I have to confess, we were not prepared. We were not even aware of the white-faced American mostly Jewish privileged skin in which we were living. Our bus left the tiny village of Mas’ha, heading past Ariel to the municipality of Tel Aviv-Jaffo, or Jaffa as our Palestinian friends say. We had a yellow license plate, the seats were comfortable and the seat belts functional. Life was good.
In a smaller car, 3 Americans (one tall bearded guy who could be mistaken for a settler and one very blond woman) and 2 Palestinian women, university students, who had not successfully obtained permits to leave the West Bank and were passing as Americans, drove in front of us. One of them had done this several times before without getting caught. The other had never seen the Mediterranean Sea. You might call this an exercise in human smuggling Israeli style.
A private security company pulls the two vehicles over at a checkpoint near the settlement of Ariel for a “routine security check.” I wonder, is it the obvious Arab face of our driver or just part of the mechanics of control. Why would a group of non-settlers be driving down this highway? We watch with trepidation as our friends get out of the car and are led into the checkpoint. A smiling woman in uniform enters our bus, “Who is the tour guide?”
“What are you doing?”
“Where have you been?”
“What did you do?”
“We like old things, we toured the Old City.”
“Where did you stay?
I know I cannot say the Balata Refugee Camp. “Yaffa Guest House.”
“OK, passports, come with me.”
I step out of the bus and a snarling dog, a Belgium malinois known for good scent detection, is chewing on the leash with its handler next to the bus. I discover that this little checkpoint, is fully equipped with x ray equipment, FAX machines, and computers. All our bags are x-rayed repeatedly as suspicious items like books, notebooks, tape recorders, etc. are removed and re x-rayed. The questioning keeps up and I have no idea if the group will keep its story straight. I am acutely aware that in my bag are BDS stickers (we all have them), materials about BDS, brochures from the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee and two copies of my book which would instantly get me in trouble. I keep turning them over so the title is not visible. And then there are pages of incriminating notes and hundreds of easily accessible photos. Usually before any security check, I “cleanse” my belongings and make the evidence difficult to find. I have been careless. The other wild dynamic I observe is the white, clearly Ashkenazi woman who is in charge, and the younger Ethiopian woman who receives her barking orders and unpacks and repacks our bags obediently: race and class in action.
As anxious as we are, our main focus is on the two Palestinians who are insisting they are from the US, have quickly made up names and fake histories, and are acting their parts flawlessly. They are aided by the performance of our group leader who plays the innocent but helpful Jewish tourist, so apologetic about the forgotten passports. The main problem is of course the issue of identities. Oh we forgot our passports in our hotel in Tel Aviv, we didn’t know we had to have them, etc, etc. A quick phone call to a fellow activist, Hello, so wonderful visiting you in Ariel, would you talk to security about our visit….The story is being fabricated in real time and the fear and anxiety in the group for the two brave Palestinian women is gripping us all. As we sit in the waiting room, we pretend we do not know each other as that would definitely blow our cover. While maybe I might face an angry security guard, a fine or deportation, these two women could get arrested and go to jail for the crime of visiting Jaffa with a group of activists.
The bus finally passes inspection and we have to drive off not knowing the fate of our friends. After a prolonged interrogation and much dancing around, I think the head security woman knew something was not right, they are turned back. We all cheer when we learned by cell phone that they sailed through Hizma checkpoint without being stopped.
When the group is finally reunited for a tour of Jaffa, one of the Palestinian women runs down the beach and into the water, soaking her boots and pants, crying, breathing in the smell of the sea for the first time in her life.