In the last few years, the number of Muslims visiting Jerusalem and Palestine has steadily increased. There are likely to be a number of different reasons for this, but one thing that the majority of those travellers will have encountered, is the ‘joy’ of being questioned by Israeli border police. Though stringent checks and questioning are not only limited to Muslims, having a darker complexion or an Arabic sounding name will almost guarantee you their full attention. Below, I offer a guide on what travellers can expect to face, as well as some advice to help minimise any inconvenience.
Before you arrive
1. Check the political situation. A ‘third intifada’ is often discussed in the media, but, at the time of writing this, seems unlikely. There are times when the political climate in the region can become tense, (usually when something happens involving Gaza, or the security situation at al-Aqsa), and this can potentially affect any travel plans.
I would also advise against any travel to Jerusalem during Jewish holidays, if your main intention is to visit al-Aqsa. In recent years the Israeli security services have been allowing and escorting extremist settler groups to tour the Haram Sharif sanctuary on religious holidays. This is in violation of an edict placed on Jews visiting the sanctuary by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the agreements put in place between the Israeli government and Jordanian waqf authorities, who maintain the site. In response to this, protests are often carried out by Palestinians, and Israeli authorities have, in the past, used violent force to dispel them. This has even included barricading worshipers into the Qibli mosque and then firing tear gas inside.
2. Check your visa requirements and passport. There are a number of Muslim countries that do not recognise Israel as a state, and they will not permit entry to those who have any sort of Israeli stamp in their passport. To get around this, if you’re granted entry into Israel, (and weren’t required to apply for a visa beforehand), you will be given a slip of paper as a visa instead of a stamp in your passport (in the past one had to ask for this, but it is now done for all). A list of the countries that do not recognise Israel can be found here. If you are planning to travel to a Muslim country following your visit to Israel, this information is important to know.
As a side note, despite the fact some countries do not allow their citizens to visit Israel, the Israelis can, in theory, grant visas for nationals of those countries (subject to approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs). To check if you need a visa click here.
3. Clear out your social media. There have been instances where security services have asked individuals to log into email and social media accounts for them to search. ‘Is that even legal?’ is what you’re probably thinking. Though its legality is dubious, failure to comply with their demands will result in you being denied entry.
Before you travel, it may be best to search through your emails and social media accounts and remove anything that may be seen as critical of Israel or any mention of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
4. Pack some food. It is not uncommon to be held at the border for a considerable period of time. 12 hours is not unusual if you enter from Jordan via the King Hussein/Allenby Bridge. Entering through Ben Gurion Airport doesn’t tend to take as long, but I’ve heard of an individual having to wait six hours before being told he was denied entry into the country. There are vending machines in the ‘VIP room’ at the airport, but if you’re travelling with small children, packing some real food may be something worth considering.
When you arrive
1. Stay calm. I cannot overemphasise this point enough; the strategy of some security officials is to ask ridiculous questions to see how you react. Possible questions include: ‘Why don’t you go to Saudi Arabia instead of Jerusalem?’, ‘Who told you to come to Israel?’, ‘What’s your opinion of so-and-so’. You may also be asked the same question, with slight variations, numerous times by the same the official. A friend was once asked, several times, if he was concealing a weapon (“so, tell me, where is the weapon you are concealing?”).
Any sort of reaction that could be interpreted by the officials as anger, will likely lead to entry being denied. It is best to stay calm and answer questions as apathetically as possible.
2. Do not argue. Do not debate with officials, nor ask them questions that are not relevant. They have, at times, been known to adopt a friendly manner only to switch to a harsher tone without any warning. I can only assume this is done with intent, to illicit some sort of reaction.
3. Answer all questions. No matter how ridiculous the question you are asked, or indeed, how many times you are asked it, provide an answer. A pretty standard question is “Where were your father and grandfather born?” If you don’t know the answer (and they cannot check your answer), you could make something up, but if they find out you are lying, that will obviously work against you.
Upon telling officials my family came from Pakistan, they asked what relatives I have, where they live, how I contact them, and even their phone numbers.
4. Be prepared in case you are denied entry. Despite full cooperation with the authorities, people are regularly denied entry into Israel, at times with no clear indication of why. Unfortunately if you reach this point, there is nothing you can do to appeal this decision or cause the authorities to change their mind. You will receive a stamp in your passport stating that entry has been denied, which can also, in some instances, include a ban to the country for ten years. Be advised, if you are travelling to a Muslim country from here, such as Saudi Arabia for Hajj or Umrah, you will be forced to return to the country you initially travelled from, not to the one you are planning to travel to next. In spite of being denied entry, you will now have evidence of a visit to Israel in your passport, which could also cause you problems if the country you are planning to travel to next does not recognise Israel. Some nations, such as the UK, permit nationals to hold two concurrent passports; if you are able to do so, this may be something to consider.
A little side note. If you are denied entry, the authorities will ask for your fingerprints. A close friend of mine was denied entry at Tel Aviv airport, and a member of staff at the airport actually advised him to refuse to have his fingerprints scanned. The security and immigration personnel will claim that you have to comply, but in actual reality, if you’ve been denied entry, that is the end of the matter and all that remains is for them to send you back on the next available flight.
Is there any way to get around all of this?
Yes, there are a few options available. Travelling as a group, especially if it’s part of a trip to promote interfaith dialogue, can result in less intrusive questioning. Even travelling as a mixed race group, particularly if members of your party are deemed as ‘low risk’ can also help. There are also a number of ‘VIP’ meet and greet services that operate at Ben Gurion, that can assist you through immigration, but the outcome is still at the discretion of the immigration staff themselves, and this option can be quite expensive.
In terms of more long term solutions, if Muslims start to travel to Palestine in large numbers, it will mean the security services will have no choice but to forego many of their procedures. If you have experienced the ‘VIP room’, and the small number of staff working there, you will know that there is no way they would have the capacity or manpower to continue to vet people to the levels currently in place, especially if the numbers travelling to Jerusalem become similar to those for Mecca and Medina.
After reading this, you might ask, “Should I even bother travelling to Jerusalem?” Though a hassle, the reality is that the border is just a minor part of the journey and from my experience, those who have visited Palestine have not been disappointed, nor regretful. Negative experiences for foreign nationals, whether in Israel or the Occupied Territories, are rare outside the airport- you just have to suck it up and get through border control first!
Oh, and yes you will have to go through the same procedures when you try to leave- so make sure you arrive at the airport at least three hours before your flight!
Did we miss anything? Share your experiences of Israeli border control in the comment section below.