Friends of Sabeel–North America
Voice of the Palestinian Christians
Krista Johnson, a volunteer for Sabeel in Jerusalem, tells her story below about being denied re-entry into Israel. She is a long term volunteer at Sabeel, sponsored by the United Church of Christ. This is her account of being deported from Ben Gurion Airport as she attempted to return to Jerusalem after attending the Sabeel Conference in Boston. Please hold in your prayers Krista and all others being denied entry.
Also, if you are a US citizen, please contact your legislators regarding the issue of reciprocity regarding visas for religious students and volunteers in Israel. Click here to find contact information for your U.S. senators and representatives.
Here is the Sabeel statement on that issue:
“In our understanding of U.S. State Department policy, Krista as an American should be privileged to a “reciprocity” policy — the U.S . grants certain visas dependent on what the other country does. The current U.S. policy towards Israelis seeking religious visas — yeshiva students, rabbis, synagogue volunteers, is that they get an unquestioned multiple entry five-year visa. Obviously, Krista did not receive this reciprocity.”
Every time I re-enter Israel/Palestine I am nervous about re-entry and hope for a new three month visa. I have had problems twice before- a one week visa once and a denial of entry this past summer on the way back from a World Council of Churches (WCC) meeting in ‘Amman.
Last Saturday morning I flew into Ben Gurion airport after attending a Sabeel conference in Boston and visiting my family in Indianapolis. As I walked up to the passport control counter the woman in the booth sneered at me and asked “what are you doing back here?” after seeing that I had been in Israel recently. She asked why I didn’t have a different visa- why was I trying to sneak past them? She did an additional computer check and exclaimed, “you sneaky girl! You were denied entry in Jordan- you sneaky little girl!” I felt my stomach drop like I was on a rollercoaster, I knew what was coming, but I stayed calm as I was led from one interrogation to another, as my passport was taken from me, and as I was informed that I would not be allowed to enter the country. I explained that I was here representing my church in the US on business, but they told me that I would need a visa from the Ministry of the Interior. I questioned why I would not be allowed into Israel to be able to go to the Ministry of the Interior to look into this further, but was not answered. I remained calm, asked the reasons for my denial and asked how they would suggest attaining a different kind of visa, as I am not employed by an organization inside Israel. I was given no further reasons for my denial of entry other than continuing to be referred to as “sneaky.” I was then taken to another room where I was photographed and fingerprinted. Then I was taken to identify my luggage and then taken to a back room where five security personnel searched through my luggage and I was given a body search by two female security officers.
Finally I was taken to a detention facility and held for 13 hours before I was put on a plane back to the US. I was treated decently but locked in a room with no door handle on the inside, bare bunk beds, and a bathroom. I stayed in the room for 13 hours, but they brought me something to eat twice. I was forced to leave my luggage outside, but was allowed to bring my backpack. I was not allowed to keep my camera with me, and I can only assume this was to prevent me from being able to record the conditions in the cell. I informed them that I was in touch with a lawyer, and would not fly that day, but they told me that a court injunction was required to stay. I requested to meet with the Ministry of the Interior representative at the airport, but was refused and taken directly to the tarmac and put on the plane.
On the airplane my passport was given to a flight attendant with instructions to only return it to me when I got off the airplane. I had seen that my bags were checked through to Indianapolis but I had no idea if I had a connecting flight or what time that it left. When I got my passport back at the end of the flight it had “denied entry” stamped in it and I did not have a connecting flight. Luckily I was able to call and book a flight for a few hours later, but after traveling for over fifty hours, I was completely exhausted.
While in the detention facility, I was working with the American Embassy, lawyers, colleagues, and the MYRTOE (My Right to Enter) Campaign. I felt exhausted and sad- I had plans- I was in the middle of projects- I have friends that I love- and wanted to be able to say goodbye at the least. One minute I had plans, and an apartment, and appointments- and the next my world was turned upside down.
I got a phone call from Sam Bahour of the MYROTE Campaign. He told me that I am “a real Palestinian now.” Sam and I have a few things in common. We both grew up near Youngstown, Ohio. We were both denied entry to Israel in the past- but one key difference is that Sam is Palestinian-American. Sam is a passionate, creative leader in the Palestinian business community. I am in Palestine to learn- to work at Sabeel- but also to soak up as much as I can to tell the story when I get back.
For me, this was a scary experience. This was a challenge- an interruption- an inconvenience. But for Sam and the thousands like him who are foreign nationals-Palestinians holding foreign passports who are often the highly educated, committed, creative contributors to the fabric of Palestinian society-this is a much larger issue. This policy of visa renewal takes away the ability to plan, and the stakes are much higher when denial of entry could mean separation from your family, your business, and your home.
My heart is breaking when I think of the special friendships that I have built, the projects that I have poured myself into, and all that I still hope to experience in Israel/Palestine. I’m not finished yet. I’m not done. But no matter what happens, this is a bump in the road, a blip on the radar screen for me- not a life and death issue as it is for many. As I sat in that cell, I was so tired. I had been traveling for over thirty hours and I was about to board another twelve hour flight. I reminded myself that I could leave, I could choose to quit, and I won’t because this is NOTHING compared to what my Palestinian friends and colleagues deal with daily.
I may have been denied entry, but I was not a Palestinian being denied access to my homeland, as many are. I may have been detained for half a day, but Palestinians can be put in administrative detention for up to six months without a reason being given. I may have had to wait while my things were searched through, but that is something that happens every day at the terminal checkpoints to enter Jerusalem or the checkpoints that separate Palestinian villages from one another throughout the West Bank. I know that I need to keep some perspective. However, I am also giving myself some space to grieve, catch my balance, and remember all the little things that I will miss if I am, in fact, not able to return.
I will miss the chaos of the market and the fresh delicious Palestinian food, the sweet thick cups of coffee, an office that is like a family, playing volleyball on the Mt. of Olives, my church community, picking olives, using my Arabic, hiking to remote villages, the piles of fresh spices and heaps of bright vegetables in the market: an assault on the senses, engaging in nonviolent resistance to the Occupation, and the support of good friends who laugh often but are seriously committed to peace with justice in this place. I wish I could have said goodbye.
I am in Indianapolis now, continuing to work by correspondence with Sabeel, with every intention of returning if possible. So much is up in the air right now, but one thing I do know. I may be in Jerusalem- I may be in Indianapolis- but I will continue to work and to advocate for peace with justice in Palestine and Israel. Denied entry or not, I will not let them win, I will not quit. I am not finished yet.
Krista’s email: firstname.lastname@example.org