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June 03, 2002
Humanitarians Barred Entry to Israel

By Ben Alofs


Dear friends,

On 5.5.02 I flew from Manchester via Frankfurt to Tel Aviv. My aim was to reach the Occupied territories and work there during 6 weeks for the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS). For those among you, who need an update about what went before, here is a brief summary:

I am a Dutch General Practitioner, living and working in North Wales. I have a job share arrangement with my partner Dr. Graham Thomas, which enables us to work away from the practice during 2-3 months per year for disadvantaged communities/people. Graham's special interest is Lesotho (South Africa) and mine is Palestinians. Earlier this year I began to make preparations for a trip to the Occupied Territories. The PRCS welcomed me as a medical volunteer.

On 6.5.02 at 3.50 a.m. I landed with Lufthansa flight LH0690 at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. I have been in Israel and the Occupied Territories twice before, in 1988 and 1990 during the first Intifada. Getting through passport control and security was always an awkward process, but I was never barred from entering.

This time around on 6.5.02 things were different. I passed the first hurdle, passport control, without problems. But then came layer upon layer of security people, many of them very young, teenagers almost, who began to ask me, what the purpose of my visit was, who I was going to see, where I was going to stay, why I had come via Frankfurt etc. Before landing I had considered what to say. It was of no use to lie and it wasn't honourable either. I had one suitcase full of medical supplies, donated by my hospital. I also had handbooks of the International Red Cross on the treatment of war injuries and a booklet on Basic Rules of International Humanitarian Law. I decided simply to tell the truth: that I was a doctor, coming to be of humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people.

But even before they opened my suitcases and turned them inside out, the decision had already been taken to deny me entry. After waiting for 45 minutes, the young lady, who informed me of this, said the decision had been taken by the Interior Ministry. I asked why and she mumbled something vague about security. I insisted on a meaningful explanation. I wanted to know about the rationale behind this. Nothing came forth, apart from 'security'. I asked, if I, a 49 year old father of two teenagers, a respectable GP from North Wales, was perceived as a security threat against the State of Israel. She said no. I asked to speak to the person responsible for taking the decision, but this was not possible.

With the decision to deny me entry echoing in my head my luggage was then subjected to intense scrutiny. I had to explain the workings of an otoscope, fundoscope, a peak flow meter. The battery charger of my brand new digital camera was confiscated, because they didn't have the right equipment to examen it. The handbooks of the Red Cross were studied with unusual interest, boxes of intravenous canula's opened etc.

Then I was handed over to the police and placed in a shabby holding unit at the airport, where I joined two hapless Poles, who did not speak english. From what I could gather they were economic migrants, who had come to find work.

I studied the graffiti on the walls of the cell. Half of the writings were in various East-European languages, the other half in english, german and spanish. These were from people from the International Solidarity Movement who had earlier been denied access or deported because of their activities in the Occupied Territories. The most recent message was from one Swede and four Americans. It told me of their arrest in the vicinity of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

To these writings I added my own: "6.5.02. Today I was denied entry because I came to be of humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people. My duty as a doctor is to give help to those in need, irrespective of race, nationality, religion or political beliefs. My nationality is Dutch, but my heart is with all those fighting for justice, freedom and dignity where ever in this world."

After 10 hours in the holding cell - I was not allowed to make a telephone call, to contact my embassy or to contact an Israeli lawyer - the police drove me to the Lufthansa airplane just before it took off. I struggled to contain my emotions. The cabin crew were very sympathetic and offered me a comfortable seat. As the airplane ascended I saw the coastline of the Gaza Strip towards the south. I should have been there, I thought.

Ironically during the flight back to Frankfurt a passenger collapsed near the toilet. The cabin crew asked for my assistance and of course I volunteered. The passenger recovered without problems from a benign vasovagal collapse.

It appeared that the Israelis had sent a fax to Lufthansa in Frankfurt. On arrival there the police questioned me and I saw on the fax that my entry was denied because of "political/security reasons".

I am now back in North Wales. Of course I am very disappointed. It is a rotten feeling not to be able to help the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. I have 6 weeks to spare and have decided now to go back to Lebanon and work for the PRCS there. I have lived with and worked for the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon for almost 5 years during the 1980s. It will take some time, before I can leave. The Israelis stamped my passport and I had to apply for a new one, because there is a considerable risk that with an Israeli stamp, even though it says: "DENIED ENTRY", I would be forbidden from entering Beirut.

The Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz (see below) reported on 6.5.02 that since the end of March up to 2000 humanitarian workers and human rights activists have been denied entry into Israel. These include members from three United Stated-funded international aid organizations, representatives from charities like Save the Children and CARE, a team of Greek humanitarian workers, two Swedish doctors. On 29/04/02 two United Nations Humanitarian Affairs Officers were refused entry at Tel Aviv airport. No big surprise after even a UN mission with VIPs was barred from entering Israel to investigate what happened in Jenin.

The Ha'aretz report concludes that there is a systematic policy by Interior Minister Eli Yishai to deny access to humanitarian workers and human rights activists. This would be a serious breach of International Humanitarian Law.

I will contact the British Medical Association and the Dutch foreign ministry and others to protest against this practice. If Israel claims to be an open and democratic society it should uphold the rights of those who want to enter Israel for humanitarian reasons.

Many regards,

Ben Alofs

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