January 23, 2011
Posted: 719 GMT
It's an experience I had heard described dozens of times before; a frequent occurrence for Palestinians and an unwelcome rite of passage for some members of the international media covering the Middle East conflict.
But if I thought during my four-and-a-half years serving as CNN's Jerusalem bureau chief I had dodged this particular indignity, I was wrong.
"I need you to take off your sweater and your shirt," came the request from the man on the other side of the glass.
I was in a small fluorescent lit, concrete-walled room with a large picture window. The floor was comprised of a metal grating revealing another dank concrete room below.
Behind the glass sat a casually dressed man who appeared to be in his mid-twenties. He spoke to me through a microphone.
"Take your clothes off and put them in the container behind you," he told me in Hebrew-accented English.
I stood motionless in the bleak room in a state of shock.
I knew exactly what was happening, but it was still difficult to believe – I was being strip-searched.
Earlier that morning, a CNN cameraman and I had driven south from Jerusalem to the Israel – Gaza border to a location known as the Erez terminal. Erez is one of the few crossing points between Israel and the Palestinian territory of Gaza and it is the dedicated location for all non-Israelis, including Palestinians, to enter and leave the Gaza Strip.
We made our way into Gaza without incident and spent the next five hours conducting interviews for a story about disaffected Palestinian youth before we made our way back to the border crossing.
While traversing the long, fenced walkway that leads from the blighted Palestinian side of the border to the Israeli terminal building, my colleague took the opportunity to videotape our walk and the large concrete barrier wall in the distance that marks the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip.
After crossing through a series of gates, sliding metal doors, and concrete barriers reminiscent of a dystopian science-fiction film, we made our way inside the terminal building.
Inside, a Palestinian porter helped us empty our bags of equipment for scanning. Watching from a glass window two-stories above were a handful of Israeli security officials.
At this point in the crossing process we entered what I like to call "the maze" – a series of futuristic-looking glass and metal doors arranged in a labyrinth pattern which leads to a full body scanning machine.
Directing us at each step were the disembodied voices of Israeli security personnel speaking to us via intercom from their observation booth above.
After being asked to take multiple different poses within body scanning machine, we were then directed to another door which lead to a small waiting room.
I was then summoned to what I will forever call the concrete room of shame.
After recovering from my shock at the instruction to undress, I quickly became angry. I could feel the indignation spreading through my body.
Controlling my growing hostility, I stripped down to my boxers and asked disdainfully whether he needed to see everything. The man behind the glass said I could stand as is and then he opened a large metal door. He entered with a large bearded security official holding an automatic weapon at his side.
He proceeded to wand my body with handheld scanner, while guard looked on.
"You needed to bring this guy in to keep you safe?" I asked the inspector, in a weak effort to hide my embarrassment.
I am not normally shy nor modest, but the humiliation I felt at this moment was total. I was powerless and knew it. Nothing I could do or say was going to stop this search from happening and if I protested, things were only going to be worse.
In an instant I could empathize with everyone who had ever told me their tales of humiliation at being subjected to a strip search.
I put my clothes back on and waited while my cameraman was subjected to the same inspection.
They then searched our bags.
While that inspection was going on, I asked why we were strip searched. A security officer told me it was because they saw us filming in the walkway which was considered a sensitive area. I responded that we had videotaped there many times before and that if it were so sensitive wouldn't it make sense to put up signs warning people not to take photographs? He had no answer to that question and walked away.
Inexplicably they did not ask to see our video of the allegedly sensitive area.
Had all of this happened in a vacuum I think I would have chalked it up as an unfortunate event – one of those isolated incidents better forgotten.
But unfortunately, strip searches of journalists seem to becoming common. At a New Year reception hosted for the international press by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, several journalists were strip-searched as they entered the David Citadel Hotel, and according to the Tel Aviv based Foreign Press Association forced to remove their underwear, while waiting as long as 20 minutes for security to check their documents.
"Others, including the bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal were strip-searched and forced to take off their pants" read a statement of protest released by the Foreign Press Association after the event.
"While we appreciate the need for security, it is not remotely acceptable to invite people for cocktails at a five-star hotel and make them undress at the door" the statement went on.
The new head of the Government Press Office in Israel, Oren Helman, expressed “regret that journalists left the GPO annual cocktail reception feeling that they were treated in an unbecoming way manner by security”
The government agency charged with providing security for the prime minister, the Shin Bet, said in a statement that everyone invited to the event was checked “in keeping with the accepted security procedures for such an event”
The incident touched a nerve in the journalistic community and also prompted a debate within Israel about how and when strip searches are used and raised discomforting questions about who is subjected to them the most.
Glenys Sugarman, the executive secretary of the Foreign Press Association said the organization has seen a recent increase in the number of journalists reporting that they have been strip searched and that it was a worrying trend.
It is of course easy for journalists to sometimes become sanctimonious about the way we are treated by the authorities, but it is not unrealistic to expect that the use of such an invasive and humiliating procedure should be used sparingly and judiciously – no matter who is being searched.
While I made clear at the time my unhappiness about my own strip search at the border crossing, I have not yet filed a formal complaint. I was strip searched just once. Humiliating enough, but for many crossing the border, it is a routine fact of life.
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