Borders, Middle East, Migration Report From the Road: Borders and Boundaries with Michael Kenwick

August 13, 2019
By Michael Kenwick | Borders and Boundaries Project, Perry World House

Borders and Boundaries seeks to understand the multiple significances of boundaries, including those designated as state authority, security buffers, expressions of social meaning, and opportunities for economic integration. The Borders and Boundaries project hopes to contextualize border architecture, infrastructure, and institutions as expressions of social, political, and economic anxieties associated with globalization. As part of this project, Dr. Kenwick traveled to Israel to present research and explore border security policy firsthand.

Israel has a unique relationship with its borders, which have existed in a state of flux since the nation’s inception. Its “internal” borders with Palestine, both along the West Bank and the Gaza strip, are among the most contentious in world politics.  What is it like for an outsider to cross these borders? As a post-doctoral fellow of the Borders and Boundaries team, I recently visited Israel to find out.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, visitors to Israel can expect more rigorous screening than is typically experienced when traveling abroad.  The process begins on U.S. soil. Israeli citizens working with El Al airways ask a battery of questions, some common for international travel, some not.  How did you get to the airport?  Have you let your bags out of sight since packing? Can you speak Hebrew? None? Do you have any Arab friends? I see you traveled to China; why? What will you be doing in Israel? Presenting research? On what? It is best not to answer the last question with “border security.” Doing so leads to a special invitation for additional screening and searches prior to departure.  Though the sample was small, the group receiving additional screening appeared to be disproportionately composed of individuals in their twenties, perhaps the most likely demographic of would-be militants. Throughout the process, the El Al personnel remain courteous and professional, but rigidly concerned with completing all manner of checks.

Once completed, travelers are provided an entry permit and removable sticker for their passport—the latter used in lieu of a passport stamp after a variety of rival countries began banning entry to individuals who have traveled to Israel. After arriving in Israel, the screening process begins again before passengers are allowed to retrieve their now thoroughly inspected luggage.

Outside of airports, Israel has also built extensive filtering infrastructure along their borders with Palestine.  In our travels, we crossed these borders twice, once entering the West Bank from Ein Gedi along the Dead Sea, and again when re-entering Israeli territory in Jerusalem.  Our experience at both crossings was similar—each checkpoint contained a covered gate straddling the road, accompanied by pull-off inspection facilities, and booths manned by heavily armed members of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF).  Everywhere Israeli flags were prominently displayed.

Crossing the checkpoint was tense, yet we passed unencumbered.  The IDF members quickly glanced at the individuals in each car but did not require us to stop and there was no inspection of our passports or vehicle. The procedure was remarkably similar at both crossings, which were differentiated only through the volume of traffic heading through each.

Would Palestinians be given the same treatment? It is difficult to say with certainty, but our experience at the checkpoint outside Ben Gurion airport may be telling.  While other cars passed freely, our cab was pulled aside as it approached their airport entrance. We were asked for passports and were treated to another barrage of questions about our travel. We asked our cab driver whether this was unusual and he said that, for him, it was not.  I noticed earlier during our ride that his cell phone operated in Arabic script, and his ethnicity may have been otherwise discernable to the security agents. It seems that profiling in Israel does not carry the same negative connotations it does in the United States.

Overall, the story of border security in Israel is one of capacity, commitment, and capability.  Movement into Israel by air required careful and extensive screening. Yet within the West Bank relatively free movement appears to prevail, if only for the moment.  Everywhere, the built environment reminds travelers that they move across the borders under the demonstrated authority of the Israeli state.  These structures and procedures act as a spigot, capable of filtering or stopping movement altogether during times of strife.  Until those times, life carries on along the West Bank’s borders under the watchful eye of the IDF.