Apartheid: a Palestinian-American’s story of being detained and deported from Ben Gurion airport

George Khoury’s story is, well, so typical…


I was born in West Jerusalem (so-called the Jewish half of Jerusalem) in 1945. Under a shower of bullets that were flying over our heads, my father grabbed me and the rest of the family and fled to his native city of Nablus at the eve of the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. We remained in Rafidia-Nablus until 1952 and then moved to Ramallah where my father got a job in the post office.

I went to the parochial school and then entered the Latin Seminary of Beit Jala in 1961 to study for the priesthood. In 1968 I left the seminary where I studied French, Latin, in addition to philosophy and theology. I came to the US in September of 1969 and entered Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey where I graduated with a B.A. in French & Spanish, and in 1975 I earned a master’s Degree from the University of Montclair in New Jersey.

George Khoury

I moved to California in 1975 where I taught foreign language at the high school level. I entered the Ph.D. program in theology in 1983 at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California and I obtained my doctorate degree in 1990. I have been teaching language at San Mateo College, Skyline College, and Westmoor High School. I joined the deaconate program in 2012 because I intend to serve the different Church communities as a deacon in the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

After 21 years of not visiting or seeing Jerusalem and my homeland Palestine, I decided to go back, this time as an American citizen with an American passport, which I was granted in 1975. The trip was intended to be a religious pilgrimage with Father Bernard Poggi as well as a long overdue visit my homeland to see friends and family I hadn’t seen in decades.

Once we arrived to Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, they allowed Father Bernard to enter.

When it came to me, I was ushered by a young female soldier to the “green room” for questioning.

The conversation that ensued is this:

An airport security agent (who I believe to be a Shin Bet agent) began:

Agent: “Oh so you came through Ben Gurion airport?”

Me: “Yes. What’s wrong with that?”

Agent: “You can’t do that.”

Me: “Why? I have an American passport. I came with father Bernard, to spend a few weeks in Jerusalem and that’s it. We are coming here on a religious pilgrimage and to visit some friends and family.”

Agent: “No no, you cannot go to Israel. You should have gone through the Allenby Bridge.”

Me: “Why should I do that? I’m not coming through as a Palestinian. I’m coming as an American citizen.”

Agent: “No. You are a Palestinian. Why are you denying that you’re a Palestinian?”

Me: “I’m not denying that I’m Palestinian. I am Palestinian from head to toe. My father is Palestinian. My mother is Palestinian. My brothers are Palestinian. My sister is Palestinian. My grandfather is an Orthodox priest and I can trace my Palestinian roots for the last 500 years. What do you mean I am denying? I am denying nothing.”

Agent: “No no, you belong with the Palestinian people. This is our Israel, this is for the Jews. No Palestinian should come to Israel. You should have gone through the Allenby Bridge.”

Me: “Why do you say that? Did I ever have a Palestinian passport? Did I ever live under the Palestinian authority? When the PA was constituted I was never in Palestine and I was never issued a Palestinian passport.”

Agent: “But you have an Israeli ID.” [He is referring to the Israeli ID issued to me after Israel began their occupation of the West Bank in 1967. I had an Israeli ID until I left for the US in 1969.]

Me: “An Israeli ID is not a Palestinian passport. The Israeli ID was issued to me when I was in Beit Jala when I was studying for the priesthood but you cannot equate that to a Palestinian passport. Juridically speaking, I was never a citizen of a country called Palestine. I am coming with an American passport and you should honor it.”

Agent: “How do you want me to honor your American passport? Do you want me to kiss it, to hug it, or to worship it? Moreover, you are rude and ill mannered. How did you get to be so rude? You are a Palestinian and you are rude and ill-mannered.”

Me: “I am neither rude nor ill-mannered I’m just stating the facts. I’m just telling you I’m an American, who has been an American citizen for the past 40 years and I’ve lived in America for 46 years. So you disregard all these legal facts and you only focus on my Palestinian heritage?”

Agent: “You will be deported to Jordan and come through the Allenby Bridge to continue your visit to the West Bank.” [The Allenby Bridge is the connection between Jordan and Israel. Palestinians can only enter the West Bank through this bridge because they are not allowed in through Israel proper.]

I returned to Father Bernard who was waiting for me.

I told Father Bernard what happened with the Shin Beth agent and we waited. The man returned with the deportation papers and made me understand in the presence of Father Bernard that I will be deported to Jordan. I waited until two other security officers came to me and told me, “You will not be deported to Jordan but you should go back to where I came from.” [Fiumicino Airport, Italy]. I said, “But I was just told that I will be deported to Jordan.” They asked, “Who said that?”

