My first experience of Israel, as part of the Young Fabians Middle East Delegation, was not a positive one.
I’m accentuating the point in this blog to help provide an insight about what it feels like to be racially profiled and to have to endure a three hour long security interview process. I understand the need for Israel to contain security and terrorist risks. However, I fear that my small glimpse of ‘security assessment’, and the slight on my time and dignity, may just be the smallest fraction of what Muslims living in Israel and the OPTs endure on a regular basis.
As I sit in a little room in Ben Gurion airport, I begin to wonder about the justification for my detention. The room, as I am later told by a young Muslim man from London who joins me, is commonly referred to as the “Muslim room”. He describes passage through this room and the interrogation which accompanies it as rite of passage for any Muslim wishing to enter Israel. To my left sits Sara Ibrahim, my alleged co-conspirator and vice chair of the Young Fabians. It turns out that our co-detainee is an old hand at this; having been stopped a number of times as he travels to visit his fiancé in Ramallah. He explains that my initial interview was only the start of the process and what awaits me behind the other door is ‘Big Brother’. ‘Big Brother’, he continues, will confront me with lots of information that he will have obtained about me from their extensive ‘databases’.
As I sit in the room I reflect on my journey. The experience started at Luton airport; whilst I was still on British soil. I spent 15 minutes being asked questions about my Pakistani heritage. After being allowed to check in into the flight, I notice a large post-it note which has been stuck to the inside of my passport and the yellow tag attached to my case. I also notice that my fellow Fabians have not been allowed access to yellow tag club. I decide at this stage to remove the padlock I had lovingly applied to my case only a few short hours ago. I, after all, have nothing to hide. Predictably, when boarding the aircraft I am taken into a side room where my hand luggage is searched and my shoes are swabbed for what I assume is explosive residue.
As the hours tick away in the Muslim room, I begin to feel like more of a Muslim; almost as if an invisible nikab has started to grow across my face fertilised by the anger within me. The reasons for my detention soon become apparent to me. The only other members of the delegation who are in the room with me are those with Muslim or Muslim sounding surnames. There is no getting away from the fact that this is racial profiling, of the type that would cause an outcry on BBC Question Time were it a UK authority involved. My mind moves to consider the paranoia which no doubt underlies my treatment and the affect that living with such paranoia has upon the psyche of a nation. I also feel an overwhelming sense of empathy with those who have to deal with such treatment at the hands of the Israeli authorities on a daily basis. Whilst the Muslim room is no doubt an annoying inconvenience for me, I begin to appreciate exactly how annoying the ‘Muslim checkpoint’ would be as I go about daily life.
Sadly, I was unable to keep my date with ‘Big Brother’ as I was rescued from the Muslim room by an angel from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, tasked by the Israeli Embassy in London who very kindly responded to the pleas of the delegation organisers.
As I leave the Muslim room after just over three hours, I make peace with my time there and re-arrange my date with ‘Big Brother’ for the date of my departure. A heightened sense and application of security is something I’m sure we will experience more of during the visit… I’m interested to know from our meetings whether, in any way, the Israeli response to the security threat might be of a nature that actually exacerbates the very threat it seeks to contain.
Shazia Yamin is a member of the Young Fabians and a delegate on the Young Fabian Middle East trip 2011.