“Your blood isn’t German, right? Your blood is Palestinian.” That was the fourth question that a Shin Bet security service interrogator asked Nadim Sarrouh, a 34-year-old German citizen. The first question was whether his wife is pregnant. When he said she wasn’t, the interrogator said with a little smile: “Okay, so she is fine, waiting in the heat.” That was around noon, with the temperature about 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit), at the Rabin border crossing in the Arava.
Sarrouh, his wife, Venus Ayoub, her parents, two brothers and sister had returned to Israel from a short trip to Jordan. Ayoub and her family, all of them Israeli citizens and residents of the Galilee village of Jish, had already gone through border control. Only Sarrrouh’s passport wasn’t returned. After waiting for 45 minutes under the awning, a woman in civilian clothing – who would be one of the two female Shin Bet agents who interrogated him – asked him to enter one of the booths at the border crossing.
Sarrouh and Ayoub decided to tell Haaretz what happened to them at the border crossing for two reasons: because of the wave of reports about brief detentions and questioning of a political nature at the crossings, and because Sarrouh has visited Israel many times since he first entered in 2000, and is accustomed to short detentions and questioning. In December 2014 he was even detained at the airport for seven hours, although he was questioned for only 10 minutes. But he said he has never been treated and interrogated as he was on August 11, 2018.
In the room, behind a computer, sat the border inspector, wearing a uniform. In the presence of the Shin Bet investigator, who sat next to Sarrouh, she politely asked him the questions he is always asked: Where are you from (Berlin), what’s your father’s name, where and when was he born (in Haifa, 1940, and was expelled with his family to Lebanon in 1948, and in 1968 went to study in Berlin and settled there), who are the people you’re with (Ayoub and her family), what do you plan to do in Israel, when will you be leaving, and so on.
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After 10 minutes the Shin Bet interrogator – who didn’t identify herself, didn’t give her name and looked about 30 years old – got up and started questioning him. “She started by asking where I am from. I said I am from Germany. She asked me where I am really from. I said, I was born in Berlin, Germany, have a German passport and no other and am thus a German citizen.”
And then came her questions about his blood, Palestinian or German. He replied: “I don’t know about that, but if my blood is anything, it’s probably also Polish.” His mother is a Polish woman who was born in Germany.
The Shin Bet investigator continued with her unexpected questions: “‘Do you know, that you are a refugee?’ He replied that he isn’t a refugee. “But yes, you’re a refugee,” she insisted. “Don’t you know that the UN considers you, like any other descendant of Arabs from this area as Palestinian refugees? No other people in the world keep their refugee status, after becoming citizens of another country, but the Palestinians, yes.’”
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Sarrouh’s family is Christian. Unlike Muslim Palestinians, Christian Palestinians who found themselves in Lebanon in 1948 because of the war, or who were expelled, became Lebanese citizens, so they didn’t receive refugee status. The Sarrouh family is from the Maronite village of Kafr Bir’im, as is his wife’s family. In November 1948, after the occupation of the village, its residents, including the Sarrouh family, were expelled to the other side of the border.
Others remained near the village, hiding in the caves. Israel promised them that they would be allowed to return after two weeks, and that meanwhile they should go to Jish. The Ayoub family was among them. But they weren’t allowed to return, and in 1953 Israel blew up their houses. Young Venus and Nadim married about a year and a half ago, among the ruins of the village. He has a doctorate in computer sciences and works as director of operations in a computer games company, but he also plays the oud and is a martial arts instructor. She is a graduate of the faculty of architecture at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and is now working on her master’s degree in urban planning in Berlin.
The investigator asked him his opinion regarding Gaza. “I told her that I don’t think that they should ask me about my political opinions in order to decide whether or not I’m allowed to enter,” he told Haaretz. Her reply was that “We can actually do anything. We are not Germany! We are not letting in refugees just like that, like your Merkel is doing! We check who we let in!” At that point, he said, she pointed to a large Israeli flag and said: “You see that? That means that you’re in Israel. It isn’t your country. You don’t belong here. We can detain you for a few days, decide whether or not to let you enter, and if you don’t like it - you can take your passport and return to Jordan.”
Because she insisted, he explained to her that Gaza is under an occupation and a blockade, in which a powerful occupier has been oppressing a defenseless population for decades. The interrogator replied: “We aren’t oppressing anyone. Hamas is oppressing your people.” He said that he disagreed, and she replied: “You can disagree with me, because we’re a free and democratic country.”
After the Shin Bet interrogator asked him in what way he’s active and how he supports the Palestinians and what his opinion is of Hamas and violence, the border control inspector took his phone and examined it, while writing names, numbers and comments in Hebrew on a piece of paper. Then the interrogator left.
After that, the border control inspector again asked him questions such as what he does in his free time in Berlin, what his profession is, and to which groups or organizations he is connected. He was then permitted to go outside without his passport, and his wife, who was waiting at the exit, says that he was petrified from shock and unable to speak. When he calmed down a bit, he told her only that it was “an entirely different level of interrogation” from what he was used to in the past.
