Saturday, July 9, 2011

Welcome to the State of the Police

I am happy to host here Hagai Matar's eyewitness account of events yesterday at Ben Gurion airport.

(Link to original Hebrew article & photos)

Hundreds of police and other security personnel, dozens of Interior Ministry employees, a careful intelligence work, a massive PR campaign. What for? In order to prevent a few hundred peace activists from touring the country and seeing itsreality that, to arrest five Israelis, and drive away from the airport three journalists - including yours truly.

It's not that an excessive use of force is a new motif in the conduct of the Israeli defense establishment. Hardly so. Nor are baseless slander and assault upon non-violent peace activists a new phenomenon which we did not encounter before.

Also, we can hardly be said to be with is also not new to us. Also that we already know a long time. What happened today at the Ben Gurion International Airport was simply and mainly an unrivaled absurdity. Insanity or a total blindness. If you will, a warning sign for a country going completely off the rails. But possibly also a reminder a different choice is still possible.


The absurdity was already evident on the way to the incoming hall. Dozens of policemen were deployed at the airport railway station and guarded all the entrances in the face of some   imaginary threat. It increased in the hall itself, where more than a hundred policemen stood for hours upon hours, as did  a similar number of journalists, all arranged in a neat, disciplined semicircle around the fountains and gazing at the entrance from the baggage claim hall. The door opens and a couple emerges, small children running forward with cries of "Mom, Dad," and hug them. Again it opens, and an ultra-Orthodox family walks rapidly toward the door. Again, for two bands of teenagers spill in with great laughter, all wearing identical t-shirts indicating that they had come from a holiday in the Greek Islands. And nothing happens.

The authorities occasionally took care to provide some action to us journalists. Once Minister Yitzhak Aharonibitz was sent to boast of the great success in preventing activists from boarding flights already abroad. "We're acting as a sovereign and democratic state," he clarified. An hour later, almost on the clock, somebody took care to entertain us with Minister Eli Yishai, who prided himself on the dizzying success in blocking "the enemies of Israel" and "pogromists", those who arrived and those still on their way.

And when we were not entertained we entertained ourselves. Everyone agreed that there were very low chances of an activist managing to pass all controls choosing to demonstrate precisely at the incoming hall, rather than just simply taking a bus to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.  Therefore, in the absence of activists, the reporters were trying to create oter points of interest.  One of them interviewed the Police's special spokeswoman for the Arab media, who called the activists "supporters" or "identifyers" rather than "enemies of Israel", and who uncomfortably avoided the question whether a T - shirt or bumper sticker would be considered sufficient grounds for expulsion from Israel. Others have tried to draw out innocent tourists, asking them "How does it look in there" and "Did they ask you special questions or made special inspections". The answer was always no.

A more entertaining practice was the spotting the undercover cops wearing civilian clothing. These were mostly in groups, occasionally scratching an ear and glancing at the balcony above and nodding as if to the thin air. Others walked alone, were also easy to identify by the way they scanned those around them, or by the glazed look in their faces when some hidden entity suddenly contacted them and instructed them to change their direction of walking. Quite soon we identified them all, and the boredom and sense of anti-climax again enveloped all of  us.

Four A4 signs  

An then everything changed, and at last there was something to cover. A group of seven left-wing Israelis placed themselves besides the fountains in the incoming hall, waving a  Palestinian flag and four A4 signs with the words "Welcome to Palestine" in Hebrew, English and Arabic. Journalists quickly converged on them, followed by the police - and the crowd. For half an hour, there was action to be seen in plenty: activists being pushed out of the hall by police and beaten by bystanders who shouted "Go to Syria," "Nazis", "Take off their heads", and so on. "When the cameras move off, I'll kill her," said one. "They all should be  raped" shouted another.

On their way to the police patrol cars, while being punched and shoved by civilians, activists did manage to say a few words. Beyond calling for the liberation of Palestine, activists recalled that the hysterical reaction of security forces to arriving peace activists not start today, and that already for years entrance to Israel is denied to people who are committed to human rights and to nonviolent action for peace and equality.

The same police officers who arrested the handful of sign holders had not detained any of their attackers. In at least one case I saw a policeman ignoring a young man who was beating one of the protesters, and when he went on hitting her the policeman gently asked him to stop and go stand on the side. None of the attackers was not arrested or detained. A reporter of The Jerusalem Post, on the other hand, found himself under arrest together with the activists because when interviewing one of them he also protected him from the beating by the crowd. The police evidently regarded this as a collaboration with leftists, and carried him off with them.

Then it was all over. Most activists were arrested, the others dispersed, and the last interviews with the attackers petered out. We headed back into the airport, when two policemen grabbed me and my photographer friend, Oren Ziv, an employee of Schocken news network and member of the collective ActiveStills photographers' collective - and asked for our ID's. We presented our Government Press Office journalists' cards, the same documents which a bit more than an hour before had enabled us to approach within less than a meter from two cabinet ministers – but this time the journalists' cards were not enough. The police detained us and also took our ID cards, asked us to stand aside and refused to say what it was about. A camcorder from an American news network, trying to understand out why we were being  detained, immediately found herself ordered to give her own documents. 

