How Israel Expelled Me, a German Ph.D. Student, for Something I Had No Intention of Doing

At Ben-Gurion Airport they yelled at us and threatened us as we were accused of ‘planned participation in human rights demonstrations’ – something that should be allowed in a democratic country anyway

On November 27, my colleague Belén and I were denied entry to Israel. The official reason: “prevention of illegal immigration considerations.” The allegation: participation in human rights demonstrations. The consequences: expulsion back to Germany and, according to our Israeli lawyers, an implicit five-year travel ban to Israel. We’re now taking legal action to appeal this decision, and I’d like to tell my side of the story.

My name is Sarah, I’m a researcher in human-computer interaction at the University of Siegen in western Germany. I am 28 years old and am working toward my Ph.D.; my research focuses on digitalization processes in nonurban areas. I am German with no other ethnic background, at least none that I am aware of.

Despite the accusations by Israeli intelligence, my colleague and I had no plans to take part in human rights demonstrations. Instead, the main purpose of our visit was for Belén to get to know the country and visit tourist sites, as she is a new member of our research group, which cooperates with Birzeit University in the occupied West Bank. Also, I was planning to introduce her to our local research partners.

In contrast to Belén, who had never been to Israel or the Palestinian territories, I have traveled there several times in recent years for my research, starting in 2015. This trip would have been my eighth time.

Now, after Israel reopened its borders, I wanted to take the opportunity to visit research partners and friends, and also to introduce our new Paraguayan colleague Belén to the university staff with whom my university had collaborated for years. This would have been Belén’s first visit of the region.

I, on the other hand, had spent hours at Ben-Gurion Airport before. I knew what it feels like being asked whom I was visiting, and being told to list the names of family members or addresses I would be staying at. I always replied honestly, I never had anything to hide, not this time either. But this time everything turned out different.

After landing at Ben-Gurion Airport, Belén and I headed toward the area where arrivals usually receive their visas. Both of us handed our passports to the woman at the desk; it worked for me, but not for Belén. Instead of giving her the visa, the woman withheld Belén’s Paraguayan passport until a man arrived and asked her to come with him. I didn’t want to leave my colleague alone and decided to join them.

It was Belén’s first time in such a situation. I told her to relax, everything would go well. The man took Belén into a small room a few meters ahead of the baggage claim. I decided to make use of the time and got in line at the final passport control, my visa in my hands. But before it was my turn, a security officer picked me out from the line and asked me about my visit and previous visits. He handed me the pass to go through the gate. I was cleared and allowed to enter Israel. What a relief.

But about 10 minutes later I received a phone call from Belén. Apparently her interrogation was taking longer than expected. I decided to return. And that’s when it started.

For two and a half to three hours, Belén and I were aggressively interrogated by a male interrogator and sometimes two, always separately. By that point, Belén had already had to hand over her phone to let the interrogator check her social media accounts and contact list, looking for Israeli phone numbers. It seems that not being active on social media made her an even worse suspect. She had already been called a liar and a potential security threat.

The questions were mostly about volunteering and taking part in human rights demonstrations. Toward the end of the interrogations, we each had our photo taken and our index fingers scanned. Nobody told us that we could refuse, nobody informed us of our rights.

Eventually, we received a document stating “prevention of illegal immigration considerations” as the reason for denial of entry. We then waited five more hours without being offered drinks or food and without any further information on the next steps, until an immigration officer picked us up and escorted us to a security check of our carry-ons and some more questioning before being sent back five hours later.

‘International security risk’

I’m reasonably tall at 1.75 meters (5 feet, 9 inches), but sitting outside the interrogation room and hearing the interrogator yelling at my colleague and threatening her, I felt small, defeated and desperate. In all honesty, I was miserable. Of course, being interrogated isn’t a comfortable situation to be in. But this time was different. We weren’t planning to take part in human rights demonstrations. We weren’t planning to “volunteer” – whatever that would be, as the interrogator couldn’t elaborate.

The interrogator threatened us with “a 10-year travel ban and being marked as an international security risk.” Somehow, despite knowing that this was only a threat, the prospect was terrifying. One interrogator kept yelling at us as they kept calling us liars.

It was like a movie, but more real and far more scary. We found ourselves captive in a game of good cop/bad cop, along the lines of now that the interrogator and I were friends, I could simply tell the truth and he couldn’t help me if I kept on lying. They even tried pitting us against each other, saying the other had confessed and we could stop lying now as they already knew. I also had to hand over my phone to let the interrogators scan my Facebook feed.

Implausible grounds

We were being held for interrogation, and we were being threatened. We were accused of human rights activism. My visa was revoked. We were deported back to Germany.

Reflecting on the incident now, I try to put what happened to us into perspective. What grounds was this decision based on? We weren’t trying to illegally immigrate; our flights back to Germany were booked for December 14. Neither were we planning to take part in human rights demonstrations. But, even if that had been our plan, would that be reprehensible in a democratic country?

Not having an airport or control over the borders of their territory, the Palestinians are dependent on the Israeli entry regulations. It’s the Israelis, not the Palestinians, who get to decide who is allowed to visit Palestinians or not, who gets to collaborate with Palestinian universities or not. In our case, meeting with our Palestinian research partners was denied, based on absurd reasons.

Being denied entry to Israel and hence the Palestinian territories always seemed like a myth, at least something that certainly wouldn’t happen to me. I was proved wrong. 

I still haven’t digested the humiliating way I was treated at Ben-Gurion Airport. To me, the accusation of “planned participation in human rights demonstrations” to deny someone entry into a democratic country is outrageous.

At the moment I still can’t tell if and how the academic cooperation between my university and Birzeit University can continue if physical meetings remain impossible. 

Sarah Rueller is a researcher at the University of Siegen in Germany. She has taken part in various research projects in the West Bank, with topics including computer-supported collaborative learning, social and bottom-up innovation, and entrepreneurship in the STEM fields. The funding agencies are the German Foreign Ministry, the Education and Research Ministry, the German Academic Exchange Service and the European Union’s Erasmus+ program.