I answered, “I don’t know his name. Did you think he told me his name? He’s the security man in the office who just had me sign deportation papers.” They said, “No, you have to go back to Italy first. If you then choose to come back to Jordan after landing in Italy then that is your choice.” I was shocked but had no choice but to go along with it. In front of the Israeli officials, Father Bernard gives me his Jordanian phone number and we agreed we would meet in Jordan the following day.

Bernard and I parted ways and I went back with the Israeli security officers. They kept me (and the others) in the airport until 1:30 am on July 21st. Eventually, they brought us a sandwich. Some of the others who were with me during the ordeal were a Palestinian woman and her daughter (who were Palestinian-born but US citizens). They had originally traveled with her two other sons but because the two boys were American born they were able to enter Israel. The Israeli officials told the two of them that they would be deported back to the US but they would be deported separately. They both broke down in tears and pleaded with them to at least allow them to be deported together but to no avail. There was also a young British woman who told me she was working with a human rights group in Israel, a Korean and a young Russian woman neither of whom spoke much English.

They drove us about half an hour away from the airport. In the car being driven by the Israelis, a young Korean who barely spoke any English, hungry, and penniless, asked the two guards in an extremely feeble voice and in bad English, “Are we going to die tonight?” We were being transported in a van with bars – made for prisoners. They held us like criminals in a detention facility they called emigration, which was anything but–and should have been called prison–until we were deported.

They locked us up, forbade me personally from keeping my iPhone, refused me to take a book with me to that filthy room and threw me there with a bunch of poor, hungry, and disoriented men from different national and ethnic backgrounds. The time was about 2 am.

We spent a whole Tuesday in the detention center not knowing when we would be leaving. I was locked up in that room with the other men. There was an Arab guard around the cell. I dared ask him “You know all of our names and everything about us. What is your name?” He said, “My name is George.” From his accent, he sounded like he was from Nazareth.” I asked him, “Why are you treating us like prisoners?” He said, “That’s just how it is.” He eventually let me use the phone to call my wife, Nariman, to tell her where I was. If I had the right to a phone call at the airport I was never told about it. The other guards remained totally anonymous, insulted us by using disrespectful and abusive language, and forbade us from speaking to one another from each other’s room separated by a long corridor. I didn’t sleep a wink because they kept the bright neon lights on the entire time.

At 4 am that morning, the guard came to tell me to get ready for my flight. He heard me speaking in Arabic to the Palestinian woman with her daughter who were held in the opposite room from where I was detained. When he came back that morning Samar’s mother was saying that maybe they were just roughing us up a bit but they really would eventually deport us to Jordan. He was very angry and yelled, “I told you not to talk to the others! I’m trying to respect you! Try to respect yourself. Get away from the door!”

Then around 8 am a guard came in the room and frantically took me saying that my plane was ready. Like a madman, he drove me to the airport and took me straight to the runway stairs rather than being taken through the airport.

Just as I was getting on the plane I asked, “Where exactly are you deporting me?”

He said, “Bogota.”

I said,“Bogota!? Why?!”

“Aren’t you Carlos?” he asked.

“No, I’m George Khoury! Let me see the passport in your hands,” I demanded. It belonged to a Colombian man named Carlos.

The guard realized his mistake and frantically raced me back to the detention center. The rough ride exacerbated my sciatic nerve badly and I’m still in great pain. We went back to the detention center, back into the cell. He called out for Carlos. Carlos was sleeping and woke up. He said, “I’m Carlos!” and he was taken away.

Without going into every detail, at 9:30 am on Wednesday they came back and picked me up. They drove me to the runway again and we waited for a long time, seemingly until the entire plane was boarded and ready. They walked me all the way up to moving stairs. Until this point, I was told I would be flying to Italy so that I could return to Jordan. At the moment before I entered the plane he held in his hand a set of tickets that would fly me all the way back to the US via Italy, then NY, then SF. The Italian agent told me that I would be given back my passport once he made sure that I was in the plane heading to the US. That’s exactly what happened. When I arrived to Italy, before I exited the plane, I asked the stewardess for my passport. She told me that it would be taken care of by a man waiting outside for me. An Italian officer was waiting for me at the top of the stairs. He took me in a jeep to an unknown location away from the airport – some kind of a police station. He put me in a room with about 5 or 6 people where our movement was restricted. At 5pm, I got on my flight heading to the states where I was handed my passport.

