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Michael Moszczynski's Weblog
Mike: innocent tourist or Syrian spy? 21.XI.2008 12:20
At the root of the problem is the stigma of the Israeli stamp. If you have one in your passport, you see, there are many countries you will no longer be admitted to - locally Syria and Lebanon, but also farther flung ones like Iran and even (according to rumours) Indonesia. So, when I arrived at the King Hussein (or Allenby) Bridge from Jordan, I asked the friendly Israeli border girl not to stamp my passport. Obviously this is a touch suspicious, and it automatically entitles you to a little extra questioning, but this wasn't a big problem: the girls (they're all women doing their military service in the border guards) were very friendly - a bit flirty, even - and I gave an account of my whole trip, including Iran, Lebanon, and Syria, and everything was fine. They didn't stamp my passport, and assured me my visa was in the computer and there would be no problems. Unfortunately, as I tried to board a train in Akko yesterday, this turned out not to be the case.

At all Israeli bus stations and public buildings, you get your bag checked, but railway stations also check your ID, probably because of the London and Madrid bombings. The guard there - who was a massive tool, but more on him later - saw two pages of Arab stamps, the complete absence of an Israeli stamp, and so decided to take a look through my bag which contained the following:
  • A second passport with a slightly different name - Michal, not Michael
  • A book on learning Modern Standard Arabic
  • An Iranian address book with addresses and phone numbers from all over the world, including Syria and Lebanon
  • A book by Robert Fisk, quite critical of Israel
  • A notebook with:
    • Several pages of Arabic text in my handwriting (exercises from my book)
    • A pencil sketch map with the word visa on it (in reality, of the Esfahan immigration office)
    • More addresses, e-mails, and phone numbers
  • A camera with photos of:
    • a poster of Bashar al-Assad
    • the dead city of Quneitra, including anti-Zionist messages and the Israeli border post
    • the Palestinian camps in Beirut and Tyre, with prominent Hizbullah flags
    • the Sabra and Shatila massacre memorial
    • a gun (a broken one I saw lying in the streets)
    • Ramallah and Nablus, including Arafat's tomb
    • Martyrs' memorials from Hizballah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad from the West Bank
For some reason, this was seen as suspicious as I tried to enter an Israeli railway station. Makes no sense, really.

I think everything would have been all right if it weren't for the train station guard - I looked very much like a tourist. Unfortunately, he was, for lack of a better word, an idiot. Moreover, he was an idiot with just the right amount of power to feel some authority, but not enough to actually do anything. I could see him, when he led me to the interrogation room they have in the back (doubles as a cleaning closet), trying to wrap his little brain around the lack of an entry stamp for Israel or an exit stamp from Canada. I'm pretty sure he thought he had caught an honest-to-God Syrian spy who would make his career. He called someone on his cell phone - I could tell he was feeding information to someone coming over - and it was clear he was fairly excited about it. With each snippet of conversation I could hear more words he enjoyed saying because they were so taboo - 'Syria', 'Hizballah', 'Hamas.' He was so excited, he showed everyone who passed by my camera. He even tried a few interrogation tactics he'd seen in the movies - he kept offering me cigarettes, kept offering me water. I tried to explain a few times, and he'd cut me off with a friendly 'it's fine, it's fine' each time. It was all a bit ridiculous. There was an odd moment, too, when he was looking through my pictures of Syria's ruined city in the Golan - 'that's Quneitra,' I said, 'on the Syrian side.' 'I know,' he responded, 'I've been there. But not for a visit.' It was a touch surreal.

Incidentally, I found his inability to comprehend my lack of a Canadian stamp quite revealing; I think it's a symptom of what I would call a surveillance society, one that can't understand that most bureaucractically frustrating events, the undocumented action. He simply would not believe that Canada would let a citizen leave without stamping his passport, or that Israel would let him in. He insisted my Belgian friend had a Belgian exit stamp in his passport (he didn't). He asked for my identity card - all I had was my citizenship card, on which I'm nine years old - which he returned in disgust. I explained Canada didn't have identity cards and he simply didn't believe me. Everyone, he claimed, had identity cards. Obviously - how else would the government know who was where? It was my first glimpse of what a mildly Orwellian - or was it, given my circumstances, Kafka-esque - mentality people could have. I've always been quite blasé about privacy rights, but here I was given a taste of how every little thing about me could be taken and misinterpreted, how a perfectly reasonable absence of information could be treated as proof of guilt. Unlike most Israelis who had questioned me about my Arab stamps, he seemed to think I was actually guilty of something. You could see it: the gaps in documentation, not rigidly clean and complete, just didn't make sense. A real life Syrian agent, stepping right into his railway station.

The people he had called turned out to be two agents of Shin Bet. They looked - well, they looked exactly what one would expect Israeli counterintelligence agents to look like. Big, bald men with permanent scowls in the kind of plainclothes that would probably have marked them out as secret policemen in any Eastern European 'People's Democracy.' The first thing they did was order the train station idiot and his gawking friends out of the room proving, as I'd suspected, that he was of no importance whatsoever. They laid every single one of my possessions out individually on the table in front of me, and started to look through everything: every note I'd made in my notebook, every picture, even a quick flip through the songs on my mp3 player.

It lasted about two and a half hours, and questions were asked about everything; most suspicious were my handwritten notes in Arabic, which I explained were simply the answers to exercises in my textbook. They asked me my opinions on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict; they asked me what my religion was. They tried to speak to me in Arabic, but luckily, my Arabic comprehension is genuinely brutal. They made me give a day-by-day account of my entire trip; I had to use my camera's calendar feature to make this possible. They asked me why I would ever enter a Palestinian camp, why I took pictures of martyrs' memorials from Hamas. And, every once in a while, they'd slip in a serious question. Had I told anyone in these countries I was going to Israel? Had I been in contact with the security forces? Had anyone offered me money to send something back from Israel? The men were, thankfully, professionals, as I imagine most people in Shin Bet are. I figured if I told the truth, they'd figure out I was just a tourist - not even an activist - and the worst that would happen would be that I would be expelled from Israel - and anyway, my friend Ken had contacted another friend of mine who was in touch with the Embassy. While this resulted in an awkward mid-interrogation text message - 'dont worry ive called the embasry they will call you seen x x x' - prompting questions of how anyone knew I was being interrogated, I was glad to be in contact with the Canadian consular services.

In the end, they figured it out and let me go; actually I think they figured it out an hour before they let me go but had to go through the motions. One thing that really helped me was the fact that, beside all my Arabic exercises, was a little bit where I had jotted down the cursive forms of the Hebrew letters as well. They took down all my phone numbers - including my Syrian one - as well as my e-mail, as it's widely believed they have access to the major e-mail services and will no doubt be reading this, since I'm using gmail for my autosave functions. I've got a file on me now too - they took a passport photo - so I'm likely to be strip-searched if I come back into Israel, but other than that, it wasn't that stressfulm though the idea of going all the way back to Canada was not a pleasant one. And it was interesting to get a small impression of the kinds of interviews my parents faced when they returned to Communist Poland from visits to the West.

Akko, Israel Il

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