Four Trinity medical students were refused entry to Palestine’s West Bank this summer, Trinity News has learned. The two male and two female students, who have asked to remain anonymous, returned to Dublin in July after being detained for questioning in Tel Aviv. They were due to travel to the West Bank with Medical Overseas Voluntary Electives (MOVE), a Trinity-based charity that facilitates third year students wishing to complete a one-month placement abroad during the summer.
The students had intended to carry out their placement in the Al Hussein Hospital in Beit Jala, a suburb of Bethlehem located in the West Bank. The hospital is run by the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund (PCRF), a charity which, according to their website, hosts “volunteer teams of surgeons and other medical personnel to treat patients and train professionals at local hospitals in the Middle East.” Our source explained that, prior to their trip, the four students contacted the PCRF about completing their elective with them and they agreed to take them on for placement. In the months leading up to their departure, the students worked with MOVE to raise funds for the hospital in Beit Jala.
Arriving in Tel Aviv on 1st July, the students were stopped by airport customs officers who queried the purpose of their trip. “We told the truth,” our source said. In a letter to the students, seen by Trinity News, the PCRF confirmed that they were coming as a “non-political humanitarian relief group.” According to our source, he and his fellow students believed this would be sufficient proof of their motives. He said that it was routine practice for the PCRF to have foreign surgeons or doctors visit the hospital to carry out procedures or train the local staff.
However, the letter “aroused suspicion” among the customs officers and the students were led away for questioning. “We were put into a side room,” he said. “We probably spent about an hour in there. And we were called one by one for five to 10 minutes each just to give our details, our name, address, phone numbers, what our purpose was, what our parents’ names were and then we were sent back to the room.”
The volunteers were then led into a second waiting room, where one of the male students was taken away and questioned individually for, our source estimated, “45 minutes to an hour.” According to our source, this student was seated in a room with a two-way mirror and was subject to aggressive questioning with “a camera in his face.” His interrogator identified himself as an employee of the Ministry of the Interior and told the student that he was a “human lie detector.”
The student was questioned extensively about how the members of the group knew each other, his personal views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, their purpose for travelling to the West Bank and why they had chosen to volunteer in Palestine instead of in an Israeli hospital. Our source said the interrogator “wanted to know everything about me… what my parents do, if I am a member of any anti-democratic groups, and whether I was politically active… what my hobbies were.” The official tried to “get us to admit that we were going to Gaza, which of course we weren’t. You can’t get into Gaza via Israel – the border’s closed. You’d have to go via Egypt. We’d no intention of going to Gaza… He was just trying to provoke us, just trying to make us say something incriminating so that he could deport us.”
The reason behind this treatment became clearer to the volunteers when the official told them that the three Israeli teenagers who had been kidnapped in the West Bank on 12th June had been found dead just hours before their flight had landed. “That kind of explained why we were treated like that, there was a heightened tension and the man was quite obviously very emotional and passionate. He had obviously been affected by it,” our source said.
Eventually, the official told them that he did not want to deport them and that instead he would give them a one-week visitor permit for Israel, under the strict conditions that they would not enter the West Bank or separate as a group. He went on to stipulate that the students would not be allowed back into the country for a year and that if ever they did return to Israel it could be for tourism only and not for volunteer work.
On being let through to the arrivals lounge, our source told us of how he and his fellow volunteers “sat around… trying to decide what to do.” They sought help from the Irish Embassy, who made an appeal to the minister of the interior on their behalf and organised accommodation for them. By Thursday 3rd July, having heard nothing back from the minister and, realising that a response was unlikely over the weekend, they decided to return home with their elective unfulfilled, arriving back in Dublin the following day.
Reflecting on the experience, our source explained that he felt they had simply tried to enter the West Bank at an unfortunate time. “He was trying to make out that we were wrong to go to the West Bank,” he said of his interrogator, “I think if we had arrived a few weeks earlier before those boys had been kidnapped then it wouldn’t have been a problem… even if we had arrived the day before.”
In previous years, other third year medical students have successfully volunteered in the West Bank and were successful, our source explained. “We didn’t expect it at all based on the experience of the people who had gone before,” they said. All four students managed to find alternative placements in Ireland on their return.