Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

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ISRAEL: Border crossings

November 7, 2007 |  2:36 pm

Entering and leaving the state of Israel has always been an adventure for me. As an Arab American, the usual security routine always seems to be jacked up an extra 10%. And flashing the journalist ID sometimes makes matters worse.

In 2001, I crossed into the Gaza Strip from Egypt to cover the Palestinian reaction to Ariel Sharon’s election as Israel's prime minister. Several days later, when I was ready to leave, the Israelis had indefinitely closed the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.

I was working freelance at the time and paying all my own expenses, so hanging around in Gaza running up hotel bills while waiting for Rafah to reopen wasn’t an option. My only choice was to cross into Israel and make my way overland to Taba, then into Egypt.

The problem: I had been issued a Gaza-only visa.

The situation at the Eretz crossing point from Gaza into Israel quickly moved from hostility to comedy. The Israeli border guard finally agreed to let me through but only after having me write out a note saying “I, Ashraf Omar Khalil, am committed to leave the state of Israel as soon as possible.”

That note, complete with official Israeli border stamp, now hangs on my wall in Los Angeles.

Last year I arrived in Israel to help in The Times’ coverage of the Lebanon war. The country was obviously on edge, and the treatment I received was, at times, officially hostile.

On the way in, I was held up for more than three hours at Ben Gurion airport, languishing alongside a dozen Palestinians. After spending several weeks in Gaza, I experienced my first full-scale pants-down strip search while re-entering Israel.

Things really got ugly at the airport on my way out. As I returned to my bags after yet another strip search, I was informed that I (and no one else) was forbidden to carry my computer bag onto the plane.

“OK, fine,” I said, not wanting to start a fight, “Just let me grab the book I’m reading.”

“No you can’t take that either. You can’t carry ANYTHING onto the plane.”

That’s when I started fighting. In the end, I was given a military escort to the gate — just to make sure I really left.

I’m heading to the airport now, leaving Israel again after a five-week stint. I came in, as always, expecting the worst. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised. It’s clear that the country is comparatively relaxed these days.

The real test, of course, will be Ben Gurion Airport.

To be continued…

— Ashraf Khalil in Jerusalem