Eight years ago today, on December 22, 2003, two of my undergraduate students were denied entry into Israel at the southern border with Egypt. The reason, the helpful border guard told them, was that they were "friends with Arabs." He also told them that they would never be welcome again in Israel. The problem, in other words, was not that they wanted to go to Israel; the problem was that they wanted to go to Palestine. In the eight years since then, the experience of these two young Americans has proven, in its own small way, to be quite prophetic.
A bit of background is in order here. My students went to the Middle East in the summer of 2003 to study Arabic at Birzeit University (where I had studied myself in the 1990s) and to begin conversations with international solidarity activists whose role in supporting Palestinian popular resistance had become proiminent in the years after the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada. Both were interested in doing senior thesis projects that explored aspects of nonviolent solidarity activism. They spent the fall 2003 semester studying in Jordan and were planning to return to Palestine in late December and to join me for further research into how Palestinians on the ground felt about the presence of groups such as Christian Peacemaker Team and the International Solidarity Movement. Having received a grant from my university to conduct the research - no small feat given the nature of the topic and the related "security concerns" - we were excited at the possibility of exploring what we felt was a forward-looking topic of global importance. (In Chapter 5 of Global Palestine I explore the issue of international solidarity in more detail.)
The decision of the Israeli authorities to bar the students from entering the country changed all that. As soon as they called me from the border, I knew that the research was off; more importantly, we all knew that our own experience was symptomatic of something larger. It didn't long for us to find out what that meant. Upon returning to our little corner of northern New York, the students were featured in an article in the local newspaper. The article was followed by a vicious letter to the editor that accused me of "encouraging terrorism" by daring to address the topic of Palestine solidarity activism in my work as an educator. When the students courageously spoke about their experience at an event on campus, the writer of the letter was on hand and tried to shout them down in an obvious attempt to prevent open discussion of Israel's colonial domination of Palestine.
These two students, of course, were not the first internationals to be denied entry into (or kicked out of) Israel. In recent years, however, the question of whether Palestine is allowed to welcome visitors has become an increasingly visible political issue, and the Israeli state has become increasingly hysterical in its efforts to prevent international visitors from witnessing what is happening in Palestine. Palestinians and their international supporters, in turn, have been pushing the envelope by organizing campaigns such as the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and the annual efforts to help Palestinian farmers harvest olives while under threat of vigilante attacks by Israeli colonists in the West Bank.
Inspired by the seafaring example of the Gaza flotilla, activists are now turning to the air. In July 2011 several hundred activists collaborated on a "flytilla" campaign, flying to Tel Aviv and announcing their intention to visit Palestine. Many were arrested and deported, while others, thanks to the cooperation of airlines with Israeli authorities, never made it to Tel Aviv in the first place. Undeterred, activists are now planning the Welcome to Palestine 2012 campaign.
Israel's right-wing colonialist government will undoubtedly redouble its efforts to fortify its defenses against the "threat" of nonviolent activism and to paint the activists as supporters of "terrorism." As is the case with so much of the public debate over Israel/Palestine, however, one can sense the Israeli state losing control of the narrative by the minute.