About 20 minutes later he was called back into the room. The same border inspector was there, but there was a different Shin Bet interrogator, about 35-40 years old, a redhead with fair skin. She shouted a lot, he said, and told him that she’s called in “when something bad has happened. We know that you did something bad and you know it too, so the sooner you comply, the sooner this can be over. Don’t lie to us, because we already know everything anyway, and we can see when you lie too. We have a lot of video footage from you, we know where you went and what you did. We can also arrest your wife and your wife’s family and interrogate them,” he recalls her telling him.
Sarrouh told Haaretz that he was stunned by these words, and even almost burst out laughing when he heard the claim that he “did something bad.” Interrogator No. 2 asked the same questions as her predecessor, “but in a louder voice and more aggressively,” he said. She fired the questions one after another, and when he tried to answer, she repeatedly interrupted him without expecting an answer. She repeatedly said, “Don’t lie,” and “Don’t lie if you want to see your wife again.” When he said again that he wasn’t lying she said, “But let’s say we proved that you lied, you know what will happen to you?”
After she insisted that he answer, he replied that “you’ll probably ban my entry.” She asked him “For how long?” He preferred not to guess, she complained that he wasn’t cooperating, and he guessed, “Probably forever.” To which she replied: “No. Don’t exaggerate. For 15 years. After all, we’re a civilized country.”
When she heard that he plays the oud, she said, “Ah, that’s a unique instrument. That shows that you’re connected to your culture. And you still want to tell me that you’re not an activist?” When he told her that he’s a martial arts teacher and owner of a martial arts gym, she asked if he had taught Palestinians in the West Bank. He told her he hadn’t and she continued: “You’re a smart and successful person. You have a good job. How do you give back to your community?”
He didn’t understand, and she explained: “How do you give back socially, do you donate, do you do benefit concerts with your band, do you teach children in martial arts for free?” He replied that he didn’t except for some benefit concerts. “So you don’t give money to Gaza?” she asked, and when he said he doesn’t, she told him that he was lying and that she could see it in his body language.
“Why are you nervous?” she asked. And he replied, “Because you’re applying pressure. Because you’re in a position of power now, and if you were in my situation you’d be nervous too.” She also had an answer for that: “Maybe you’re nervous because you’re a criminal.”
In reply to her question, he told her that his family is Christian but he doesn’t consider himself a Christian. “That makes no difference,” she decided for him. “You’re a Christian.” She said a word in Arabic – he doesn’t speak Arabic – and he told her he didn’t understand. She started shouting at him, he said. She asked whether he knows that many Christians were expelled from Bethlehem in 2000.
“You don’t know? You post your articles on Facebook and call us the oppressor but you do not know about this? You are a Ph.D., right? You must be much cleverer than me. Your memory should be perfect, right? You cannot remember this? Don’t you have to know all the facts, before making an opinion?” recalled Sarrouh.
She also spoke about his “blood.” She didn’t believe him when he said that he doesn’t feel any special connection to Jerusalem, certainly not a religious one, and she told him that if he isn’t allowed to enter, it will be because of his actions and not his opinions. What actions, he asked. And she said: “Did you go to fight in Syria? Did your friends fight in Syria?” He said no, and she asked again about Gaza and his attitude towards Gaza. “Okay, you’re a smart guy with a Ph.D. What’s the solution for Gaza?” she asked. And they started a dead-end argument. When he fell silent, she asked him: “When did you last throw a stone at an Israeli,” and he burst out laughing.
At about 5:20 P.M. he received his passport and joined his family.
The Shin Bet spokesman’s office said that they “reject out of hand the claims of the above-mentioned about his treatment during his investigation at the border crossing, explaining that the interrogation is required in order for the Shin Bet to fulfill its role in safeguarding state security, and was conducted in a practical and professional manner, as required. It should be noted that the above-mentioned, a resident of Germany of Palestinian origin, refrained from cooperating throughout his investigation, behaving rudely and aggressively towards the security personnel. During his interrogation various findings aroused suspicion that he is involved in hostile activity and is connected to hostile organizations. At the conclusion of the security investigation he was allowed to enter Israel.”
Population, Immigration and Border Authority spokeswoman Sabine Haddad told Haaretz that the border control inspector saw fit to transfer Sarrouh for questioning by the security services. “We must mention that the Israeli traveler herself (his wife) and her family began to behave in a disorderly manner and accused the border inspector of being a ‘Nazi,’ until the manager of the crossing said he would summon police assistance.”
Ayoub told Haaretz that only after four hours of waiting and uncertainty, a verbal confrontation erupted between her father, age 59, and the border inspectors, who refused to answer his questions about his son-in-law. Ayoub said: “My father said, ‘You and the Nazis, where’s the difference?’ but that was said in a moment of fury and frustration. As a member of the Polish resistance, my husband’s grandfather was imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps, including Dachau, and we’re certainly aware of the horrors of the Holocaust.”
Sarrouh told Haaretz that in complete contradiction to the Shin Bet claims, he was polite, friendly and smiling throughout the interrogation, in order to communicate with the interrogators as human beings. “I ask myself why I didn’t protest immediately about their racist discourse and practice,” he said. “But they made it clear that they had the power, and I probably couldn’t really [protest] without taking a risk that I wouldn’t be allowed to join my family.”