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FreeGaza Movement

Human rights group that sailed 5 times into port of Gaza.

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On December 4th, I was detained at Ben Gurion airport and told I was being denied entry into Israel and would be deported immediately. I was on my way back from Egypt to Jerusalem, where I have lived and worked on and off since 2001. In my passport was a letter from the Ministry of Interior (MOI), stating that, while I had been denied a work visa in 2006, I should be permitted to come and go from Israel as a tourist.

The letter was undated, with no time limit, granting me something like permanent tourist status. No doubt I was granted this unusual status because I am Jewish but didn't want to apply for Israeli citizenship. The MOI was aware I had been working as a lawyer, first for UNAIS, a British NGO that placed professionals to work in Palestinian-partner NGOs, and then for the Italian Consortium of Solidarity, an EU-funded international NGO that established the United Against Torture coalition, made up of Palestinian and Israeli NGOs who worked in torture-prevention activities.

I was totally taken by surprise, as only weeks before I had returned to Israel from Cyprus when I had sailed to Gaza on the Free Gaza Movement boat, the Dignity, and had absolutely no problem upon my reentry then.  I called my lawyer, Leah Tsemel, who said that she would attempt to stop the deportation as soon as possible, but it was unlikely she would be able to accomplish anything over Shabbat (the weekend) and my choice was to 1. Go back to Cairo and seek to return or 2. Go into detention and fight deportation. I felt I'd be in a stronger position if I stayed and fought deportation.

The authorities took me from passport control to a satellite office of the MOI and said I had violated the conditions of the MOI letter (which didn't contain any conditions) and had continued to live in Israel (although I had completed my contract and was no longer working there). Therefore, they were going to put me on the next plane to Cairo. I replied that I had never been advised – neither upon my last entry into Israel nor my last departure a week earlier – that I was violating any conditions, or I wouldn't have left Israel on a short vacation. Moreover, I already had a ticket to return to the US on December 25th. 

The immigration official said I could either leave willingly or under duress. Since my attorney was attempting to fight deportation, I said I would refuse to leave before the appeal. And now, I wanted to speak to a representative from the US Consulate as well.

They took me to security where both my body and my bags were thoroughly searched.  A woman identifying herself as the head of security questioned me for about 40 minutes. She went through my passport, asking me why I had been to Egypt, Jordan and Morocco. I explained that it was mainly as a tourist, but I had also had some meetings, then asked her why she didn't also ask me about France, Spain, Switzerland, the UK, and Mexico, which were also in my passport. She also asked what I had been doing in Gaza in 2003 when I entered through Erez. She wanted details about my work and my friends  (which I didn't give). She asked me about professional cards in my wallet and about 2 pamphlets in Arabic from Egypt about aiding Gaza, (which were never returned to me).
I was then put on board an SUV and taken to the airport detention center, where I shared the small room with 3 other women, one an African-American basketball player from the US who had been put in detention because her Israeli coach didn't have her papers in order.

At no point was I advised of my rights under detention, but there was a hallway poster stating those rights (as required by law) in English, Russian and several other languages. We saw it when we were removed from our locked room so it could be cleaned. I pointed out the notice to the Russian in my cell, much to the consternation of staff. Both she and I then asked to see our respective consular representatives.

On Sunday morning, they told me to get ready to fly to Cairo. I said that I would refuse to leave until I spoke with my lawyer and my consulate. I was taken to the office, where an official said he had just spoken to my lawyer, and she advised me to leave the country, but I wanted to speak to her myself, so he dialed a number, then said there was no answer. I was asked to wait outside and, after about 10 minutes, was told that they were taking me to the Ministry of Interior. Therefore, I left the detention center voluntarily with them.

