Last week, Brooklyn-based graphic designer, curator, and artist Laura Arena was denied entry into Israel in an experience she is still trying to understand.
A multidisciplinary artist, Arena is particularly interested in storytelling and projects that engage conversation and social issues, so she was naturally drawn to an advertised opportunity to volunteer in the West Bank to help a physically challenged artist who requires round-the-clock care.
Arena’s attempt to travel to the West Bank to help Echlas Al Azzeh, a disabled artist who lives in the Aza refugee camp near Bethlehem, West Bank, was thwarted by Israeli authorities at the Yitzhak Rabin Border checkpoint between Aqaba, Jordan, and Eilat, Israel.
I spoke to Arena about her problems crossing into Israel, something that is a common experience for many international artists, writers, curators, journalists, and other cultural workers traveling to the Palestinian Territories, many of whom feel like they are being unfairly detained or denied entry for simply wanting to visit Palestinians or the West Bank.
Her story was particularly poignant to me, since my own border experience entering and leaving Israel last October was difficult. A Canadian citizen of Armenian descent who was born in Syria, I’ve traveled throughout the region, including Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates, and all this must’ve initiated my five-hour detention at Ben Gurion airport. During that long wait, my bags were searched, I was questioned by two different Israeli border police, asked to give the authorities all my email addresses, my itinerary, any contacts in Israel, the names of my family members (including my paternal grandfather, who died before I was born), their phone numbers, any contact information, my cell number, and a great deal of other personal information, before being allowed to continue into the country. The experience was emotionally exhausting, and the most difficult I’ve had at any border crossing in my life. During my exit, I endured an equally unnerving experience, as I was forced to go through a number of checkpoints, my taxi was searched, my bags were repeated scanned and opened, my smartphone was temporarily confiscated (the data probably copied), I was patted down (including my socks), and questioned a number of times. My experience is not at all unique, and I met numerous journalists, curators, artists, and nonprofit workers who shared their harrowing stories with me.
This is Arena’s story as she told it to Hyperallergic.
Laura Arena’s Story
“I was going to Palestine for three reasons. The first was that I was a volunteer caretaker for a disabled woman … [who] is in need of round-the-clock care and has spent her life in a wheelchair. I met Echlas [Al Azzeh] when I was in Palestine during an artist residency [in 2010] and found her to be an inspiration,” Arena told Hyperallergic. “She is my age and also is an artist who creates a calendar every year featuring what life is like at the camp, which she sells for income. Her mother died, and she is now completely dependent on volunteer caretakers for her needs. In return she provides Arabic lessons, room and board. Second, I wanted to document the stories of the refugees in the camp through words, images, drawings, photos, sound, and video … Third, I also had plans to meet with curators, artists, and art organizations to organize an artist journal called Vector, which would feature Palestinian artists.
“I passed through Jordan without any problems and was warmly greeted in Israel at first. I showed my passport and had my bags checked … [and then] when I went to the passport control section, I was detained and interrogated for approximately six hours total.
“I gave them my passport at the window and told them I was on holiday and I would be traveling in Israel for a few weeks and then return back to Jordan … I was asked where I was specifically going. I made it clear that I did not have a planned itinerary, and I was going to plan it as I go. I told them I wanted to visit Haifa, Nazareth, the Dead Sea, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem. I told them I had been to most of these places before and really hoped to return to them.
“The woman looked through my passport and saw I was in Israel for five weeks in 2010. She asked me where I visited and I told her again the above places (other than Nazareth) and mentioned I was in Bethlehem. She asked how did I get to Bethlehem, and I said from Ramallah.
“This led to questioning why I was in Bethlehem, and I told her I was a Christian, that the church had significance. She quizzed me about the church, then she kept on asking me the same thing about Jerusalem, [including] why do I want to go there. I told her the same thing. She quizzed me again, I talked about the Stations of the Cross.
“I was asked about my flight from Amman, and I offered to give her the contact of my friend in Amman who I was staying with, but they were not interested. I explained I was going to Czech Republic and showed them my long-term visa that looks like a passport. This document I could tell confused them, and this is when they begin to question my real identity, [and if] I was not really American.
“At this point I became agitated because she kept on asking me where I was really going, and I kept on repeating the above places and said, ‘Listen. I don’t have an itinerary to show you; I don’t know what else I can tell you.’
