Denied Entry: Israel Blocks American Muslims from Visit to Holy Sites

Article excerpt

Margaret Zaknoen is director of programs of American Muslims for Jerusalem . She accompanied the delegation on its trip.

The ad reads: "Show your solidarity in support of Israel on a mission that includes briefings by political leaders, solidarity concerts, solidarity visits...Our presence is our strongest affirmation of our commitment to Israel." It runs regularly in the Forward, a leading American Jewish newspaper. Those who sign up for this trip probably do not spend much time wondering what will happen at the airport. They most likely debate the wisdom of traveling to Israel these days, then pack their bags and look forward to the trip of a lifetime. They are Americans, after all, and Jewish at that. They will be welcomed upon arrival and whisked away to affirm their commitment to Israel with their presence.

As you might imagine, preparing for a trip to the holy land is a bit different for American Muslims. American Muslims for Jerusalem (AMJ), a Washington, DC-based advocacy group, organized a "Peace through Understanding" delegation in June. The trip was intended to offer American Muslims the chance to visit Jerusalem and pray in al-Aqsa, one of Islam's holiest sites; to affirm our commitment to the holy city with our presence. And, yes, to show solidarity with Palestinian Muslims and Christians in symbolic ways like joining in clearing the rubble of bombed-out office buildings from their streets. The trip was also intended to educate delegates about the work being done, by both Palestinians and Israelis, to achieve a just and lasting peace.

The delegates--17 Muslims and three non-Muslims, all American citizens--were prepared to spend hours at Ben-Gurion airport answering grueling questions and having their bags searched. They knew there was a chance they would not be allowed to enter. By that time, Israel already had turned away hundreds of humanitarian workers, not to mention the U.S.-sanctioned U.N. fact-finding mission investigating the Israeli invasion of Jenin.

Nevertheless, the group traveled with a bit of faith that, as American citizens with an open agenda of peace through understanding, they would be allowed in. Another American delegation had just entered the previous day with a nearly identical itinerary. Why should our trip be different?

It began at Newark airport. We gathered near the ticket counter some of the women in hijab, men with beards. We were an identifiably Muslim group. Within minutes the Continental Airlines security agent approached us. He identified himself as an Israeli, asked for a copy of our schedule and wanted to know who we were and why we wanted to visit Israel. "You can understand," he said, "people like you raise questions."

"People like us?" we asked. "Who, African Americans, lawyers, university professors, Lutheran pastors?" Our group was all those things, and more.

"You know what I mean," he said. And we did.

For no other reason than that we also were mostly Muslim, we were treated as criminals in Israel, and left Ben-Gurion airport eight hours after arriving, with "denied entry" stamped in our American passports. So much for being citizens of Israel's most generous patron and devoted protector.

Israel's exclusionary policies in Jerusalem are well documented. Since March 1993, when Israel imposed a "closure" on Jerusalem, the Jewish state has prevented Palestinian Muslims and Christians from entering the holy city without special permits that are nearly impossible to obtain. While millions of Christians from around the world are able to visit Jerusalem, Palestinian Christians living a few kilometers away may not. In the last decade, notes Israeli journalist Danny Rubinstein, "there has not been a single case in which a Muslim from Gaza requesting a permit to pray in Jerusalem has received one."

To squeeze the non-Jewish population out of Jerusalem, Israeli authorities routinely subject Palestinians in Arab East Jerusalem to forced expulsions, home demolitions, land confiscation, ethnic segregation and seizure of identity papers. …