But they lied, and the SUV drove through the security gate right up to an Air Sinai plane. I refused to walk up the ramp and was forcefully carried up by two huge immigration police officers, with two smaller ones in front and behind. I spoke to the Egyptian crew, telling them what was happening was illegal, I had a right to speak with my lawyer and with a representative of the US Consulate, and I would resist being seated on the plane. The captain refused to take me on board, so they brought me back to the SUV, then back to the detention center.

However, I was not taken back to one of the detention rooms. Instead, because I had insisted on my legal rights, I was disciplined and placed in a filthy, stinking isolation cell that had no amenities, not even toilet paper. No hot water, no sheet, just a plastic mattress on a metal frame and a dirty blanket. I was not allowed to bring in a book to read and was refused my request for an aspirin. I spent all day and Monday night in that tiny dirty cell.

The following morning, they told me "the boss" wanted to speak with me and I was taken upstairs to his office. The first thing he said was that there was a flight to Cairo at 10:00 am, and I'd be on it. I insisted that I was refusing to leave the country and had a right to speak to my lawyer and my consular representative. He accused me of lying, because I had already spoken to my lawyer in the airport (on the date of my arrival, before I was put into detention), and we got into a 5-minute shouting match, pointing fingers at each other. I told him that they had lied to me about my lawyer advising me to leave the country (I knew from our previous conversation that this was not her advice) and about taking me to the airport (when they said I was going to the MOI office).

The ruckus brought everyone on the floor into the office to see what was going on.  Finally he said he knew I hated anyone in uniform, but he would call my lawyer. He dialed a number and said there was no answer. "Fine then, I want to see a representative from the consulate." He said he would call, but he couldn't get through there either. (The call was on speaker phone, and I did hear the initial message stating that it was the US Consulate and to push 2 for Hebrew. After that, I didn't understand what was said, but know that he did leave a number.)  In any case, I told him I wanted to see, not speak with my consular representative, as I wanted him or her to see the conditions under which I was being held.

By then we had both calmed down, and he said he had talked to my lawyer, and she was trying to get me bonded into the country, but I would have to raise 20,000 shekels (about $5,000). I said that was no problem, since I had a bank account in Jerusalem. He asked where it was and when I said at Bank Hapoalim on Salahaddin St. in East Jerusalem, he laughed and said something in Hebrew about "Aravim."

I asked if I could call my daughter in London as she would be worried about me, and he said "not a chance." Finally, I told him that I had run out of my hypertension medication, but had more at home in Jerusalem. He said I shouldn't have travelled with insufficient medication, but I pointed out that I had had more than enough, and had not anticipated being detained for 4 days. Since I was in his custody. "It will be your responsibility if anything happens to me."

My release was delayed for another few hours, because my local bank branch in Jerusalem was closed for the Eid holiday and the airport branch to which I was taken under armed escort was thus unable to get approval for such a large withdrawal. However, Immigration was obviously in a huge rush to get rid of me, and about 10 minutes after I was returned to the same isolation cell, (this time I was permitted to bring a book in with me) I was told that an arrangement for posting bond had been made with my lawyer. I should see her upon my release.

They finally returned me to the airport, gave me my passport and was told to leave. The "boss" had said there would be conditions for me to sign, and if I violated them, I'd forfeit the bond. But there were no such conditions. I returned to Jerusalem, took a hot shower, had a drink and felt almost human again.

This is clearly not the end of the matter. I'm going to the US Consulate in Tel Aviv, which has jurisdiction over Ben Gurion airport, to file a complaint and to ask them to take the matter up with the Israeli government to protest (1) the violation of my rights as a detained foreign national; and (2) the violation of the rights of the United States by impeding its access to a detained national.  Everyone detained by immigration authorities should be informed of their right to consular access immediately upon detention, or at least after it becomes clear that the detention will last more than a short while. And once the detained person demands consular access, immigration authorities have an obligation to allow him or her to make contact. Israel has violated this basic right, as well as so many others of detained foreign nationals, but particularly of Palestinians, with impunity for far too long.

Audrey Bomse was a passenger on the second Free Gaza voyage.