After visiting 23 countries, I like to think I have the whole airport and immigration thing down. I feel a certain freedom in traveling that many others do not get, this is because I am a white American. I do not have fears of being questioned or pulled aside for additional screenings, because for me traversing through airport security and immigration is a smooth process. Traveling in Israel shook up that security and for a moment I felt the fear of being seen as a possible threat.
My motivation to go to Israel was centered around seeing the Dead Sea. I hadn’t even considered going to Palestine until I got there. I feel ashamed to admit this, but I kind of forgot it existed. By the end of my trip it was my favorite part.
After arriving early to my hostel in Jerusalem during Shabbat, I needed to find something to do. I found a free walking tour in Bethlehem, so I hopped on the bus, not thinking about the borders I would be crossing, or really taking in how complex traveling between Palestine and Israel is. The areas of Palestine are enveloped by Israel, and have strict regulations regarding border crossings. Israeli citizens are banned from entering certain zones, and Palestinians are banned from leaving certain zones, but foreigners can move freely.
Going into Bethlehem on the Arabic bus is easy, but leaving involves stopping at the checkpoint. Any Palestinians on the bus must get out with their papers allowing them entry to Israel, while all other passengers remain on the bus. The soldiers come around, their machine guns strapped to their chest checking papers, then walking onto the bus asking those bearing an Arabic resemblance to show their passport. And this was the “easy” way to travel the roughly 10 kilometers, as taking an Israeli bus involves getting out and walking across the border into Palestine.
It kind of blew my mind how things can change so much traveling by such a short distance. Upon arriving in Bethlehem I noticed that it had an Arabic feel which was distinctly different from Jerusalem. The walking tour was eye opening. We walked through two refugee camps, saw the wall where artists from around the world (including Banksy) have come to spread messages of peace. Through this tour I was able to see both sides. Growing up in the US the news we got was slanted Pro-Israel, as we continue to support them. We were presented images of a war-torn area with people bombing others constantly. This is not the Palestine I saw.
After the walking tour I decided I wanted to spend some more time in Palestine so I found a Palestinian named Mo on Couchsurfing who agreed to host me at the end of my trip. Mo lives in Hebron, historically one of the areas with high conflict.
The night before making the journey to stay with Mo I went out for a bar crawl in Tel Aviv. The night included chatting with both locals and fellow travelers. One question that came up multiple times was where I was heading next. I wasn’t shocked at the question, but was at the response to my answer. Time and time again when I said I was heading to Hebron I was faced with people asking why I would want to go there. There were even people trying to convince me to stay away. I tried to tell them about my experiences in Bethlehem, but that didn’t seem to sway them.
As I said previously foreigners are allowed to travel freely between borders, but they sure as hell don’t make it easy. The 140km journey took me 4 buses and 6 hours to complete. My experiences in Hebron are my most favorite memories of the trip. Staying at Mo’s place felt like home.
Hebron itself is a city that has a tense balance. I felt completely safe here and did not witness any violence, but the city is divided. It is literally divided, with a wall splitting a place of worship in half- a temple on one side and a mosque on the other. There are gates and metal detectors to go through to cross between the Arabic and Israeli settler sides, and you must carry a passport with you. I was asked my religion, and told that as long as I wasn’t Muslim I was free to walk wherever I pleased.
However, Mo told me a story of two other couchsurfers who had stayed with him, even though they were foreigners and had the passports to prove it. One of them was not allowed to re-enter the Arabic side by Israeli soldiers because she had a Jewish last name. Her friend had to run back to Mo’s apartment to get their belongings and they had to take the Israeli bus back to Jerusalem. As travelers we get to just pass through, but many people live under these militant conditions.
The day I left Hebron I knew I was in for another long journey as I made my way to the airport to catch a flight to Egypt. Once I made it to the airport I thought I was home free, I would check-in and then chill at my gate until it was time to board. Nope. Before being allowed to check-in I had to be questioned with all stamps in my passport checked. I don’t know if they didn’t like my answers to the question of where I had been (I was 100% truthful, I did not break any laws by spending time in Palestine), or they didn’t like the stamps in my passport, but I ended up being questioned by three different people (the last being the head of security).
During the process I went through feelings of frustration, annoyance, fear, misplaced guilt. I felt like a criminal as I was point blank told by the head of security that they thought I had a bomb that I was trying to bring on the plane. They asked me my profession, how much money I make, what I am studying. They asked me questions that I could not answer. I had been backpacking all over the world for the last 5 months. They wanted to know the names of all the hostels I had stayed, the names of everyone I met, how much money I had spent on my trip. They told me my direction of travels didn’t make sense, and criticized me on it. I told them all the same answers, I felt like a broken record repeating myself. It was weird. The only question I was asked when I came into the country was how long I was staying, but it was the leaving that they had a problem with?
I was afraid that I might be detained, but after an hour I was given the green light to check-in. After check-in I got pulled aside for special security measures, in which they dumped the entire contents of my carry on bag into a bin (think emptying my cosmetic bag, etc). I was ordered to handover my passport and take off my shoes. All of my stuff was taken away to be swabbed, while I went through the body scanner. As if the body scanner wasn’t enough I was thoroughly patted down, because maybe I was hiding something in my skin tight leggings (insert eye roll).
I later discovered that at the same time this was going on my checked luggage was facing the same fate. When I picked it up on upon arrival in Egypt it was clear they didn’t know how to repack it correctly and a mass amount of duck tape and zip ties to hold everything together. I didn’t even care, because I had made it out. It’s hard to think this is part of a normal travel experience for some. My advice on getting through something like this, is to be honest and remember that you haven’t done anything wrong.
While waiting for my flight, I was asked to fill out a survey on tourism. I realized that my favorite things were smoking shisha, playing cards, drinking copious amounts of sage tea and Turkish coffee, and the Arabic hospitality that I felt. All things I had experienced in Palestine.
What I took most from this trip was to not let the news stop you from seeing new places. This was the first time I traveled to somewhere that other people thought was too dangerous. I am so grateful that I got to experience it with my own eyes. The people I met in Palestine told me that they just wanted people to share what it’s really like there, and I intend to do that.
Follow guest blogger Michelle Johnson as she travels across the globe on instagram @mishkarae