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An Anthropological Experience in Israeli Detention


When a few pretty young women (from Russia or Ukraine) wound up in the detention cells at Ben-Gurion Airport, the guards of the Population, Immigration and Border Authority allowed Kamil Qandil and other detainees to join them for some fresh air in the yard three times a day. The women were not wearing brassieres, which Qandil realized had attracted the guards’ attention. They said they were dancers, and Qandil does not know why they were prevented from entering Israel. Once the women had left, the guards were not as generous: they allowed the detainees to go outside, briefly, only once a day.

Qandil, a Polish citizen, was in the airport detention facility for ten days, by choice. When he was denied entry into Israel and the West Bank, he decided to appeal to the district court and then to the Supreme Court instead of getting on the next plane to Warsaw (“Israel refuses to let Polish aid worker back into country,” September 9, 2013). The Israeli authorities did not tell him or his attorneys the “security-related reasons” why he was being denied re-entry after he had already stayed in Israel on a work permit for about three months and went to Warsaw for several days for a friend’s wedding. Long live ambiguity.

Setting aside his discomfort, tension and sorrow at being cut off from his work, the detention was an anthropological experience for the 23-year-old aid worker and a peek into the Israeli Interior Ministry’s back yard.

The detainees came and went. Those who were forbidden entry immediately upon landing waited for the next plane back, while others were brought to the detention facility from within Israel. Segregation was maintained on an ethno-geographic basis. Qandil was imprisoned with citizens of Eastern European countries. Some were forbidden entry because they did not have enough money. One sailor who had a visa allowing him to work at the Tel Aviv Port had gotten drunk on the plane. One Romanian Orthodox priest was refused entry after having visited Israel as a tourist five times. He had hidden a simple cellular telephone (without a camera or Internet connection) in his robes and called his bishop. Another detainee who refused entry was a Palestinian from the United States: the Interior Ministry would not allow him to go to his parents’ home in the West Bank, and he was put on a plane to Amman.

Qandil was placed in one of the five detention cells on the first floor. He does not know how many detention cells are on the second floor. People brought from detention inside Israel, facing deportation, including one Russian woman and two Eritreans, stayed on the ground floor. Sometimes he was alone in his cell for hours at a time, and sometimes he was with five other people who had been refused entry.

Some stayed for several hours and left, while others stayed for two or three days.

The food was always the same: a baguette with cheese and olives or sausage in the morning. Lunch was rice, chicken and some vegetables, sometimes with a plum or apple, but not every day. Another baguette in the evening. Every cell got tea and one pitcher of water every day. Sometimes he had to knock on the door for several hours to get the water (they were told that the water from the faucet was not potable).

The guards were Jews, Druze and Bedouin. “Some of them were nice and generous behaved as employees giving service. Others acted like masters, not nice, as if they wanted to show who had the power,” Qandil told me in Warsaw last week, three days after he was flown back to Poland on September 12.

The only three visits he had were from the Polish consuls and his attorney. Back in Warsaw, he chain-smoked to make up for the fact that smoking was not allowed in the detention facility. Nor had he been allowed to have a cellphone. He was allowed, though, to take books from the suitcase that was kept outside the cell. He began reading David Grossman’s novel “To the End of the Land.” Among the other books he read were “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera, a collection of essays by Warsaw Ghetto fighter Marek Edelman and Wojciech Jagielski’s chronicle of his visits to Afghanistan, “Praying for Rain,” which contains the story of a village dependent on rainfall for its survival.

The title of Jagielski’s book matched the project funded by the Polish foreign ministry that Qandil had come to work on in June: the reconstruction of ancient cisterns in the south Hebron hills to enable rainwater collection in West Bank villages. The project, together with several journalistic-diplomatic uproars surrounding it, raised awareness in Poland about the institutional discrimination regarding water distribution between Israelis and Palestinians.

He eventually withdrew his appeal against deportation on the advice of Supreme Court justices. A complete withdrawal of the appeal, as opposed to its rejection by the court, theoretically would increase his chances of being allowed back into Israel in a year.

His entry denial, which ruined his work plans, also cut him off from the friends he had made. Now, back in Warsaw, he realized that he is no stranger to the feeling of displacement. Both his parents’ families lost their homes as a result of the large waves of forced expulsions in the 20th century. His mother’s family came from the Polish areas that were annexed to the Soviet Union after World War Two. Together with roughly another million and a half Poles, her family was expelled to the German territories that had been annexed to Poland. His father was born in Jordan to a family of refugees that had been expelled from the Palestinian village of Dayr Tarif (today Beit Arif) in 1948. His parents met in medical school in Warsaw.

Although Qandil speaks very little Arabic and grew up in a Polish Christian culture, he was treated as a Palestinian while he was in the West Bank. As he told me, he understood from the simple, ordinary people he met and worked with in the Palestinian villages that “they truly want peace; they want to live in dignity and study, toil their land, use and develop their abilities and live in just co-existence.”

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