As Britain pledges to celebrate Balfour, Israel denied my Easter homecoming to Palestine

First published by the Middle East Eye on 13/4/2017

On 7 April, I travelled with my wife, Lina, and my five-year-old son, Adam, to Palestine to spend Easter with family and friends, mainly in Attur, East Jerusalem.

In the late afternoon, we arrived at Tel Aviv airport and made our way to passport control. I was asked about the purpose of my journey which I explained. A minute later, an officer arrived to take me away for questioning while my wife, who holds a Jerusalem ‘residency’ ID card and my son, traveling on a British passport, were told they could go through.

I explained that they would wait for me while I was questioned and they were directed to a waiting room near passport control, one with which we are very familiar.

‘Problem people’

The first officer asked me a couple of questions and directed me back to the waiting room for a colleague of his to call me in soon after that. He was clearly waiting for me as my name was clearly on a list of ‘problem people’. He did not accept that I was on a family visit, not a political one, and told me that I ‘have a problem’.

He asked me if I knew about the new law banning those that promote the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign passed by Israel’s parliament, the Knesset last month. I explained that I did. In fact, I wrote about my views on this in Middle East Eye at the time.

He then asked if I was involved in any “anti-Israel” organisation. I explained that I was involved in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and had been vice chair until last January. I stated that I saw PSC as a pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli policy organisation rather than an anti-Israel organisation. He did not accept that.

The waiting room in the Tel Aviv Airport (MEE/Kamel Hawwash)

 

He then referred to a pile of papers printed in Hebrew and claimed they were some of my tweets. He claimed that I called Palestinian terrorists shaheeds (martyrs). Since I do not read Hebrew, I could not comment on any specific tweet and I asked for him to produce the tweets in English, which he did not.

Separated from family

We then had a long conversation (about half an hour) about the situation and the lack of hope for Palestinians and the reasons for the lack of peace – just the sort of discussion with Israelis that denying entry to those who are working for peace will prevent as a result of this new law.

I soon realised that the officer was going to deny me entry, especially when rather than giving me the entry visa slip, he started printing out documents. He confirmed that I was to be denied entry and then asked me the most difficult question of the day: “Will your wife return with you or go through?”

He even said, “Of course your wife is an Israeli citizen, so she can go through.” My wife is not an Israeli citizen but a stateless person, made stateless by Israel. In addition to her Jerusalem “residency” permit, she has an Israeli travel document and a Jordanian travel document for travel outside her homeland. I told him I would ask her what she wanted to do and was taken back to the waiting room.

As I returned to the room, my wife shuffled in her seat to get herself ready. She thought I had been given an entry visa until I told her that I would not be allowed in. She could not believe this and broke down. My son was bewildered, but ran to hug his mum who was weeping.

Lina and Adam in the waiting room (MEE/Kamel Hawwash)

I, of course, was never going to deny my wife the opportunity to go home to see her family and so, about an hour later, she left with my son and I was left reflecting on what had just happened.

Humiliation as a weapon

I contacted the British Embassy for help, but none was forthcoming. However, my local MP Richard Burden very kindly contacted the embassy in Tel Aviv and I had a call back from the British Consul who wanted to ensure that I was ok and that I could contact him if my situation changed.

I then waited for my flight which was not until 5am on 8 April. A couple of hours before that, I was taken for a full body search. It is interesting that the state which sells technology to other states resorted to a body search of someone who had been through security in Birmingham and Brussels and had not exited the airport.

But this was not about security: it was about humiliation, something Israel is a world expert at and which it has been meting out to Palestinians since its creation.

 

Document that the author was given at the airport (MEE/Kamel Hawwash)

 

I was taken to my flight half an hour before departure and my passport was handed to the pilot. This – and later being met by Belgium’s police –  made me feel like a criminal. When I asked why I could not have my passport, the officer calmly told me, “Because you are still in Israel.”

Upon arrival in Brussels, I was met by the police and taken to the police station. I was treated well and handed my passport without delay and I then made arrangements for my return to Birmingham.

Denials and hypocrisy

On 7 April, Israel stabbed me in the heart. It not only denied me entry and separated me from my family. It denied me my right to enter my homeland. That humiliation is something only Palestinians can understand.

The state which was created in my homeland and against the will of the indigenous Palestinian people not only denies Palestinian refugees the right to return from their camps, but also regularly denies those with Western passports the ability to visit.

Meanwhile, Israel’s illegal settlers are allowed to live on stolen land and travel to Western-style democracies unimpeded. They should be banned from entry to the UK, including Israeli ministers.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman himself lives in an illegal settlement but has the red carpet rolled out when he visits the UK. Contrast this with human rights activists who visit the Palestinian areas to bear witness to Israel’s atrocities and are now to be denied entry to see the situation for themselves.

Palestinian citizens of Western states should also not be impeded and banned from visiting their homeland and their remaining family members.

The British government’s reaction to any denial of entry by Israel was articulated by the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson recently when he said, “It is a sovereign decision for Israel as to who is allowed to enter the country.” It’s a statement that the British ambassador to Israel, David Quarrey, has reiterated to me.

It is important to note here that Israel is now sovereign over the West Bank including East Jerusalem, Gaza and the Golan Heights and that access to these areas is only possible through Israel which controls the whole of historic Palestine.

Not only is my government not willing to demand that Israel shelves its discriminatory law, it has also promised to celebrate the centenary of the very document that has directly resulted in the denial of my right to live and work in my homeland and in the continuing plight and Nakba of my people.

Dancing on Palestinian graves

Our prime minister had the temerity to tell the Conservative Friends of Israel that the UK would celebrate the Balfour Declaration with pride. She has invited the Israeli prime minister to London for the celebrations and even promised a royal visit to coincide with the celebrations. In so doing, Theresa May is dancing on our graves as Palestinians. Palestinians do not have justice and we continue to be murdered by Israel on an almost daily basis under the pretence of security.

If her Majesty the Queen or his Royal Highness Prince Charles makes a royal visit, he will be within touching distance of Deir Yassin, the site of a massacre recently commemorated – and many others. He will drive past houses that belonged to Palestinians and from which they were ethnically cleansed.

He will be near the British Consulate in Sheikh Jarrah and will be able to see Palestinians homes that have been demolished and others that had their Palestinian owners thrown out to be replaced by illegal settlers.

And if he visits his grandmother’s grave again at the Church of Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives, as he did back in October, he won’t seek permission to do so from Palestine, but from the occupying power, Israel. He would, of course, be welcomed with open arms in Palestine once it is free and independent with its capital in East Jerusalem, where his grandmother’s grave is located.

 

In January 2011, Israeli bulldozers, working under police protection, demolish the former Hotel Shepherd complex in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood to make way for 20 new homes for Jewish settlers (AFP)

By refusing to take any action against Israel for its continued illegal occupation or its new law, which impacts directly on British citizens, the British government fails the Palestinian people again, but also provides Israel with continued cover to entrench the occupation and to liquidate the Palestinian cause. It also severely damages the UK’s reputation further as it looks towards the world.

– Kamel Hawwash is a British-Palestinian engineering professor based at the University of Birmingham and a longstanding campaigner for justice, especially for the Palestinian people. He is vice chair of the British Palestinian Policy Council (BPPC) and a member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC).  He appears regularly in the media as commentator on Middle East issues. He runs a blog at www.kamelhawwash.com and tweets at @kamelhawwashHe writes here in a personal capacity.

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