Deported for trying to go home

July 30, 2015

Palestinian American George Khoury describes the torturous treatment he received at the hands of Israeli security--for the "crime" of trying to visit his homeland.

I WAS born in West Jerusalem, the so-called the Jewish half of Jerusalem, in 1945. Under a shower of bullets that were flying over our heads, my father grabbed me and the rest of the family and fled to his native city of Nablus at the eve of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. We remained in Rafidia-Nablus until 1952 and then moved to Ramallah where my father got a job in the post office.

I went to the parochial school and then entered the Latin Seminary of Beit Jala in 1961 to study for the priesthood. In 1968, I left the seminary where I studied French and Latin in addition to philosophy and theology. I came to the U.S. in September 1969 and entered Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, where I graduated with a B.A. in French and Spanish. In 1975, I earned a master's degree from the University of Montclair in New Jersey.

I moved to California in 1975 where I taught foreign language at the high school level. I entered the Ph.D. program in theology in 1983 at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, and I obtained my doctorate degree in 1990. I have been teaching language at San Mateo College, Skyline College and Westmoor High School. I joined the deaconate program in 2012 because I intend to serve various church communities as a deacon in the San Francisco Archdiocese.

Israeli security forces inside Ben Gurion Airport
Israeli security forces inside Ben Gurion Airport

After 21 years of not visiting or seeing Jerusalem and my homeland Palestine, I decided to go back, this time as an American citizen with an American passport, which I was granted in 1975. The trip was intended to be a religious pilgrimage with Father Bernard Poggi, as well as a long overdue visit to my homeland to reunite with friends and family I hadn't seen in decades.

ONCE WE arrived to Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, they allowed Father Bernard to enter. When it came to me, I was ushered by a young female soldier to the "green room" for questioning. An airport security agent, who I believe was a Shin Bet agent (Israel's equivalent of the FBI), began the dialogue. The conversation that ensued went like this:

Agent: Oh, so you came through Ben Gurion airport?

Me: Yes. What's wrong with that?

Agent: You can't do that.

Me: Why? I have an American passport. I came with father Bernard, to spend a few weeks in Jerusalem and that's it. We are coming here on a religious pilgrimage and to visit some friends and family.

Agent: No, no, you cannot go to Israel. You should have gone through the Allenby Bridge. [The Allenby Bridge is the border crossing between Jordan and Israel. Palestinians can only enter the West Bank through this bridge because they are not allowed in through Israel proper.]

Me: Why should I do that? I'm not coming through as a Palestinian. I'm coming as an American citizen.

Agent: No. You are a Palestinian. Why are you denying that you're a Palestinian?

Me: I'm not denying that I'm Palestinian. I am Palestinian from head to toe. My father is Palestinian. My mother is Palestinian. My brothers are Palestinian. My sister is Palestinian. My grandfather is an Orthodox priest, and I can trace my Palestinian roots for the last 500 years. What do you mean I am denying? I am denying nothing.

Agent: No, no, you belong with the Palestinian people. This is our Israel. This is for the Jews. No Palestinian should come to Israel. You should have gone through the Allenby Bridge.

Me: Why do you say that? Did I ever have a Palestinian passport? Did I ever live under the Palestinian Authority? When the PA was constituted, I was never in Palestine, and I was never issued a Palestinian passport.

Agent: But you have an Israeli ID. [He was referring to the Israeli ID issued to me after Israel began its occupation of the West Bank in 1967. I had an Israeli ID until I left for the U.S. in 1969.

Me: An Israeli ID is not a Palestinian passport. The Israeli ID was issued to me when I was in Beit Jala studying for the priesthood, but you cannot equate that to a Palestinian passport. Juridically speaking, I was never a citizen of a country called Palestine. I am coming with an American passport, and you should honor it.

Agent: How do you want me to honor your American passport? Do you want me to kiss it, to hug it, or to worship it? Moreover, you are rude and ill-mannered. How did you get to be so rude? You are a Palestinian, and you are rude and ill-mannered.

Me: I am neither rude nor ill-mannered. I'm just stating the facts. I'm just telling you I'm an American who has been an American citizen for the past 40 years, and I've lived in America for 46 years. So you disregard all these legal facts, and you only focus on my Palestinian heritage?

Agent: You will be deported to Jordan and must go to the Allenby Bridge to continue your visit to the West Bank.

I RETURNED to Father Bernard, who was waiting for me. I told Father Bernard what had happened with the Shin Bet agent, and we waited. The man returned with the deportation papers and led me to understand in the presence of Father Bernard that I would be deported to Jordan. I waited until two other security officers came and told me, "You will not be deported to Jordan. You must go back to where you came from [the Rome Fiumicino Airport, Italy]."

"But I was just told that I would be deported to Jordan," I said. "Who said that?" they asked.

"I don't know his name," I answered. "Did you think he told me his name? He's the security man in the office who just had me sign deportation papers."

"No, you have to go back to Italy first," they said. "If you then choose to come back to Jordan after landing in Italy, then that is your choice." I was shocked, but had no choice but to go along with it. In front of the Israeli officials, Father Bernard gave me his Jordanian phone number, and we agreed we would meet in Jordan the following day.

