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“You are not wanted here”

Pippa Bartolotti writes about her experience of the Gaza "Flytilla" on 7 July when solidarity activists flew to Israel to attempt to openly visit Palestine.

The grating sound of metal on metal as the reverberating CLANNGGG of the heavy prison doors closing on you for the first time cannot be forgotten. The smell of prison; the malicious looks of the guards; the claustrophobic feeling of a cell which distorts your intestines and bleaches your thoughts bare before you even see it.

“I am here for no reason. I have not been charged with anything. Does anyone know I am here?”

My crime was to say I was going to Bethlehem. There were 11 of us on the Easyjet flight from Luton, and we were all to be incarcerated in Givon Jail, Ramla, about 30 km south east of Tel Aviv.

The press dubbed it the “flightilla”, and Netanyahu had unilaterally announced we were hooligans and dangerous provocateurs about to undertake violent demonstrations against Israel. In reality we were a bunch of middle aged men and women who had been invited by 14 Palestinian civil society groups to join them in a cultural tour, which would include theatre and arts groups dedicated to helping young people to live under occupation and channelling their energies towards passive resistance. To me this way of dealing with the psychology of living under an apartheid system was important and fascinating, and I was eager to learn more.

But we were branded as radicals and this motley crew of people from around the world were suddenly an attack on the very existence of Israel – without a shed of evidence. Some of our party were interrogated by British forces at Luton airport. They were accused of lying when they said they were not going to demonstrate.

Watching the story unfold from the safety of my home in Wales, filled me with incredulity. The flotilla to Gaza had been delayed by many weeks, and boats were still trying to get through as we packed our bags. Netanyahu, in his hysterical attack on everyone entering Israel had whipped the press into a frenzy of ill feeling towards us. It was amusing to see how the facts of our trip were being so grossly distorted, but I should have taken it more seriously.

In fact I, alone, was the one whose passport was stamped by Israeli passport control to go through to Israel and, as I declared, Bethlehem. I waited alone for others to join me, but to my surprise none did. I was in touch by mobile with those who had been delayed and they said that about 40 people of all nationalities were being held in a room in the basement of Ben Gurion airport, and the Israeli security seemed to be deciding what to do with them. Cameras had been rigged up and were filming. Suddenly I received a text. It was from Joyce Giblin, a fellow Newport resident. It said: “We are being attacked. GET HELP”.

I looked around. The airport was almost empty, a few uniformed people were milling around and I tried to enlist their help. They stalled. I asked another bunch of people and they stalled too. I showed them the text and tried to explain the situation. No-one was interested. In the far corner of the large arrivals hall I espied 2 TV cameras. Boldly I approached then to enlist some help. They were not interested. Eventually I found that though they filmed me, my words were mistranslated when the piece was broadcast. I tried to show them my mobile with the text message. One camera found me interesting, so thinking this was at least some insurance, I strode back through the doors into the airport, banging the doors open with my suitcase as I went.

The security guards shooed the journalists away, and to my horror they meekly obeyed. This left me alone and vulnerable and I knew it. When the doors were closed behind me, a large man made a grab for my mobile. I was asking for help at the time and was unprepared for this. My reaction was to hold onto what was mine. With my suitcase in one hand, two shoulder bags, and my phone in my hand I tried to stay on my feet as a struggle ensued, 4 men and one woman fought me. A hand was held to my throat, my arms were battered, my legs were pulled from under me and I landed face down on the hard floor. Air escaped from my body as the full weight of a 6’3 man weighing at least 17 stone landed on the small of my back. I am a 57 year old woman! The mobile clattered in pieces to the floor and my arms were pulled roughly behind me, my wrists roughly handcuffed.

The following hours were interesting. I was told I was being taken to see my friends, but instead I was taken to an interrogation room where uniformed people sneered and jeered at me whilst some paperwork was devised, which I was asked to sign. Of course it was written in Hebrew and of course I refused to sign it. Next they told me I was being taken to my friends, but instead I was taken to a ladies cloakroom where about 15 women continued to try and humiliate me with snide remarks (you don’t have to know the language) and where my luggage was ransacked.

Finally they said I was being taken to my hotel, which I thought was strange because I had not booked one. I was unceremoniously put in a compartmentalised police van and shut in for one and a half hours without food, water or opportunity to visit a toilet. Through the narrow metal grating which served as a window, I could observe uniformed people smoking and laughing. A woman towards the back of the van was shouting she needed a toilet. This provoked yet more laughing.

An uncomfortable ride of about half an hour revealed my hotel. Razor wire, gates, shouting, shoving. One tall man got mad at me when I said I was legally in Israel and was being held without charge. I asked to make a phone call. I asked to see the British consulate. He clenched his fists and shouted at the top of his voice. “WE DON’T WANT YOU HERE. WE DON’T CARE IF YOU ARE LEGAL OR ILLEGAL. WE DON’T WANT YOU HERE”.

I was shown to a solitary cell and refused to enter. They promised violence. I stood my ground. Finally at 2.00am I was taken to a cell with five other women, and there we languished for five days. I was never allowed to make my phone call. Our conversations with The British Consul were recorded.

I have never been charged with any crime. There is no paperwork to say if I was deported or expelled. I am not sure if I will be allowed to enter Israel or Palestine again.

 

Pippa Bartolotti is involved in the Wales Peace Institute, the Green Party and is a solidarity activist