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At the start of my Middle Eastern backpacking trip in September, I made several good and bad decisions.
Good decision number one was to use the occasion to contribute my time along the way to helping people in need. The refugee crisis and all the subsequent poisonous rhetoric in the right-wing press made me take notice of the plight of many in a region ravaged by war. The last straw for me was the cynical U-turn newspapers made in response to the death of Aylan, the child who died on a beach in the Mediterranean. I wanted to make a difference, no matter how little or seemingly insignificant. I pinpointed the Israeli occupied Palestinian West Bank as my destination of choice.
I had taken a particularly keen interest in the oppression suffered by millions of Palestinians in their own land. Instead of keeping me away, the outbreak of violence in the West Bank in September when I set off from home only hardened my resolve. The bad decision I made was to leave my volunteering project until the end of my journey – especially because I couldn’t foresee the problems that my Iranian and Lebanese Visas would create for me at the Allenby bridge border crossing.
I was to volunteer with Karama in the Deheishe refugee camp near Bethlehem. The word Karama in Arabic means dignity. Dignity is something that the Israeli occupation try to take away from the Palestinians every day.
I got a taster of what to expect in Deheishe when I spent December in Beirut. The Lebanese capital city has seen a huge influx of refugees as a result of the crisis in neighbouring Syria. Lebanon itself has selflessly taken in 1.5 million Syrians – a third of its population. The sole ‘true’ hostel in Beirut just happens to be an NGO (Non-governmental organisation) that works closely with the Palestinian Shatila refugee camp in the southern suburbs of the city.
Hostel Beirut sent me to a world away from the glamorous shopping malls, cocktail bars and designer boutiques of downtown Beirut. Shatila is a concrete jungle of electrical cables, garbage and narrow corridors where the sun can barely illuminate the daily lives of it’s inhabitants. In the camp, a fellow volunteer from France and myself helped to arrange basic English lessons for the children. On the weekend I helped my new friend Victor give karate lessons. The people of Shatila have so little, yet they gave so much. The children were the real teachers. They showed us the true face of human spirit and perseverance despite their bleak surroundings. I’ll never forget the warmth and happiness that I felt spending Christmas day in Shatila.
Arriving at the Palestinian side of the Allenby Bridge crossing into the West Bank, I would get my sole taster of Palestinian hospitality when, during my 10 hour wait at the border terminal, a Bedouin man invited me to his home in Hebron and gave me a bar of chocolate. I would be deported back to Jordan shortly after. But not before experiencing humiliation at the hands of the border officials over the course of a couple of interviews that felt more like the interrogation of a convicted criminal.
Both Karama and Love Volunteers briefed me beforehand that under no circumstances should I tell the Israelis the true purpose of my visit. I was to be a tourist, nothing more and nothing less. During the course of my first interview, the woman seemed to be more interested in my social media accounts and my Whatsapp acquaintances from Iran and Lebanon than what I was doing in Israel.
She asked to see my Facebook account, and when I told her that I didn’t have it anymore, she got furious. She went through my phone messages and asserted that I had deleted Whatsapp conversations. In reality, I barely use the application and what she saw is what I had. She started accusing me of collaborating with Hamas and Hezbollah. She also told me that I would regret lying to the State of Israel. She combed through my contacts and demanded that I tell her the details of how I knew every Islamic sounding name in my contacts list. She claimed that I had converted to Islam and that I was a liar when I told her I was Agnostic. The conversation came back to the ‘serious consequences’ of lying to Israel. I was sent back to the waiting room.
My second interview was about six hours later. I was tired and hungry. I had been chatting to two fellow travellers from Denmark when I was called into a different room by a different woman. ‘Who are those people? How do you know them?’ she demanded. This is pretty much the high point of the conversation. I felt pretty humiliated that she invaded my privacy further. Reading more of my emails. More of my private conversations. More of my pictures. All in the vain hope that I would be allowed into Palestine to do some good. She knew exactly what she needed before this interview even started. She knew I was there to volunteer and that I had volunteered in Beirut. She sprung the evidence on me, name dropping Shatila, demanding to know the phone number of my contact in Palestine at Karama.
The excruciating 10 hour wait at Allenby and the embarrassment of the invasiveness of the interviews was all unnecessary. It was unnecessary for them to tell me that I was being deported for lying and not for being a volunteer. Love Volunteers have since emailed me to tell me that never in the history of them running the Karama programme has a person been allowed into Israel to help Palestinians after admitting they were volunteers. It was unnecessary for them to tell me to contact Karama and tell them to go through the official bureaucratic channels of COGAT (Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories) – because according to my contact in Karama, this does not cater to non-Jewish organisations. It was definitely unnecessary for them to stamp both of my dual nationality passports; a cynical action to make sure that I couldn’t return to any of the countries I had been to or volunteer again in Beirut as a plan B. This is abject behaviour. Behaviour that shouldn’t surprise me. But it did.
Arriving back at my hotel in Amman, I was greeted by this article. Looks like COGAT are doing a lot of good work in the territories. Somehow I can’t see this organisation having much interest in handing out visas for humanitarian volunteer work.