Bernard and I parted ways, and I went back with the Israeli security officers. They kept me (and the others) in the airport until 1:30 a.m. on July 21. Eventually, they brought us a sandwich.

Some of the others who were with me during the ordeal were a Palestinian woman and her daughter (who were Palestinian born, but U.S. citizens). They had originally traveled with her two other sons, but because the two boys were American born, they were able to enter Israel. The Israeli officials told the two of them that they would be deported back to the U.S., but they would be deported separately. They both broke down in tears and pleaded with them to at least allow them to be deported together, but to no avail.

There was also a young British woman who told me she was working with a human rights group in Israel, as well as a Korean and a young Russian woman, neither of whom spoke much English.

They drove us about half an hour away from the airport. During the drive, the young Korean, who barely spoke any English and was hungry and penniless, asked the two guards in an extremely feeble voice and in bad English, "Are we going to die tonight?"

We were being transported in a van with bars--made for prisoners. They held us like criminals in a detention facility they called emigration, but should have been called prison--until we were deported.

They locked us up, forbade me from keeping my iPhone, refused to allow me to bring a book with me to that filthy room, and threw me there with a several poor, hungry and disoriented men from different national and ethnic backgrounds. The time was about 2 a.m.

WE SPENT all of Tuesday in the detention center not knowing when we would be leaving. There was an Arab guard near the cell. I dared to ask him, "You know all of our names and everything about us. What is your name?" He said, "My name is George." From his accent, he sounded like he was from Nazareth. I asked him, "Why are you treating us like prisoners?" He said, "That's just how it is."

He eventually let me use the phone to call my wife to tell her where I was. If I had the right to a phone call at the airport, I was never told about it. The other guards remained totally anonymous, insulted us by using disrespectful and abusive language, and forbade us from speaking to one another from each other's rooms, which were separated by a long corridor. I didn't sleep a wink because they kept the bright fluorescent lights on the entire time.

At 4 a.m. that morning, the guard came to get me to take me to my flight. He heard me speaking in Arabic to the Palestinian woman and her daughter, who were being held in the room opposite from where I was detained. When he came back that morning, Samar's mother was saying that maybe they were just roughing us up a bit, but that they really would eventually deport us to Jordan. He was very angry and yelled, "I told you not to talk to the others! I'm trying to respect you! Try to respect yourself. Get away from the door!"

Around 8 a.m., a guard entered the room and frantically took me, saying that my plane was about to depart. Like a madman, he drove me to the airport and took me straight to the runway stairs rather than being taken through the airport. Just as I was getting on the plane, I asked, "Where exactly are you deporting me?" He said, "Bogotá." I said, "Bogota!? Why?" He said, "Aren't you Carlos?" I said, "No, I'm George Khoury. Let me see the passport in your hands." It belonged to a Colombian man named Carlos.

He realized his mistake and frantically raced me back to the detention center. The rough rides exacerbated my sciatic nerve badly, and I'm still in great pain. We went back to the detention center, and I was returned to my cell. He called out for Carlos. Carlos was sleeping. "I'm Carlos!" he said as he woke up and was taken away.

WITHOUT GOING into every detail, they returned to pick me up at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday. They drove me to the runway again, and we waited for a long time, seemingly until the entire plane was boarded and ready. They walked me all the way up to the mobile stairs.

Up to this point, I had been told I would be flying to Italy so that I could return to Jordan. At the moment just before I entered the plane, I could see in his hand the tickets that would fly me all the way via Italy all the way back to the U.S.--to New York and then San Francisco. The Italian agent told me that my passport would be returned to me once he made sure that I was on the plane heading to the U.S.

And that's exactly what happened. When I arrived in Italy, but before I exited the plane, I asked the flight attendant for my passport. She told me that it would be taken care of by a man waiting outside for me.

An Italian security officer was waiting for me at the top of the stairs. He took me in a jeep to an unknown location away from the airport--some kind of a police station. He put me in a room with about five or six people where our movement was restricted. At 5 p.m., I got on a flight heading to the States where I was handed my passport.

I arrived in New York around 8 p.m. that day and remained in the airport until the next morning when I boarded a 6 a.m. flight. The entire time I held my bag in my lap, trying to close my eyes to rest for brief moments while sitting on a hard bench and counting the minutes and the hours until the 6 a.m. departure. All along, I held onto my bag for dear life since it contained my insulin, my wallet and my iPhone. I am a diabetic and parting with my medicine would be fatal.

I arrived home exhausted on Thursday at 11:37 a.m. I called my travel agent to find out if I could be reimbursed for my stolen bag and the portion of the KLM return ticket I hadn't used. He discovered that those funds had already been used to pay for my deportation back to the U.S.

I'm back in San Francisco now. The Israeli security services took something that was supposed to be a vacation from my long work hours and a reconnection with my homeland and old friends and turned it into a hellish nightmare. I was disrespected, demeaned and treated like I committed a crime.

I tell you my story in order to encourage people to visit Palestine and to challenge the thuggery of this racist entity--and to pose this challenge here in the U.S. as well as in Israel. My own tax dollars finance the oppression of the Palestinian people; the U.S. send more than $3 billion of economic and military aid per year to Israel. Without the blind and unconditional financial and political support of the U.S. for the state of Israel, the occupation and all its tragedies against the Palestinians would not continue.

Further Reading

From the archives