed to be a kind of a warning, a hinted threat. It's
there to flaunt state power, show people how small and weak they are compared
with the mighty state, and offer a taste of what would happen to them if they
even think to go against it. In the case of the Palestinians such tactics are
also designed to make daily life unbearable in order to break their spirit
and intimidate them into leaving. After all, what Israel really wants is all
the land but without the people, something that so many in the West still refuse
Israel is not a nice country. It is a powerful police state founded on pathological
paranoia with only a veneer of civility, carefully crafted and maintained for
the consumption of those who still believe in the myth of Israeli democracy.
Mainstream Israelis live in a fictional bubble that separates them from reality.
If there is a democracy there, only this select group enjoys it -- just like
the conformist white population in old South Africa. Supporting Israel now
is the same as claiming that South Africa under apartheid was an acceptable
democracy. It also means abandoning the Palestinians, just like the world abandoned
black South Africans (and white dissidents) for 45 long years.
Abarbanel is a former Israeli and a local psychotherapist/counsellor who
writes for The
Electronic Intifada where this article originally appeared. Click
here to contact EI.