“Then the woman asked me if I had plans to visit anyone or was in contact with someone in Israel. I told her I had no plans to see the people I knew because one couple was traveling and the other no longer lived in Israel. Then she asked me if I had contacts in Ramallah and Bethlehem, and I told her I knew of artists, curators, but did not know them personally.
“At this point I was told to sit down, and they took both my visa and passport. Over the course of six hours I was taken to various rooms and interrogated by three young women. One of them went through my backpack meticulously … This same woman also took my iPhone and went through all my photos, picking out [specific] ones and asking questions. Then she went through contacts in my address book. She picked out certain names and wrote them down. ‘This name is an Arab, how do you know this person?’ [she asked]. After the third or fourth name I said, ‘Listen, I am an artist/curator for an art space. I know a lot of artists from around the world.’ Then she looked me directly in the eye and said, ‘Artists are political and they choose sides. You know the current situation here in Israel.’ I muttered, ‘My home is New York City. Every type of person lives in NYC.’ This continued for some time, writing down names, and then I was sent away.
“A separate woman who had my passport called me intp an office and occasionally there would be another woman with her. To be honest I can’t remember how often I spoke to these woman and how often I was taken into these different rooms.
“At this time the woman holding my passport discovered a stamp made by Khaled Jarrar, who is a Palestinian artist who made this project, ‘Welcome to Palestine,’ where he made a passport stamp [and stamped people’s passports]. The woman pointed it out and asked, ‘What is this? Did you get this in Palestine?’ I told her, ‘No, I got it from an artist — it was part of a show at the KW Institute in Berlin for the [Berlin] Biennale. Then she asked if I was in an organization for Palestinians. I told her no, that I was at this art event and the artist stamped people’s passports. I told her to look it up online and she could read about the show.
“Surprisingly, this was not a focus, having this stamp. She then continued to ask me about one of the contacts on my phone, the woman who is the curator at Al Hoasch gallery in East Jerusalem. I told her I did not know her [and] that someone had given me her contact info. This went on for sometime. ‘Why is she your Facebook friend and [you] have her number? What is your relationship to her?’ It was really frustrating because I didn’t know her. At some point, probably three hours into it, their tone changed. I was threatened that I would never enter Israel again if I don’t tell the truth. Often they would say to me, ‘Do you need time to step outside and then tell me the truth?’
“It became focused on why do I communicate with Arabs, what do I plan to do in Palestine? Where am I really traveling? Why do I have Arab names on my phone? They questioned if I ever volunteered before and told me over and over again it is illegal to volunteer in Israel.
“At the end I was told I lied about my phone number, I had no working phone, and that I had no proof of a flight, which was not true — I showed them earlier, and when I offered to show her again, she didn’t look at it. Then she asked about this woman with Al Hoasch gallery, and I told her I didn’t know her. I told her to call her and she would not know who I am. I was accused of lying. At this point I was pale, exhausted, dehydrated, confused, and I didn’t know where any of my things were and told her, ‘I can’t tell you anything about this woman because I don’t know her.’
“Then I was called into the office one more time, where I was forced to sign a document which states that I need a visa to enter Israel, and they marked my passport with a large red stamp saying ‘Entry Denied.’ I was told that I lied about my phone number and that I lied about the woman at Al Hoasch.
“They returned all my belongings. The woman holding my Czech money gave it back to me [and] $500 was missing. I was escorted by a man holding my passport, who took me to the entrance to border patrol and told me to have a good day.”
Arena had never been denied entry into a country before, and she is concerned she will never be allowed into Israel again. When she relayed the news to Echlas, she was told that the previous potential volunteer, who was also a US citizen, was denied entry and put on a plane back to the United States.
She isn’t sure what to think of her ordeal, but she believes the fact that she had been to the Palestinian Territories before — which she plainly told Israeli border authorities upon entering and exiting during her trip in 2010 — may have been a big factor in the denial of entry.
“The reason they gave me [for denial of entry] on the white paper is ‘Prevention of Illegal Immigration’ considerations,” she explained. “The reason they said in person was that I lied about my phone number and I lied about the Arab woman (Al Hoasch) on my phone.”
She was forced to sign a document that says she will need a visa in order to enter again. “I am not sure how difficult it is to get a visa,” she says. “I have friends in NYC contacting lawyers and organizations on my behalf in Israel, seeing if there is anything to do.”
She is currently staying in Egypt with the hopes that she could potentially still enter Israel if things change, even though she knows the chances are slim.