I arrived to New York around 8 pm that day. I would remain in the airport until the next morning where I boarded a 6am flight. The entire time I had my bag in my lap, trying to close my eyes for brief moments, sitting on a hard bench counting the minutes and the hours until flight time at 6 am all along holding on for dear life since the bag contained my insulin, my wallet and my iPhone. I am a diabetic and parting with my medicine would be fatal.

I arrived home exhausted on Thursday at 11:37 am. I called my travel agent to find out if I could be reimbursed for my stolen bag and the KLM return ticket I hadn’t used. He found out that those funds had already been used to pay for my deportation back to the US.

I’m back in San Francisco now. They took something that was suppose to be a vacation from my long work hours, a reconnection with my homeland and old friends, and made it a nightmare from hell. I was disrespected, demeaned and treated like I committed a crime. I tell you my story so as to encourage people to visit Palestine to challenge the thuggery of this racist entity and do it here in the USA as well as in Israel. Though somewhat extreme, this is is not a very unique story. Many other instances of Arab Americans being racially profiled by Israelis at any entry point into the Israeli state or West Bank have been documented. Harassment, detainment, and interrogations are part and parcel of the Israeli states’ efforts to keep Palestinians out of Israel-Palestine and bring more Jews in. It is my own US tax dollars—over 3 billion dollars of both economic and military aid—that finances the oppression of the Palestinian people. Without the US’s blind and unconditional financial and political support of the state of Israel, the occupation and all its tragedies against the Palestinians would not continue.

If you’d like to contact George Khoury, email Linda Khoury at lulumkhoury@gmail.com.

About yavuzbaydar

Yavuz Baydar 39 yıllık gazeteci. Mesleğe İsveç Radyosu'nda muhabir olarak başladı, oradan TV ve yazılı basına geçti. Sırasıyla Cumhuriyet İsveç muhabirliği, BBC Türkçe Servisi'nde yapımcı-sunuculuk, Yeni Yüzyıl'da dış haberler servis şefliği, Milliyet'te editörlük yaptı. 1999 yılı başında Milliyet Okur Temsilcisi olarak, medyada kurumsal bir 'özdenetim' yapısı olan ombudsmanlığı Türkiye'ye tanıtan ve ilk uygulayan kişi oldu. Bu görevi Milliyet ardından Sabah'ta da sürdürdü. Toplam 15 yıl süren bu görevi nedeniyle dünyanın en kıdemli ve 'uzman' ombudsmanlarından biri sayılıyor. Baydar, merkezi ABD'de bulunan Dünya Medya Ombudsmanları Örgütü'nde (ONO) başkanlık ve yürütme kurulu üyeliğini de üstlendi. Türkiye'ye döndüğü 1990'lı yılların ortasından bu yana çeşitli TV kanallarında başta Soru-Cevap olmak üzere çok sayıda analiz-tartışma programını hazırlayıp sunmuş olan Baydar, düzenli olarak Süddeutsche Zeitung ve The Arab Weekly için yorumlar yazmakta. Baydar, Ocak 2014'te bir grup meslektaşı ile beraber medya bağımsızlığı ve özgürlüğü alanında çalışmalar yürütmek üzere Bağımsız Gazetecilik Platformu'nun (P24) kurucu üyeleri arasında yer aldı. 2000 yılında 'Okur Temsilcisi' olarak yaptığı çalışmalar nedeniyle Çağdaş Gazeteciler Derneği'nin (ÇGD) Özel Ödülü'ne layık bulunan Baydar, 2014 yılında da, Avrupa'nın 'Pulitzer'i sayılan Avrupa Basın Ödülü'nü (EPP) 'meslekte mükemmeliyet' tanımlamasıyla aldı. 2004'te Michigan Üniversitesi'nde Knight-Wallace Araştırma Bursu ile 'Ortadoğu, demokrasi ve medya' konulu mesleki çalışmalar yapan Baydar, 2014 sonbaharında da Harvard Üniversitesi'ne bağlı Kennedy School'da 'Shorenstein Fellow' olarak Türkiye medyasında sansürün ve mali yozlaşmanın yayılmasını ele alan uzun bir rapor yayınladı. Baydar ayrıca Guardian, El Pais, New York Times gibi gazetelere de aralıklı olarak yorum ve analiz makaleleri yazıyor.
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