It was not long before senior police arrived, accompanied by neat suited people reminiscent of the Shabak security service. At first we were told that we were ano allowed to take photos in the airport  without  permission. I explained to them that I was taking photos but only writing,   and that Oren did take photos but only after coordinating it with the Airport Authority spokesperson. After a we were told that due to unspecified "security reasons" and under the Aviation Act, we were not allowed anywhere within the airport compound fences." No further explanation was offered, and no explanation of ours was acceptable to the uniform wearers. A Channel 2 crew filmed the whole incident, and also failed to get a clarification from the security people. Our colleagues - photographers and reporters - were also surprised, though they failed to protest the expulsion. Soon we found ourselves escorted respectfully back to the train station, with two police officers verifying that we get on the Tel Aviv train. At home heard about the special forces and riot police taking over the Easy Jet flight from Geneva, and detaining dozens of foreigners for deportation.

What happened here

Lots of excuses can be offered for today's events. The activists who came from abroad could be dubbed "enemies of Israel" and "hooligans". The detained activists could also be accused of being "disrupters of public order with proven ties to Hamas", as an official spokesperson asserted when journalist Joseph Dana tried to make sense of the detentions. It could be stated that Oren, Lia (the American) and myself are endangering the safety of the flying public because we're leftists, though we came to the airport strictly as journalists and acted accordingly.

It's all possible, but there's something very weak and terribly pathetic in such arguments. How much, and why, can danger be actually posed to the State of Israel by several hundred tourists, who come on a tour of the Negev, Ramla, Jerusalem and Bil'in? Why are they so much more terrible than the group of American teenagers who spilled into the hall full of cops and reporters, and went on a day trip as  part of the "Discovery" projects? And can somebody really, honestly justify the detention of four people who stood with small signs and did not harm anybody, practicing a democratic right to protest, while people who assaulted and beat  them go free? And is there any conceivable reason, except for a general dislike of left-wingers, which can justify the expulsion of three journalists from a scene of journalist coverage at the focus of national attention?

The answers to these questions are, I think, quite clear. At the same time , it is also crystal clear that the hysterical response of the security forces reflects a mental state which becomes increasingly established in the collective consciousness of this country. September is  approaching (which, because of the American vet, would probably become not a defining moment but just another small and symbolic step with no practical importance, on the road to Palestinian independence). With its approach, the feeling of fear, siege, persecution and self-identification as the victim, which dominates political discourse in this country, reaches  really scary dimensions. Banner headlines warn of the threatening approach of a few ships carrying medicines and cement. Laws and bills are proposed and enacted to confront the mounting political and diplomatic pressure on Israel by assaulting the local human rights organizations. The army does not hesitate to use dangerous arms in continuing to suppress popular, unarmed protests and demonstrations in the Territories – even when the crowd marching towards the soldiers consists of children with balloons. The PR apparatus issues crazy films of slander against anyone in the world who criticizes Israel. And now - this day madness at the airport.

It is important to remember it is still possible to act differently. It is still possible to organize a struggle against the rise of the police state, against paranoia and violence, and to offer alternative solutions of freedom and equality for all. It is still possible to struggle for true democracy. It is still possible to demand from our leaders a true peace and security. It is possible, and as things looks now – there is no choice but to start now.

Far from being the end

So far, Hagai Matar's testimony. I would like to add a few words of my own.

At this moment, 124 peace activists who arrived yesterday at Ben Gurion Airport are behind bars, divided between two Israeli prisons and awaiting deportation from the country. 124 is a lot less than the 600 who intended to come, but also 124 could have – had they wanted to – staged a fair-sized riot at the airport. In fact, there were no riots and no one had ever intended to start a riot. There did not arrive here any hooligans. Still. of course the State of Israel does not intend to allow them to visit the Occupied Territories and meet the Palestinians who had invited them. Also in the future, anyone who wants to visit the Palestinian territories would have to lie at the airport and pretend to be "just a tourist".

The leaders of our country congratulate themselves for their creative and resourceful  ploy:  submit blacklists to the European airlines and threatening them with financial damage should they carry any of these "black" passengers. Three hundred activists were left behind in Europe and not allowed to board the flight for which they had paid good money. At all airports – Paris and London and Geneva and Frankfurt and Brussels – the same things were told to them: "By order of the Ministry of the Interior of the State of Israel, we do not allow you to board this flight." "The Charles de Gaulle Airport is under Israeli occupation. Israel runs things here!" cried out the passengers who were stuck in Paris, and what they said was broadcast at the head of the news on all French channels. Was it really worthwhile for Israel? .

And earlier, there had been the equally brilliant gambit of seeing to it that it that Greece did Israel's dirty work, that it was Greek naval commandos who stopped the "Freedom Flotilla" instead of their Israeli counterparts. Indeed, it seems that the flotilla was blocked and would no longer head out towards the port of Gaza. And now, every citizen of Greece knows that with one phone call Israel's Prime Minister can give orders to the Greek Navy and the its commandos, dictate to them how to operate at the Port of Piraeus and at Crete and in Greece's coastal waters.

Benjamin Netanyahu foiled a flotilla of ten small boats, whose arrival in Gaza would have in no way endangered the security of Israel, and prevented several hundred peace activists from reaching the Palestinian Territories – who were no threat either. And in return he enhanced and strengthened all over the world the image of Israel as a dark octopus reaching its tentacles  everywhere, with its clandestine forces and agencies and pressures and control levers behind the scenes in all countries. We may feel the results in years to come, long after the flotilla and flytilla are forgotten, after Binyamin Netanyahu is himself forgotten.

PS:Laura Durkay, a writer and activist living in New York City with whom I was in contact during  the past few days, is at this moment among the activists held in an Israeli prison. As soon as she is at large again, a detailed account of her experiences is likely to appear on her blog: