Friday, August 31, 2007

Day 12: Nablus and Tulkarem

Saed arrives as we finish breakfast. He takes us to our last stop in Nablus- the cemetery. The first grave he shows us is the Shu'bi family's, whom I spoke about yesterday. Again we hear how they met their terrible end. The anger in Saed's voice is unmistakable, as he calls the Israeli soldiers cowards. I agree with his description- if they had any courage, they would have walked into the old city of Nablus, not bulldozed their way from one house to the next.

Walking through the graveyard is a gutwrenching experience. Two teenage brothers killed within months of each other. A mother and son buried next to each other. Row after row of children's graves, some of them infants. A deaf and mute man walking in the street, shot in the back by the Israelis. In all, Nablus has lost approximately 1000 people since the year 2000.

We finish at the grave of Saed's mother, Shaden abu-Hijleh. As he reads out the inscription bearing her name and date of martyrdom, his voice cracks. He manages to say to us, 'We Palestinians are not terrorists. We are peace-loving people. Our violence is born of desperation- the result of 60 years of Israeli oppression. And we feel that the world has abandoned us'.

I have managed to retain my composure throughout this trip. However as we take Saed's leave, this is no longer possible. After a tearful embrace, we part, promising to stay in touch. The others are overwhelmed by emotion as well.

Back at the hotel, we order a servees to take us to Tulkarem, our final stop in the West Bank. An Israeli soldier stops us at a checkpoint. After inspecting our passports, he asks me what the purpose of our visit is. 'We're a multifaith group visiting religious sites', I reply. 'Ok, have a nice day,' he says. I simply turn my face away. Has he ever wished a Palestinian a nice day?

In Tulkarem, we are received by Abd al-Karim Sa'adi, a Palestinian working for the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem. He takes us to meet the governor of Tulkarem, who again voices his helplessness and frustration at the continued harassment of his people by the Wall, the numerous checkpoints around the city, and the omnipresent soldiers. He reminds us that recently, the Israelis released 250 Palestinian prisoners- this was hailed in the world media as a great concession. However what escaped everyone's attention was that more than 300 others were arrested during the same period.

We then proceed to our lodgings for the night. One of our Palestinian friends in Manchester is from Tulkarem, and we are staying with his parents. Once again, we experience the Palestinian hospitality we have come to love- figs, fruit and mint tea. After a brief rest, it is time to hit the road again. Sa'adi takes us to Nazlat 'Isa, a nearby village. Driving through a residential neighbourhood, we notice that the street seems to come to an abrupt end in the distance. As we get a bit nearer, we see why. The hideous Wall goes across it, dividing the village into two.

And in Nazlat 'Isa, it has actually divided a house. I am not joking- the Wall goes through a house, dividing it into two. This has to be one of the most obscene things I have ever seen. The owner is a man called Abdul Haleem Ibrahim al-Hassan. His misery does not end here. The top two storeys have been occupied by the Israeli army, who have placed a rocket launcher on top. The soldiers enter and leave the house with impunity, using his doors and hallways. He had a freshwater well in his garden, which they have destroyed by pouring cement into it. The soldiers also use his electricity and water, for which he receives no payment. It is heartbreaking to hear him say, 'I don't mind them using my roof- but why don't they leave my house alone?' (The pictures of the house are taken from opposite sides of the Wall.)

Abdul's daughter and sister live next to him. But they might as well be in another country, as they are divided from him by the Wall. His land is also on the other side. To visit his family- and farm his land- he has to use an 'agricultural gate' in the Wall which is only open briefly on Thursdays. This gate is 30 km away. This man's story is well known; indeed, he tells us that the British ambassador was here recently. Pictures of his house have been splashed across various international magazines. Yet this outrageous situation continues.

We take his leave, filled with disbelief at what we have seen. We pass the market- or what used to be the market- of Nazlat 'Isa. In January 2003, 82 shops were razed to the ground by Israeli bulldozers in the space of a few hours. In August later that year, the remaining 100 shops were destroyed as well. When the villagers went to court, they were simply told that it was a 'mistake'. Needless to say, the Israelis did not rebuild the shops. The only thing that has been built here is the Wall. 203 Palestinians have land on the other side. They can only access it once a week, and are not allowed to use vehicles to bring their produce back. They must carry it in bags and buckets through a checkpoint. As you can imagine, most of the produce remains unharvested- that which is harvested remains unsold.

Sa'adi takes us to his house for the obligatory mineral water and mint tea. We talk for hours, then drive back to our hosts. While the others rest, I nip out with the father to a Palestinian takeaway- to get some freshly prepared hummus and falafel, fried in front of our eyes. When we return, the mother has laid out some salads and cold meats as well. A simple but absolutely mouthwatering feast.

After dinner we sit on the patio and drink more mint tea. The local International Solidarity Movement (ISM) coordinator pops in- he has heard that there are some visitors from Britain. He and our host talk about their experiences in Israeli prisons. You will find it hard to meet any Palestinian male who hasn't been to prison- in fact, it is almost a badge of honour. We listen for hours, fascinated. They show us the objects they made in prison to pass the time. Picture frames made out of the plastic of water bottles. An engraving of al-Aqsa on a stone.

The greatest treasure of all is a letter written by the husband to his wife. But this is no ordinary letter. The Israelis only allowed prisoners to write very brief letters, which would be inspected before being posted. The way people got round this was by writing in very small print on cigarette paper, which they would roll up and insert into a medicine capsule. Every time an inmate was released, he would swallow his fellow prisoners' capsules before leaving. You can imagine how the letters were retrieved! They were then given to the respective families.

If there is one thing I have enjoyed the most on this trip, it is talking to ordinary Palestinians. Everyone has a wealth of experience to share. And the hospitality extended by people we have never met before has been overwhelming. The thought that this is our last night in the West Bank is almost too much to bear. However, Jerusalem beckons tomorrow and we need to make an early start.

Tisbah ala-Khair. (Good night)

Day 11: Nablus

We wake up to the sound of an announcement from the mosque's loudspeaker. The staff at the hotel tell us that a man was shot and killed by the Israelis in Askar camp last night. Nablus is preparing to bury another martyr.

After breakfast, we are visited by some students- A, Y and S- from An-Najah. They are members of Zajel, the university's youth exchange programme. They have kindly volunteered to take us round the old city today.

The old city is a maze of narrow alleyways and colourful bazaars. Its layout makes it an ideal hiding place for resistance fighters. During the 2002 siege, the Israelis were determined to forge a path into the area. The story of how they did so is horrific.

On 6 April 2002, a D9 Israeli army bulldozer destroyed the house of the Shu'bi family- over their heads. Eight members of this family were killed- including 3 children, their pregnant mother and their 85-year-old grandfather. Y narrates how their cries of 'we're still in here' went unheeded. Their neighbour, Ahmed Fu'ad al-Najjar, came out of his house and pleaded with the soldier to let the family leave the house first. The soldier responded by firing at al-Najjar. Today, the site of the massacre is marked by a plaque with the names of the family. Visit for more details and a video.

Nablus is known for its Turkish baths, and we had the chance to visit one- one thousand years old! You can use a steam room, then receive a massage. There are separate days for men and women. Once you have had your bath, you can relax in the exquisitely decorated foyer. The Israelis did not even spare this historic place. However, the determined owner has single-handedly rebuilt the baths and they are functioning again today.

We make a brief stop to sample knafeh, a famed Nablusi sweet. If you are on a diet and wish to undo all your hard work, I invite you to sample this calorie-packed delicacy. It is cooked on huge platters- the bottom layer is cheese, which is topped with sugar-laden semolina. A few teaspoonfuls and you are full. Delicious.

As I said before, Nablus used to be the commercial centre of Palestine. One of its famous products was olive oil soap. We were taken to the site where an 800-year-old soap factory was decimated by F-16 bombers in 2002, to create another passage for the Israeli army into the old city.

The walls of old Nablus are pockmarked with innumerable bullet holes, bearing testimony to the terror the residents have lived through. There are posters of martyrs plastered everywhere. One which catches our eye is of 11-year-old Mahmoud Hamza Zaghloul, shot in his house on 30 September 2002. But he is only one of 952 Palestinian children that have been killed since the year 2000.

A recent martyr is Rami Shana'a, 25, a student at an-Najah. He was killed on 9 June 2007 while working in his family's butcher shop. He is the 56th student of the university to be martyred.

As we walk back to the hotel for a rest, we are overwhelmed by anger and despair. Nablus has lost 1000 people since 2000. And the killing continues. Do you ever hear about it on the news? I cannot help but think that a Palestinian life is deemed less worthy- and therefore less newsworthy- than an Israeli life. Let me give you one simple statistic. In 2006, 660 Palestinians were killed by Israeli 'security' forces. These included 141 children. The total number of Israelis killed by Palestinians in 2006? 23.

In the evening, we have a meeting with a Hamas MP. We are looking forward to hearing what she has to say, having met members of Fatah in Ramallah. She cannot receive us in her office- it has been burned down. (We visited it later). So we meet in a restaurant.

She starts the meeting with an apology- for being unable to introduce us to her colleagues. She reminds us that 46 Hamas MPs have been in Israeli prisons for months. This is a staggering fact- can you name any other country where 46 members of the government are in jail?

It is worth remembering that the 2006 elections in which Hamas came to power were witnessed by numerous international observers and were deemed to be free and fair. However, the election result was not to the West's liking. So the Palestinians were punished with sanctions imposed by the US and the EU, resulting in record levels of poverty and unemployment. The hypocrisy of the West is astounding- it is almost as if they are sending the message, 'You can have democracy- as long as it's the democracy we want'.

The excuse given by the West is that 'Hamas refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist'. I find it laughable that Israel, a country with the 4th biggest military and 11th highest standard of living in the world, is somehow dependent for its existence on recognition from a Palestinian political party (most of whose members are in jail or underground). We are constantly reminded by the Western media that Hamas' charter talks about the destruction of Israel, therefore they are evil. Has anybody noticed that Israel is actually destroying Palestine by continuing to kill and imprison its people and steal its land?

The logical thing for Israel and the West would have been to talk to Hamas. Even if they were the worst government in the world- which they were not, compared to the Arab regimes on America's payroll. Negotiations would have been the only possibility of making them give up their more odious demands. Remember that there was a time when the PLO didn't recognize Israel- until they were spoken to. And the IRA at one time promised an endless war against England.

But the boycott of Hamas continues; and now Israel and its allies are falling over each other to talk to Fatah, hailing the current government as the 'true representative of the Palestinian people'. This is amusing- before Hamas was elected, nobody was talking to Fatah!

The course Hamas took was far more pragmatic than anyone gives them credit for. After winning the election, they offered Israel a 10-year truce during which negotiations could take place. Israel declined. Hamas still observed a unilateral ceasefire. On February 13, 2005, Hamas leader Khaled Mashal declared that Hamas would stop armed struggle against Israel if Israel recognized the 1967 borders. The West and Israel responded by strangling the Palestinians with sanctions. So much for embracing democracy. On June 9 2006 Israel blew up 8 members of a family on a Gaza beach and Hamas ended its unilateral 16 month ceasefire.

We spend our last night in Nablus in the hotel, and are joined at dinner by the Manchester students we met in Ramallah. Their Scottish friend who is married to a man from Nablus comes as well. She and her husband normally live in the UK but are visiting his family at the moment. An Englishwoman working for a local NGO also pops in to say hello. And of course, Saed arrives for a chat.

It's been another upsetting day. Before I retire, I am reminded of the following quotes from the leaders of 'the only democracy in the Middle East':

"We must expel Arabs and take their places." -- David Ben Gurion, 1937; Ben Gurion and the Palestine Arabs, Oxford University Press, 1985. (Israeli PM)

"There is no such thing as a Palestinian people... It is not as if we came and threw them out and took their country. They didn't exist."-- Golda Meir; statement to The Sunday Times, 15 June 1969.

"[The Palestinians] are beasts walking on two legs."-- Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, speech to the Knesset; quoted in Amnon Kapeliouk, "Begin and the 'Beasts,"' New Statesman, 25 June 1982.

"(The Palestinians) would be crushed like grasshoppers ... heads smashed against the boulders and walls."-- Israeli Prime Minister (at the time) Yitzhak Shamir in a speech to Jewish settlers; New York Times, 1 April 1988.

They have certainly proved true to their word.

Day 10: Nablus

It is a morning of meetings again. First, Saed takes us to the stunning new campus of An-Najah University ( the largest university in Palestine, home to 15000 students- more than half of them women.

The university has always been a beacon of resistance to the occupation, and Israeli forces have never been able to enter the campus. Unsurprisingly, they have labelled it 'the terrorist university'. The university has had the land for the new campus since 1970 but the Israelis prevented any building work until 2000, when construction finally started. Recently, the students' union of the University of Manchester twinned with An-Najah, much to the dismay of the Zionist lobby.

First, we are received by Dr Husni Maqbool, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine. He starts by explaining how the Israelis did nothing to improve the Palestinian healthcare system under occupation. The Palestinian Authority has been trying to improve matters- still, at best, the system here is a 'filter' which is forced to refer complex cases to Israeli and Jordanian hospitals. (The Israelis charge the Palestinian Authority for this 'service'- even though under international law they bear responsibility for the health of people under their occupation.)

Dr Maqbool told us that students and staff are often delayed or even prevented from making it to lectures at checkpoints. An-Najah does not have a university hospital of its own; this is in the pipeline. Meanwhile, students obtain training in the city hospitals. For many specialties, the only centre where training is available is Maqassed in Jerusalem. However, students from the West Bank need a special permit to enter Jerusalem- this is almost impossible to obtain. He also narrated the case of a cardiologist of Palestinian origin who trained in the US and was appointed to An-Najah. He arrived on a tourist visa, but was denied a work permit by the Israelis and was ultimately forced to leave.

The medical school has 35-40 students in each year. The selection process is rigorous; it is a combination of high school scores, a test and an interview. This year's interviews were held two days before our visit- 102 students with high school scores of more than 97% turned up. Dr Maqbool told me that they were all appointable; but, at the moment, An-Najah's finances simply cannot accommodate any more medical students. As a result, most aspiring doctors are denied their chosen career, unless their families are wealthy enough to send them abroad.

Did you know that the Palestinian literacy rate is 91%? Also, they have one of the highest proportions of university graduates in the world. Imagine what they could achieve if they were free of occupation. So much for the Western stereotype of Palestinians as backward, hot-headed extremists.

We next meet Dr Nabil Alawi, the Director of Public Relations for An-Najah. He reminds us that Nablus is still under siege and has been for seven years. The Israelis even control the water supply- this runs only once a week. Needless to say, the illegal Jewish settlements have fountains and swimming pools.

He commends our presence here as a symbol of defiance. He says that Palestinians feel abandoned by the world, but visits such as ours give them some reassurance that they haven't been forgotten.

The economic situation in Nablus means that two-thirds of students have to take out loans. Their academic performance is adversely impacted by the fact that journeys of barely 20 km can take up to 4 hours. He narrated an incident from 2004 when he and the Speaker of the House were stopped by the Israelis at Huwwara checkpoint. They were ordered to walk into the middle of the road and undress. This was in full view of 2000 female students who were stuck at the checkpoint. When the men disrobed, all the students looked away- to the intense annoyance of the soldiers.

We are on our way out when we bump into the Dean of the Faculty of Nursing who insists that we sit down for a cup of tea with her. She fled Palestine for Sweden many years ago and was not allowed back in until she obtained Swedish citizenship- she is now here on a visitor's visa!

The next stop is Rafidia Hospital, the main general hospital in Nablus. We are met by Dr Sadaqah, the Deputy Director. He tells us that each time the Israelis invade Nablus, the first thing they do is to encircle the hospital, preventing the passage of staff and patients and resulting in unnecessary deaths. Sometimes patients need to be transferred to hospitals in Jerusalem or Israel- however the Israeli authorities create hurdles at every opportunity. Often by the time permission is obtained (a minimum of 2 days even for an emergency), the patient dies- this happened to a burns patient two days before our visit.

At the height of the 2002-2003 invasions and curfews, Rafidia received 8-9 cases of serious injuries every day. Staff ended up living in the hospital for 23 days. The Israeli army prevented casualties from the Old City from going to Rafidia- a clinic was set up in a mosque in the Old City to deal with them. Dr Sadaqah told us that this clinic had to perform two emergency amputations without anaesthesia. The Israelis would also prevent bodies from being taken for burial- as a result the hospital morgue overflowed and ice-cream trucks had to be used to store the bodies.

He also told us that the Israelis would regularly enter the hospital, and actually removed 4 patients from their beds. One of these was actually an intensive care patient who had just returned from major surgery. When the doctors and nurses asked for reasons, they were simply pushed aside. We were horrified to learn that when the soldiers removed patients from the hospital, they were accompanied by Israeli doctors who never tried to stop this happening. The soldiers would often remove patients from ambulances while they 'checked' them.

Dr Sadaqah then takes me on a tour of the hospital. We visit the 4-bedded ICU. In 2002-2003, patients ended up being ventilated with rudimentary operation theatre machines- often on the floor and in the kitchen of ICU.

On one of the wards I meet a young man called Ayman Tayseer. He was walking in the mountains near an Israeli settlement when he picked up a metal object. This was actually ordnance left by Israeli soldiers. It exploded, blowing his right hand off. I ask him if he has anything to say to the camera; he says, "don't pick up strange objects".

Our next stop is Balata, the biggest refugee camp in the West Bank. We are received at the children's Yafa Cultural Centre by Tayseer Nasrallah, its chairman. The name 'Yafa' is significant as the majority of families here were uprooted from the Jaffa (Yafa) area in 1948.

Balata has always been a symbol of defiance against the occupation. In the year 2001, it was the first area to be put under siege by the Israelis- this was in an attempt to break the nucleus of the resistance, which they believed to be in Balata. There are still regular invasions, in fact we are told that there was one the previous night. To move from house to house, the Israelis blast their way through walls, without warning the families on the other side. Random firing upon civilians is the norm. We are told the story of an MP living in Balata whom the Israelis came to arrest- even though he had only one room, they destroyed the whole building. They also assassinated several of his family members.

Tayseer wonders why the world is silent on this daily state terrorism committed by Israel, while demanding perfect behaviour from the Palestinians. The media goes to town about suicide bombings by Palestinians, but when was the last one? Why is it that when an Israeli life is lost, it is front-page news, with pictures of the victim and interviews with the grieving relatives; whereas when a Palestinian is killed, the news is tucked away in a corner- no names are given, just something along the lines of 'a Palestinian died today.....'?

We are then taken round the camp. I have never seen anywhere so crowded. I thought Deheisheh was cramped, but in Balata 24000 people are crammed into 1 square kilometre. That translates into an area of 10 square metres per capita- that includes toilet/washing space. Whereas Israelis get 3200 square metres per capita.

Some of the alleyways between the houses are so narrow that even the thinnest person in our group has to turn his whole body sideways to walk down them. Saed tells us that when sick people have to be taken to ambulances, they have to be passed from roof to roof. 'When Israel celebrates 60 years of independence, this is what these people celebrate,' he says bitterly.

There isn't a single street corner or lamppost which isn't riddled with bullet marks. We enter the camp's graveyard- there are rows upon rows of graves of young people here. The cemetery is in direct view of a special Israeli military post on the hill opposite. Recently 5 resistance fighters sitting in the graveyard were killed by shelling from this post.

The Israelis will insist that they come into Balata to root out the 'terrorists'. However, the reality is somewhat different. Try the case of 7-year-old Khaled Walweel. On 27 March 2004, he was looking out of his window when he got shot in the neck. His uncle carried him down the street to an ambulance, but an Israeli jeep tried to prevent him from doing so. When he finally reached the ambulance, the jeep tried to prevent it from leaving the camp. By the time he finally reached hospital he was dead. (See picture in right-hand margin)

Khaled's case is just one of several. Visit for many such stories. Faced with the daily violence of the Israeli military machine, I am not surprised that some residents have taken up arms to defend the camp. They have every right to do so. I refuse to call them terrorists- they are resistance fighters. It is not as if they are going into the cities to kill and maim civilians.

The terrorists are those who invade the camp every night to kill and injure innocent people and demolish their houses. Yet the world continues to turn a blind eye.

It has been a sobering day. After a brief rest, we meet in a pizzeria which does the most amazing grilled chicken sandwiches and beefburgers we have ever eaten. The owner could teach the Americans a thing or two about their own food!

We walk back to the hotel with Saed. It is past eleven and the streets are quiet. We pass the Nablus Football Club and the owner, who knows Saed (by the way, Saed knows everyone) insists that we stop for tea. Inside the club are displayed various trophies won at tournaments. One of the walls is also plastered with pictures of dead footballers- all killed in the prime of their youth by the Israeli army.

We sit outside the club on stools, sipping the most delicious sage tea. About a dozen tough-looking young men in t-shirts and jeans appear. They huddle shyly in a group a few metres away from us. 'These are the tough kids of the neighbourhood,' Saed tells us. 'But they have good hearts. They have all lost fathers, brothers and friends. They have come to welcome you because you are friends of Palestine'. We nod at them respectfully.

Someone reports that the Israelis are about to invade a camp tonight. We have to leave abruptly. We walk through the city- it is completely deserted. Some children wave at us from their balcony above. Although the streets are eerily quiet, we feel safe in Saed's company. When we reach the hotel, we feel a sense of accomplishment- we have just walked through Nablus in the dead of the night!

I go to work on the blog again. The gunfire tonight is louder than yesterday. The tanks will be rolling in, but the people in the camps will be resisting- as they do every night.

Goodnight Nablus. I salute your spirit.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Day 9: Nablus

We hail a servees from outside the hotel and are soon on our way to Nablus. As I take in the rocky landscape, I cannot help thinking that Palestine has all it takes to be a top tourist destination. Spectacular scenery, holy sites and mouthwatering cuisine. And, above all, the most friendly and welcoming people I have ever known. Tragically, all its name conjures up for most people are images of violence and suffering.

My reverie is rudely interrupted when we reach Huwwara- the most infamous checkpoint in Palestine. Unfortunately, the word 'checkpoint' sounds so benign that it hardly conveys the horror of the place. Have you seen a cattle shed crammed full of animals? With only one gate to get out, guarded by a farmer with a stick? Well, just replace him with an Israeli soldier with a rifle- and the animals with Palestinians- and you're not far. Nowadays, Israel wishes to be seen to be lifting some of the restrictions on movement- as part of this, getting into Nablus through Huwwara is much less trouble than it used to be. The only reason for this is that Israel is bending over backwards to prop up and manipulate the Fatah government in the West Bank. By trumpeting cosmetic changes such as the partial relaxing of checkpoints as 'major concessions', they think they can get what they want out of Fatah.

However getting out of Nablus via Huwwara remains a nightmare and we see a queue extending for half a kilometre out of the cramped shed and into the merciless sun. One by one, the Palestinians are called forwards and their documents are inspected. Some get through, others are turned back. Depending on the mood of the soldier. Fifty yards to the right is a brand new Jewish settler-only highway with fancy cars whizzing past. I am consumed by rage. Some people say the settlers simply don't know what the Palestinians go through every day. Nonsense- they just need to look out of their windows.

We drag our belongings through the turnstiles and hail a taxi to our hotel. It is immediately evident that Nablus is a world apart from Ramallah. Nestling in a valley, its picturesque location is also its biggest misfortune. Perched on the hills surrounding the city are Jewish settlements and Israeli military outposts. Snipers can fire into the city at will.

Nablus used to be the commercial capital of Palestine. Then it became the capital of resistance during the Intifada (the Israelis will tell you it is the capital of terrorism). Today, Nablus continues to resist- but strangled by occupation, it has become the capital of poverty and unemployment.

The Yasmin Hotel is bang in the middle of the old city. It is clean and comfortable. My friend in Nablus- Saed Abu-Hijleh- arrives to greet us. How I met Saed is a story in itself. A few months ago I saw a documentary called Sucha Normal Thing. Soon after this I attended a talk in Manchester by a lecturer from An-Najah University- Sa'ed. I immediately recognized him from the film, and told him about our planned trip to Palestine. He offered to be our host in Nablus. Sa'ed is a warm, boisterous man- but behind that facade is a heartbreaking story, which he narrates in the film. I shall come to that later.

He takes us to meet the dynamic Anan Qadri, General Director of the Nablus Governorate. We are received warmly- by now, we are familiar with the routine in Palestine. No matter where you go, first, bottles of mineral water will appear. Once you have quenched your thirst, orange juice arrives. This will be followed by mint tea. If you think English breakfast tea was refreshing, try this- it's the perfect wake-up formula.

Anan describes how the emergency services try to cope with Israeli attacks. As routes to hospitals are usually blocked in the aftermath of of an incursion, many wounded were dying without receiving medical attention. To deal with this a 'mobile hospital' with anaesthetists, surgeons and technicians has been developed- this tries to deliver care at the site of an incident.

There are an incredible 58 checkpoints around Nablus. The very day we arrived in Nablus, the Minister of Tourism was barred from crossing Huwwara checkpoint. Anan tells us that it is nearly impossible for people to visit friends and family. Infants cannot reach clinics to receive vaccinations. Unemployment is at a record high of 75% (the national average is 52%). Thousands of people have left Nablus- some have fled Palestine.

She tells us that once, in 2002, the Israelis imposed a continuous curfew for 110 days. All shops and educational institutions were closed. However the resilient Palestinians continued to educate their children by setting up a 'basement' school in each neighbourhood. During this period, 100 Nablusis were killed.

Israeli military incursions still occur every night- the sound of gunfire has become background music for the residents of Nablus. Anan and Saed tell us that they can't remember the last time they had a sound sleep- between 12 and 5 every night, shelling and shooting is continuous and people start their day exhausted and irritable. The excuse the Israelis use is that they are looking for 'wanted' people. They recently used this pretext to destroy an apartment block housing 25 families.

Anan warns that if a just solution is not reached soon, both Palestine and Israel will pay a heavy price because the Palestinians' patience is quickly wearing thin.

We leave Anan and take a brief rest in the hotel. We then proceed for a sumptuous dinner at a rooftop restaurant with commanding a spectacular view of the city and its surrounding hills. Saed insists on footing the bill- 'you are my guests'.

Saed then walks us to his house and relives for us the nightmare of October 11, 2002. That evening, his mother Shaden was embroidering. She was sitting on a chair just outside her front door. All of a sudden a group of Israeli soldiers pulled up in a jeep and, with no provocation whatsoever, started spraying bullets at Shaden. Her body received 14 hollow-point bullets (these are banned under international law, as they explode once they enter the body). She died on the spot, while Saed and his father were injured. The bullet marks on the wall bear testimony to that horrific day. The family have kept the shattered glass front door intact.

This unprovoked, cold-blooded killing of a 62-year-old philanthropist and peace activist provoked international condemnation. The Israelis promised an investigation- to date, there has been no report. For more information and pictures, visit

The story stuns us into silence, which is only broken when Saed lightens the mood by telling jokes. We spend what remains of the evening drinking sage tea outside the house, overlooking the city in all its nighttime glory. Saed points out the military posts encircling Nablus.

We go back to the al-Yasmin. I use their computer to write the blog, while the others retire early. Every few minutes, I hear fireworks going off. However I soon realize that it is gunfire. The tanks have rolled in, probably to one of the camps. Near me, the hotel staff go about their work as if nothing has happened. 'Yes, it is gunfire. So what? This happens every night.'

Welcome to Nablus.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Day 8: Ramallah

Today promises to be completely different. We have several high-profile meetings.

The first one is with Prof Rita Giacaman, who lectures in public health at Birzeit University in Ramallah. She is also the wife of the Information Minister in the Palestinian Authority, Dr Mustafa Barghouti. We have an interesting discussion about the move to boycott Israeli academia, which is gathering momentum in the UK.

Earlier this year, the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU)- the main trade union of university lecturers in the UK- voted by a two-thirds majority to have a debate about whether Israeli academic institutions should be boycotted. This debate is to take place over the forthcoming year, with the aim of putting forth a motion for a formal boycott next year. If this gets passed, it will mean the end of cooperation between British and Israeli academic institutions. Israel is panicking, as it depends heavily on UK academics for scientific cooperation, and for provision of examiners and assessors for the promotion of Israeli academics to higher posts.

This move has led to the usual chorus of allegations of anti-Semitism- which is nonsense, as the boycott is at institutional level. It is certainly not a boycott of Jewish academics. Individual Israeli academics who distance themselves from their government's policies shall be welcome in the UK. There are also many in the UK who are otherwise critical of Israel but shy away at the mention of a boycott, as they believe in the 'sanctity' of knowledge and its exchange.

However this 'sanctity' is easily forgotten when it comes to Palestinian academic freedom. Universities are often closed by the military for 'security' reasons- An-Najah in Nablus for three consecutive years in one instance. Students and lecturers are routinely stopped from attending classes by detention at checkpoints.

Palestine is a small country, and students at major universities (such as Nablus) often used to commute from smaller towns (such as Tulkarem). However this journey which should take no more than an hour can take up to 6 hours (if allowed) due to checkpoints and taxi changes, and students arrive in class drained and exhausted. Many have been forced to live in the bigger cities, further stretching their meagre finances. Also, students and lecturers are regularly put in jail simply for belonging to political organizations.

Rita makes an impassioned plea for the boycott. The reason is simple- Israeli academia as a body have refused to come out and condemn the occupation. The 'exchange of ideas' has led nowhere- despite years of talks at governmental level, a just peace for the Palestinians remains a distant dream. It is time for people in other countries to adopt measures to stigmatize Israel, something which their governments refuse to do. There is a precedent- South Africa. Given the fact that many prominent South Africans- including Mandela and Tutu- have publicly said that Israel's oppression of the Palestinians is far worse than South Africa under apartheid- why the hesitation to enforce a boycott?

As for those who sympathize with the Palestinians but are against boycotts, she has a simple question- in that case, what are they going to do for the Palestinians- whom the world has boycotted and abandoned for so long? If the academic freedom of Israelis is sacred, should that not apply to Palestinians as well?

To read an article by Rita in the BMJ, visit this link:

We also discussed the move by a group of concerned British doctors to force a boycott of the Israeli Medical Association (IMA). This issue is currently being hotly debated in the BMJ. It stems from the appointment of Yorem Blachar, head of the IMA, to the presidency of the World Medical Association (WMA). This man is on record as saying that 'a few broken Palestinian fingers is a price worth paying for extracting a confession'. The WMA is supposed to be an international watchdog for medical ethics! (correction 10 Nov 2007: see comment by RickB below).

Not only has the IMA refused to condemn the use of torture by Israel- in some instances, doctors have been present during torture- it has also refused to come out and publicly condemn the persistent violation of healthcare rights by Israel. Where does one start- women forced to give birth at checkpoints, ambulances shot at, paramedics stripped naked at checkpoints, people denied passage for clinic visits and surgery, hospitals and clinics bombed, ambulance personnel forced to carry patients in their arms across checkpoints because their van isn't allowed through, and doctors and medical students prevented from reaching hospitals and universities. And every time attempts to highlight this in the media are made, the retort from the Israel lobby is, 'But look at the number of Palestinians who get treated in Israeli hospitals!'. Rita is amazed at this- 'Are we supposed to thank Israel for first destroying our healthcare system and then offering to treat us in it's hospitals?'

It was the silence of the South African Medical Association on these issues- actually smaller in degree- that led to its expulsion from the WMA. Expelling the IMA will be no easy task and at the moment seems almost impossible, but we first need to rally our own medical association- the BMA- by exposing its members to the truth. (If you are a doctor, medical student or a member of any other profession allied to medicine and would like more info on the medical boycott, visit the website of the BMJ or post a comment on this blog and I shall respond).

We then met Dr Jihad Mashal of the Palestinian Medical Relief Society (PMRS). He gave us an excellent presentation on the state of health in Palestine, and the enormous obstacles the PMRS has to overcome to deliver healthcare. We learnt some chilling facts:

-the level of unemployment in Palestine is 67%- and this is actually much higher in Gaza.
-160000 government employees did not have their salaries paid for months as Israel did not release tax revenues- this was 'punishment' for electing the Hamas government
-there are at least 140 documented cases of patients dying before reaching hospital as they were forcibly prevented from travelling by Israeli soldiers

He reminded us that when the UN's special rapporteur on human rights in the occupied territories- John Dugard- visited Palestine, he likened the situation to apartheid. He should know- he is South African. He was also shocked to find that the Palestinians, already suffering under Israeli occupation, were being further strangled by sanctions imposed by the West- surely this has no parallel in modern history, where a whole population is penalized for exercising their democratic right to vote.

He also showed us several maps depicting how the Wall is separating villages from their clinics, and also making journeys for specialist care- such as from Qalqilya to Nablus- a nightmare. This should take no more than 1 hour but can now last upto 6. He showed us the birth certificate of a child born recently. The place of birth was stated to be: 'Qalandiya checkpoint, Jerusalem-Ramallah border'. That child was lucky to survive, many born at checkpoints (approximately 60 documented cases) don't. We were also told the story of a young girl with endstage kidney disease who was dialysis-dependent- one week, the Israelis repeatedly prevented her from crossing the checkpoint to go to hospital. She died as a result.

We then travelled to Birzeit University, just outside Ramallah in the picturesque village of Birzeit. It has a spectacular location on the edge of a cliff. We were welcomed by Yasser Darwish of the Public Relations department. He described how he lost 4 years of his life due to forced closure of the University by the Israelis. He said he fails to understand how closing a University and preventing people from obtaining an education can be a security measure. It is simply aimed at destroying the educational system- and therefore the future- of Palestinians. Even primary schools and kindergartens have not been spared closure. But the Palestinians are extremely resourceful and have even held classes in the street, at checkpoints and in garages. This is a tribute to their resilience.

We were also told how during the Second Intifada the Israelis constructed a checkpoint between Ramallah city and Birzeit. Ramallah is where the bulk of students and teachers come from. This checkpoint was nothing but a series of earth mounds, piles of rubble and huge rocks stretching for a mile and a half- with the sole purpose of obstructing the passage of people. This was not all- people trying to reach the University by walking around the obstacles were often greeted with beatings, rubber bullets and teargas. Sometimes students and teachers would be allowed to go to Birzeit in the morning but the checkpoint would be completely closed in the afternoon when it was time to go home. 5000 students and teachers would then have to take a circuitous route over hills and through valleys to get home- this would take upto 2 hours.

Students- including females- were subjected to humiliating body searches. Soldiers stormed the women's dormitories on several occasions, breaking windows, doors and furniture. Electricity, water and telephone lines in Birzeit and Ramallah were cut off, isolating people from the outside world.

Due to the economic situation, many students find it difficult to pay their fees. As a result, the university has had problems paying its employees, a situation made worse by the economic blockade imposed by the West. There was an 8 month period during which employees voluntarily received only half their salary.

We questioned Yasser about his opinion on the boycott. Like Rita, he was in favour- in any case, Palestinians are hardly let out of their cities let alone into Israel, so any talk of an 'exchange of ideas' is laughable. Why should Palestinians be concerned about Israeli academic freedom when Israeli academics hardly ever speak up when Palestinian academic freedom is abused? Birzeit does not have any links with Israeli universities anyway. Poignantly, Yasser says, 'I cannot work or study with an Israeli- when I know that one day he will be at a checkpoint humiliating and abusing me.' (Israelis have to do 3 years military service- and that will almost always include checkpoint duty.) To support the University in the UK visit (Friends of Birzeit University)

We were then taken on a tour of the campus and had refreshments in the canteen. Most of us were worn out and went back to the hotel, but 3 of us went to a meeting with the organization Stop the Wall This is a grassroots organization dedicated to resisting the Apartheid Wall. Its main aim it to instil a sense of pride in Palestinian youth by interacting with them in universities and workplaces and educating them about their past and their rights. This is especially vital as the majority of Palestinians are young and have no experience of life apart from under occupation. Indeed, 75% have never visited Jerusalem- they are forbidden to do so, and may not realize that Israel's occupation of the city is illegal.

Mohammed Ethman of Stop the Wall tells us about the latest project of the Israelis- the occupation of the Jordan Valley. Two villages- Humsa and al-Hadidiya- have evacuation orders. The inhabitants have been told that this is for 'their own safety'. The real reason is to enable the settlers from the nearby illegal Ro'I settlement to expand their herb plantations. (Since we met Stop the Wall, Humsa was razed to the ground on 23 August, and 25 people are still without shelter and water in the 40 degree August heat.)

Every tale you hear in Palestine fills you with outrage- if this is how one feels just listening to the story, what must it be like to be the victim?

In the evening we are taken by Z to the Palestinian Authority compound in Ramallah. Yasser Arafat is buried here. It is a sobering moment, and I say 'al-Fatiha' over his grave. For all his faults, Arafat was an icon of resistance, and for many years, the face of the Palestinian cause. We then meet the Chief of Staff of the President's Office- we are quite flattered to be given such attention, even though we are not a high-powered official delegation. This is what is wonderful about Palestinians- they are the most welcoming people I have ever met, and will happily meet you at very short notice. The press are there- we avoid giving our names or looking toward the cameras, as we don't want the Israelis to identify us from the pictures!

We then walk to Sangria, a trendy restaurant/bar popular with Palestinians and foreigners alike. I have no money so I hop across the road to an HSBC cash machine. The meal is fabulous- and gigantic. (A word of warning- NEVER order any extra side dishes in Palestine. They just appear anyway, and there's usually too much to eat!) I finish my meal and walk to a cybercafe to update the blog, while the others enjoy a drink.

At midnight, walking from Sangria- with its trendy agila-smoking clientele and ambient music- through Ramallah city centre with its neon lights, ice cream parlours and giggly teenagers- one almost gets the sense that things are 'normal' here now. This is the same city that was under continuous curfew for 23 days with no electricity or water in 2002. The government compound- now rebuilt- was nothing but a mound of rubble.

But tomorrow we head for Nablus. Where things are never normal.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Days 6 and 7: Ramallah

We arrive in Ramallah from Hebron mid-afternoon on day 6, just in time for our first meeting which is with Defence of Children International-Palestine (DCI-Pal), We are received by RS, who is an Australian citizen of Palestinian origin but works in Ramallah. Our aim here is to gather information about the abuse of Palestinian children's rights by Israel.

We learn that 888 Palestinian children have have been killed at the hands of the Israeli military and settlers since 2000. To put this figure into perspective, as a proportion of the population of the United States this figure exceeds 90,000 children. Circumstances of death include clashes, house demolitions, random military gunfire, air and ground offensives, and during adult assassination attempts. It is incredible that one hardly ever hears about this in the Western media. Since Oct 2006 alone, 106 children have been killed (10,000 if extrapolated to the US population).

There are 384 Palestinian children in detention in Israeli prisons, including children under the age of 14. Note that these are not special facilities for children- these are Israeli military prisons. When a child is arrested, this is often by forced entry into the house. Handcuffing is the rule. It is not uncommon for him/her to be detained upto 2 months without even being charged. Verbal and physical abuse (including torture) is routine. As a result, a forced confession is extracted in over 90% of cases. The case is tried in an Israeli military court- this is a complete farce, as no evidence is required for conviction- the forced confession is enough. Therefore an arrest almost always results in a jail sentence. Usually the child does not see a lawyer till the first day of court. There is no right of appeal to a civilian court. This whole procedure is in complete contravention to the UN Charter on the Rights of the Child.

The majority of children are charged with stone-throwing- other allegations include throwing Molotov cocktails and being a member of a banned political organization (this includes all Palestinian political organizations- even Fatah, which is in power in the West Bank!)

We are then shown a film about child detainees in which they described their stories of arrest, torture and detention. One of the children was shot dead by a soldier at a checkpoint because he 'looked like he might be carrying a gun'. It was actually a toy.

We go to our hotel filled with disbelief- this is how the 'only democracy in the Middle East' treats children. Needless to say, Israeli children are never subjected to this procedure- there is a special framework of juvenile courts and detention centres for them. Under Israeli law, one is an adult if over 18 if Israeli- but over 16 if Palestinian.

Our hotel is extremely comfortable, and after a rest and a shower we decide to hit Ramallah city centre. We are so disturbed by the experience of the last two days that we want to spend the evening relaxing in a restaurant avoiding any political discussion. However that is not to be- our taxi driver asks us where we come from, and upon hearing the word 'Britain' he utters the word 'Balfour'. He then produces the key to the house which his family was forced to flee in 1948 when Israel was created.

It is clear that Palestinians haven't forgotten that Israel is ultimately Britain's creation- the taxi driver is referring to the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which gave Britain's blessing to the creation of a 'Jewish homeland' in Palestine. It was clearly stated at the time that the opinion of the inhabitants of Palestine was inconsequential to this decision.

It is obvious that the driver has no personal quarrel with us, indeed he welcomes us as friends of Palestine. But I completely understand the resentment Palestinians feel against Britain and the rest of the Western world. Britain has a huge share of the responsibility for their plight- yet instead of campaigning for their cause, our government sells weapons to Israel to use against civilians. Not only that, Britain has preferential trade agreements with Israel and when the Palestinians dared to oust the corrupt Fatah government and replace it with Hamas, we participated in starving them with sanctions.

We have a fantastic meal in a Mexican restaurant (yes, they exist in Palestine, and so do Italian and Indian restaurants. And believe me, the food is wonderful!) We then headed back to the hotel- tomorrow we are in for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. A demonstration in Palestine.

M from the ISM meets us in Ramallah city centre at 11 am on day 7. We then take a servees to the village of Billin 40 mins away. Billin's residents are about to have their livelihood snatched- the Wall is under construction here, and it will take away 60% of the village's agricultural land. For the past 3 years, the residents have been holding this demonstration every Friday. There is always a large international contingent, and indeed we meet a variety of activists- American, Danish, British and of course Israeli. An 82-year-old Israeli woman is among them. The Israelis are from a group called Anarchists Against the Wall- they come every week, and one of them once sustained a serious head injury from a rubber bullet. But he has recovered and is demonstrating with us today! I have a lot of admiration for these people's courage- Israelis who act against the occupation are usually ostracized as traitors by friends and family, and indeed by Israeli society in general.

We are unsure whether to simply observe or to actually participate in the demonstration. Eventually 7 out of 8 people decide to go (remember we are now 8 since J, the other doctor, joined us). We will leave if things get really nasty. The village children provide us with sliced onions- good for protection from teargas. You simply hold the onion to your nose to prevent breathing the fumes in.

The march is a riot of colour, with people from all over the world bearing Palestinian scarves and flags. There are many children as well. The Arabic slogan is 'La, La, l' il-Jidaar' (No, no to the Wall). We walk down a dusty slope to the site of the Wall- where there are armed soldiers and tanks. Barbed wire has been laid across the path. Our aim is to cross the wire. A soldier wielding a megaphone warns us not to approach as our march is 'illegal' and this is a 'closed military area'.

We congregate behind the barbed wire, the Palestinians and Israelis leading us. We have no weapons, stones or sticks. Never again tell me that the Palestinians should adopt nonviolent resistance. They have been protesting nonviolently for years.

You may call me insane for participating in this march. However I am glad I came. If only to witness how the Israelis treat Palestinians protesting peacefully. All we are doing is walking to the site of the Wall.

Nothing can prepare you for your first experience of teargas. When it touches your eyes, it is as if somebody has rubbed chilli powder into them. However what is worse is the effect on your airways. Despite the onions, I inhale some of the fumes. It is as if somebody has set my throat on fire. The gas canisters are red-hot- if they touch your skin they can cause significant burns.

After that first exposure to teargas, some people run back up the hill. However the protest has only just begun. I see the bulk of the demonstrators (mainly Palestinian and Israeli) return to the frontline for more. The teargas shells start flying thick and fast. The soldiers are laughing- to them it is a game, like cat-and-mouse. You are supposed to run in the opposite direction to the wind to avoid the gas- but this is more complicated than it sounds. Mainly because when a shell lands on the ground, it jumps and pirouettes madly before settling. So the gas often blows all over the place. I go back to the front, determined to capture as much of the action as possible on film. I am later told that I make a riduculously comical sight, with a video camera in one hand and a scarf across my mouth and nose, leaping left and right in an attempt to dodge the gas!

J has been at the front for a while and we are worried. He takes a short break- his face is red as a beetroot, with eyes and nose streaming. He tells me that he got caught in a cloud of gas. M is having an asthma attack and has to use her inhaler. Amazingly, she has been coming to this demonstration for years. An ambulance appears and takes away a Palestinian man who is having breathing difficulties.

The soldiers now enter Round 2 of their game- sound bombs. These make a deafening noise and can damage your hearing if they land close to you. M's husband is deaf in one ear as a result.

The next step is rubber bullets. Do not be fooled- these are anything but harmless. They are actually made of metal, only the coating is rubber. Although they do make less of an impact than live bullets, they can still penetrate flesh- and even bone- if one is hit at close range. A few people have suffered serious- even lethal- head injuries from rubber bullets.

Now the Palestinian children are throwing stones. I decide that it is time to leave- I have no wish to get injured or arrested, and my main aim is to witness the violence of the Israeli military- which I have done. I need to get back to the UK in one piece to be able to tell my story! M tells me that nobody has been killed at this demonstration yet, but this is only due to the presence of internationals. If there were only Palestinians protesting, the bullets would be live. J is still at the front and one of us has to drag him away.

On our way back to Ramallah, there is a heated discussion about whether there is any point to these demonstrations. This protest has been going on for 3 years, yet the Wall is still being built, the land is still being confiscated, and the military continues to use violence to disperse the protesters, who risk injury- for what? One can argue that the only solution to this conflict is political, and that will only occur when the international community pressurizes Israel. There is little to be gained by risking lives- including those of children.

However there is another point of view- the international community has failed Palestine, and indeed continues to arm the oppressor to the teeth. Did you know that Israel receives more military aid from the US than any other country receives any kind of aid- including humanitarian? Israel can buy weapons from a private US company and simply send the bill to the US government, which will pay it without question. Faced with such an adversary, if you were a Palestinian farmer whose livelihood was being taken away, and you had no effective police, army, judiciary or indeed government to stand up for you, what would you do? Sit at home and let the Wall steal your land? I can see why they demonstrate at Billin every Friday.

K, one of our group, has been to Palestine before and has some contacts in the Palestinian Authority. She informs them that we are here, and a friendly gentleman called Z invites us to attend a wedding in the evening. It is going to take place in Jalazone refugee camp. Z picks us up at 1830. We tell him about the demonstration. 'Gas or no gas?' he quips.

The wedding is a boisterous event, with an open truck leading the procession. A loudspeaker is mounted on the truck, blaring out Arabic dance music. The truck makes its way up a hill (why is going anywhere in Palestine such an uphill task? Pun intended). It is followed by a crowd of men and women, all clapping and swaying rhythmically. The women are dressed in colourful traditional costumes with intricate embroidery. We learn that there are actually two weddings- two brothers, one of whom has just emerged from jail after 10 years. Periodically, the grooms are hoisted up onto the shoulders of the procession. I catch a glimpse of one of the brides through the window of her car- she is stunning in her white dress. The beat of the music is infectious, and it is impossible not to tap your feet. The women in our group get drawn into the procession by the swaying Palestinian women- I manage to escape as I am filming!

From time to time children come up to me to have their photo taken. 'Hello! How are you? Welcome! What is your name? Where are you from?' I let them handle my camcorder, and they are overjoyed.

I notice the singing and clapping getting louder- soon the reason is apparent. There is an illegal Jewish settlement on a hill right next to the camp, and we are approaching it. We are doing our best to annoy the settlers. Rock on!

We are served cold drinks and cake at the end. It takes forever to leave, as inquisitive children keep coming up to us to practise their English. Also, some people have parked their cars haphazardly, and our car has to negotiate a traffic jam to reach us. We finally depart, touched by the friendliness of the refugee camp.

I get back to the hotel and leave with J to Ramallah city centre once more. We are meeting some interesting people at Angelo's, a popular Italian restaurant. One is a student from the UK. She is taking a year out to do research into the effects of Israeli policies on Palestinian health. We listen to her experience of getting into the country- she has also had intense interrogation. Her friend is also a UK student. She is spending a few months here learning Arabic. R is an American Jewish girl who works with ISM. We listen fascinated as she describes her journey from a Zionist family to total commitment to the Palestinian cause once she found out the truth. Some of her relatives have ostracized her.

We finally head back around midnight. What a day it has been! Tear gas and wedding bells.

Only in Palestine!

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Days 5 and 6: Hebron

Sorry I've been so late in posting this. We were in Hebron 4 days ago- since then I've been to Ramallah and arrived today in Nablus. The days have been so full and tiring that I've not really been able to get to a computer. It takes a couple of hours to write a decent post- I didn't realize what hard work blogging was!

I forgot to mention that we were joined on our last day in Bethlehem by J, another British doctor who has just spent two weeks working in Jenin. He's been to Palestine before. He will stay with us in Hebron and Ramallah.

So on day 5 we took the shared taxi from Bethlehem to Hebron. These yellow Ford transit vans are everywhere, and are called service (servees in Arabic). Basically you sit in the van and wait till it fills up with other people. And you pay next to nothing for the journey.

Hebron (al-Khalil) is the largest city in Palestine and a major commercial centre. It is a congested, noisy, colourful place of significance to Muslims and Jews as the burial place of the Prophet Abraham (Ibrahim). It is also home to the most rabid and fundamentalist Jewish settlers.

After a quick lunch in a cafe which we get drawn into by the owner (it is impossible to walk five paces in Palestine without hearing cries of 'Welcome! Welcome!') we are taken to the area where we will be staying- Tel Rumeida. M, a good friend from Glasgow who works for the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) shows us the way.

Hebron is divided into two areas- H1 and H2. H1 is under the control of the Palestinian Authority (although as we learn later, this means little as Israeli tanks enter H1 at will). H2 is under Israeli military control. Tel Rumeida is in H2. The population of H2 is 30000- mostly Palestinian Muslims. However since 1968, a growing number of Jewish settlers- mainly from the Brooklyn area of New York- have been living in H2. They sometimes produce fake documents to illegally take over empty houses. In other cases, Palestinians have come home from holiday to find their houses taken over by settlers. The commonest method of takeover is by force- Palestinians are continually harassed into leaving their houses, which then get occupied immediately. In one case a settler family wanted to expand their living room- they simply kicked down a wall and occupied the neighbouring Palestinian shop.

The reason Israel controls H2 is bizarre- to 'protect' the 400 or so settlers from the Palestinians. 4000 soldiers are deployed to do this.

You walk into Tel Rumeida through a checkpoint. This is a series of sliding doors, where an Israeli soldier checks your bags. Or more precisely, checks your bags- even groceries- if you are Palestinian. If you are a foreign citizen, this usually does not happen- we simply walked through. If you are Jewish, you don't enter via the checkpoint. You drive through uninhibited via a separate entrance. You will see illegal settlers whizzing round Tel Rumeida in their expensive sedans- but the 30000 or so Palestinians are not allowed to drive in their own neighbourhood. They have to get down at the checkpoint and walk home. To enter the neighbourhood from the checkpoint, you have to negotiate a steep hill. It has an approximately 60 degree incline and by the time we reached the top we were shattered. Imagine an elderly woman with heavy shopping bags or a pregnant woman climbing the hill while the settlers drive past.

The humiliation does not end there. The settlers regularly abuse the Palestinian residents physically- with stones and kicking- and verbally. In the old market- which used to be one of the most vibrant places in Palestine- settlers have occupied the flats above Palestinian shops. They regularly throw their rubbish onto passing people. In desperation, the Palestinians have put a net across the lane, between the lower and upper storeys. We saw the objects caught by the net- glass, metal, and concrete blocks capable of killing people. Not to mention human excreta. The settlers sometimes urinate onto the heads of pedestrians.

You may think this is too far-fetched but please feel free to visit YouTube or the website of the Tel Rumeida project ( if you don't believe me. There are numerous videos documenting these incidents.

After that harrowing walk through the old market, J and I visit a clinic in Tel Rumeida run by the Palestinian Medical Relief Society (PMRS). The doctor working there explains how even he and his nursing staff have received abuse from the settlers. A gynaecologist working in the area has already been forced to abandon his practice and flee.

We then pick up our bags and M takes us up another steep hill to what is possibly the highest point in Hebron. We have a mission there. A Palestinian is living in a house located between two Jewish settlements. There is also an Israeli military post overlooking it. The settlers are desperate to occupy the house as that will link the settlements. Needless to say, the owner faces regular harassment from them. This usually takes the form of settlers trespassing into the garden, banging on the door and verbally abusing him in the dead of the night. However they are armed and have not hesitated to use weapons against other Palestinians in the past. The one thing that has enabled the owner to hold onto his house is the presence of International Solidarity Movement (ISM) members. They do not leave the house for a minute. The presence of foreign nationals makes it less likely that the house will be attacked- it is bad press for Israel if foreigners are harassed or injured. The inherent racism in this is ironic.

The house is being renovated so the facilities are, to put it simply, basic. However nobody minds because we feel privileged to be offered this opportunity by M. We meet the other ISM members who have been guarding the house- they include American, Irish, British and Israeli activists. An incredible bunch of people. Tonight they will be having a break from the house while we take over.

As we settle in, a number of local residents turn up to greet us. Some are children who wish to play football with us. Others are adults who have come to share their experiences of the occupation. A chap in his 20s reminds us of the Ibrahimi Mosque massacre in 1994 when a fanatical settler called Baruch Goldstein (a doctor) from the neighbouring Kiryat Arba settlement gunned down 29 Palestinians offering Fajr (morning) prayers while they were prostrating towards Mecca. 150 others were injured. It is not widely known that he was assisted by other settlers who reloaded his gun with further ammunition every time it ran out. He was finally overpowered and beaten to death by the remaining worshippers.

The Palestinians then turned on the Israeli soldiers who opened indiscriminate fire killing several more. In fact the soldiers entered the general hospital in Hebron and started shooting randomly, causing several casualties.

After the massacre the entrances to the shrine for Muslims and Jews were segregated. Baruch Goldstein's widow requested that the men who killed her husband be charged with homicide! A shrine to Goldstein has been erected in Kiryat Arba- a plaque there reads: "To the holy Baruch Goldstein, who gave his life for the Jewish people, the Torah and the nation of Israel". It has become a pilgrimage site for those with extreme right-wing views.

We also heard about Hebron's woes during 2002 at the peak of the Second Intifada. Israel imposed a curfew that lasted several weeks- this was not like your usual curfew in another country. If you were seen outside your house you would be shot. It would be lifted for two hours a week during which Palestinians would scramble to get essential supplies. Sometimes it would not be lifted at all.

It was not unusual for the Israelis to open random fire in the city centre, killing and wounding civilians. As if that was not enough, they dug up all the roads in the centre to prevent people from travelling. So if you wanted to get from home to work, you'd take a taxi until you were stopped by a pile of rubble and earth- which you would have to walk round, then get another taxi. I was told that getting a wounded person to hospital sometimes meant changing 5 taxis.

Every Palestinian has a story- after several hours of gut-wrenching tales we retired to our mattresses and locked the house. It is surrounded by barbed wire and the windows are protected by metal cases with tiny vents to allow some air in. A Palestinian flag proudly flutters from a pole. It was then that the significance of this house struck me. This man is trying to make a political statement by resettling land that belongs to his people.

The night passed uneventfully. In the morning we took a walk down to the Palestinian Qurtuba school. To reach this, children have to walk from their homes past the Beit Hadassah settlement, up some steep steps and then turn left onto a brick path. It is then a further 50 metre walk.

This is no ordinary school run. Settler children station themselves at the bottom and the top of the steps and fling stones at the passing Palestinian children. Several children (and internationals who walk with the kids to shield them) have been injured, some of them seriously. This nightmare is at its worst on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, when Jewish schools are closed but Qurtuba is open.

Having walked this path, we go back down the steps, past Beit Hadassah and onto Shuhada Street. This was once a bustling Arab market. Now it is deserted. Some Palestinians have clung to their houses on the upper storeys, but all the shops are closed. The owners have been forced to leave due to continued harassment. I cannot describe how eerie this street is- it is like walking into a ghost town from an old Western movie. All you see on either side are green-painted iron doors- all bolted shut. The settlers have welded some of the doors together, to prevent any attempts at opening them. Israeli flags flutter above them. Some of the doors have been painted with the Star of David. It brings to mind an image of a closed Jewish shop in the Warsaw ghetto at the height of Nazism. In Hebron, it is as though the Star of David has become the new swastika.

We walk back up the hill to the house on the hill. M has arrived, and wants to show us something. 'You can't miss this'. What could be worse than the sights we have already seen? We are wrong, another shock is in store. She takes us to visit two deserted houses, once belonging to Palestinians. The first one has had all its windows smashed. She tells us that the settlers use it for their drinking parties and barbecues. A rotting sheep's carcass lies in one of the rooms. The second house has been firebombed- I recognize it from the documentary 'The Iron Wall'. The charred ceiling and walls tell a horrific tale.

You cannot come to Hebron and escape the racist graffiti. It is everywhere, but the most shocking examples are in these houses. If you are easily offended, please do not read the next paragraph (in italics):

- 'Watch out Fatima, we will rape all Arabs!'
- 'Mohammed is a pig'. Below this is a drawing of a pig reading the Quran.
- 'If you Arabs had just used a f***ing condom, then none of this would have happened!'
-'Arabs to the gas chambers!'

You may wonder what the Israeli soldiers do about the settlers. The answer is- nothing. While the settlers stone, kick and spit at the Palestinians, occupy their houses, burn them down and spray-paint their walls with racist slogans, they simply look on. Indeed, they are there to 'protect' the settlers from the Palestinians! Some members of the Israeli government claim to be 'embarrassed' and 'ashamed' by the settlers. But nobody takes any action. It would be simple to remove them- after all, they are only 400. But why would Israel do so? We have already seen enough proof of its masterplan- force more and more Palestinians to leave, and then chew up their land.

I must emphasize that the settlers in Hebron are a crazy minority. Still, I find it hard to believe that members of a community that lost 6 million in the Holocaust can speak of using gas chambers. Do they not realize that they are their own worst enemy? They tarnish the name of Judaism and Jews- which is especially poignant as so many Jews are supporting the Palestinian cause. Anyone with half a brain can see that cases such as Hebron will only fuel anti-Semitism.

We leave Hebron in a servees and make our way towards Ramallah. I cannot help wondering- even if no other atrocities were being committed in Palestine, Hebron itself should make the world sit up and think. This has been going on for 40 years. Yet hardly anyone knows about it, let alone talks about it.

The ride to Ramallah takes us over more spectacular hills and valleys. This city could not be more different from Hebron- it is throbbing with life. Crowded, noisy and electric, it is the cultural centre of Palestine. Here you will find fashionable shops, the latest expensive cars, restaurants serving every cuisine imaginable, and well-heeled Palestinians rubbing shoulders with foreign visitors in trendy bars.

We need a breather so we're looking forward to our time here. But for the residents of Hebron, there is no escape.

Goodbye for now. The Ramallah report will be available soon- I must retire to my bed as it is half-past midnight.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Days 3 and 4: Bethlehem and Beit Sahour

Hi all. Sorry I've been so late in posting this, Bethlehem and Hebron have been frenetic and unique. Arrived in Ramallah today and have only just sat down at leisure for the first time in 3 days.

On day 3, we took a shared Palestinian taxi from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. It is a hot, dusty drive through spectacular hills and ravines. Distances in Palestine are short- when you are not stopped at checkpoints. Half an hour after we set off, we were asked to get down by the driver. We thought there must be a problem because there was no city in sight. Sensing our confusion, he said- 'Welcome to Bethlehem'.

And what a welcome it is. The reason you don't see Bethlehem is that it is hidden by the hulking mass of the wall. The Israeli Ministry of Tourism has painted a mural on it- 'PEACE BE WITH YOU'. That must be the sickest joke ever. The checkpoint is called a 'terminal' by the Israelis. You pass through a series of turnstiles, like an airport. To our surprise, we were simply waved through- probably because we were a predominantly 'white' tourist group. However we witnessed a female security guard harassing a queue of Palestinians trying to cross. The turnstiles are so narrow that if you have anything more than a small bag, you get stuck. There are no other provisions for pregnant women or people in wheelchairs.

We proceeded to Beit Sahour, a suburb of Bethlehem where our hosts the Alternative Tourism Group are based. We were warmly received by JM, who has a limp from being shot in the leg. We learnt that Beit Sahour is a predominantly Christian town which played a huge role in the second Intifada- people burnt their Israeli ID cards and refused to pay their taxes. As a result a continuous curfew was imposed for 42 days.

We were then taken out by the Palestinian Medical Relief Society (PMRS) to a house in Bethlehem encircled on 3 sides by the Wall. All you can see from this house is, well, the Wall. You do not realize how imposing the Wall is until you are next to it. It is a mammoth structure, topped with barbed wire. The owner of the house, Claire Anastas, came out to meet us. She explained how she was from an affluent family running several businesses, but since the Wall appeared they are forbidden- and physically unable- to see their clients on the other side. As a result they are in dire straits now. She has already been interviewed by several foreign news channels and asked us, 'What is the world doing about this? People come and ask questions but nothing happens. I don't understand politics. I only want to live a life. Why are we being punished like this?' The despair in her voice moved us to tears. Near Claire's house is Aida refugee camp which depends a lot on olive groves to sustain itself. The Wall has separated the two. You can imagine the consequences.

We were then taken to the villages of Wadi Nis and Umm Salamona which cultivate grapes and olives. The Wall is under construction here, with the aim of annexing the illegal settlements of Homa, Har Homa and Gilo to Jerusalem. Again, these settlements are on Palestinian land. The course of the Wall has not been decided yet but the villages are likely to be cut off from their fields. The local residents, whose leader we met, are fighting a desperate battle to prevent this from happening. They have a nonviolent protest every Friday which is regularly teargassed.

Standing on top of the hill in Wadi Nis, you get a bird's eye view of the area. The once beautiful landscape has been defaced by illegal settlements and the Wall. Har Homa stands on top of a hill which was once home to 40000 olive trees. These were cut down and destroyed by the Israelis to build Har Homa. Some were re-planted to beautify the settlements! To a Palestinian, the tree is life. It takes decades to bear fruit. Yet the Israelis have literally shaved the hills bare.

We then proceeded to meet our families. Let me explain- ATG put us up with Palestinian families in their homes. Our hostess was a delightful middle-aged Christian lady called H. Her family have lived in Beit Sahour for generations. They have always been politically active, indeed her son was put in jail for 10 months at the age of only 15 for simply protesting peacefully. He is a hotel management graduate who is now forced to work as a waiter because tourism in Bethlehem has died and WB residents are forbidden to travel to Jerusalem to find work. He could leave for abroad but never will as that would be an admission of defeat.

H told us how the families of Beit Sahour supported each other during the siege. People with food would supply those without by going from door to door in the dead of night, even though they could be shot for breaking the curfew. H said, 'even if we are left with no food and no clothes, we shall never give in. Our quarrel is not with the Jews. It is with Israel. We will not allow them to steal our dignity- which is all we have left'. She then proceeded to ply us with Palestinian food and sweets.

Day 4 was in Bethlehem as well. We were taken round by A, another Christian man whose family have been in Beit Sahour for centuries. He has spent years in jail. He was pursuing a degree at Bethlehem University when the Israelis closed it for 3 years. He was unable to complete his education, and is now working as a tour guide. He took us round more confiscated lands, settlements and barriers. And we got more and more depressed. We had some fascinating political discussions with A. Once thing that came through in our time spent with H and A is the unity displayed by Muslims and Christians. 'We are one people. Religion is not an issue. We are all Palestinians first', said A. We witnessed this in the streets- girls in hijab linking arms with girls wearing Christian crosses, and elderly men of the two faiths playing chess on the sidewalks. The rest of the world has a thing or two to learn from these wonderful people.

We got taken to the village of Beit Jala which is on top of a hill. Most of Beit Jala's land has already been usurped by the wall and the settlements. We also saw several bombed-out houses from the 2002 incursions.

We also had the chance to visit Aida and Deheisheh refugee camps. It is impossible to describe how crowded a camp is if you haven't seen one. In the case of Deheisheh, 11000 people are crammed into an area of 1 sq km. We visited the home of a 107-year-old man who lost his teenage grandson to an Israeli bullet. People ask me why Palestinian children throw stones. What harm does a stone do to a tank or a soldier wearing armour? Shouldn't the question be- why does the Israeli army shoot children throwing stones?

Our visit ended with a tour of the Church of the Nativity, where Jesus is said to have been born. This is the oldest church in the world- a huge structure, still in use for services and events like weddings. We were fortunate enough that a wedding was in process during our visit. A sound we had never heard before- Christian hymns in Arabic, set to organ music- filled the building. We visited the basement where you can see the manger in which the infant Jesus is said to have laid.

You can also see the bullet marks from the Israeli siege of the Church in 2002. When the military invaded Bethlehem, people of both faiths took refuge in the Church assuming that it would be safe, being a place of worship. However it was shelled by the Israeli forces- they respect nothing and nobody. Many died in the siege. I could sense the frustration of the Christians we met- they cannot understand why there wasn't a bigger outcry among the Christians of the world when the birthplace of their faith was being desecrated. They find it inexplicable that a large segment of Christians- the evangelicals- actually support Israel in its evil policies.

And the desecration of this once beautiful city perched on a hill continues- with the extension of the rapacious settlements and the wretched Wall, continuously gobbling up precious land and ruining the ecology. Not to mention destroying lives and livelihoods.

We ended the day by meeting S, a British surgeon who has been operating in the area for two years. She specializes in plastic and reconstructive surgery but has given up a potentially lucrative career in Britain. She is completely committed to the Palestinian cause, and intends to continue working here for as long as she is permitted.

We spent another evening with H, and had another fantastic Arab meal. We said our goodbyes and promised to stay in touch.

Tomorrow we go to Hebron. One of the scariest places on earth.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Day 2: Tel Aviv and Jerusalem

Arose bright and refreshed to a sumptuous Palestinian breakfast of breads, hummus, eggs, olives and fruits. Then 3 of us- N, K and I took a shared taxi from the Jewish area to Tel Aviv Central Bus Station.

Tel Aviv is like any modern American city- wide boulevards and gleaming glass buildings. Miri, who works for Physicians for Human Rights came to take us to her office. She is in her 20s with a bewitching smile. She introduced us to her colleagues- Jewish and Muslim- working together to campaign against the abuse of healthcare rights by Israel. She told us that till she went to university, she was a Zionist who had never met a Palestinian. However she chose to learn about their plight and is now a fierce critic of Israel. 'It isn't just an occupation,' she says. 'It is total control of every aspect of the lives of Palestinians'.

She described how Israel on a regular basis violates the right to access to health care in the West Bank- mainly by controlling movement. If you want to travel to hospital- and it could be an emergency like labour or a heart attack- you still have to pass through checkpoints. Even if you are in an ambulance. And the check isn't just a five-minute security check- a mother could be suffering the agony of childbirth and they will detain the vehicle for hours. Since the year 2000, 68 women have been forced to give birth in cars and on the ground in the baking sun resulting in 4 maternal and 34 infant deaths. People on dialysis and chemotherapy are regularly denied transit.

There are more than 700 checkpoints in the WB- and these are between Palestinian towns, not between Palestine and Israel. It is clear that their purpose is not security- it is simply to control and humiliate people and force them into leaving their country, so that Israel can chew up more and more land.

We were also shocked to learn that Palestinian ambulances are regularly shot at, and many doctors, nurses and paramedics have died as a result of this.

We also learnt of the plight of Bedouins in the Negev desert in Israel. There are 60 villages which have existed before 1948, the existence of which Israel does not recognize. As a result they have no healthcare, electricity or clean water. Their infant mortality rate is 7 times the Israeli average- in the 4th richest country in the world, with possibly the best healthcare system anywhere.

She also told us how medical students from Abu Dis University in Jerusalem have been cut off by the Wall from Maqassed Hospital, which is their main teaching centre. As a result they are forced to do their clinical years in West Bank hospitals- which Israel does not recognize! Medical students are rarely able to complete their degree in time due to checkpoints and curfews.

We also met Dr Hadas Ziv, the director of PHR. She had a simple message- the world criticizes Israel but continues to arm it to the teeth with money and weapons. While it sympathizes with the Palestinians and does nothing for them. This has got to change. As for the accusation that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, they said that as Jews they were fearful that Israel's actions were fuelling anti-Semitism and the only way to correct this was for Israel to come to its senses.

Upon our return to Jerusalem, we did a bit of sightseeing. I got the opportunity to pray at al-Aqsa, which was an overwhelming experience. I also saw the Dome of the Rock which dominates the Jerusalem skyline and is stunning, especially when illuminated at night. The Israelis have attacked the two mosques several times- once a fanatical settler tried to blow it up.

We also visited the Stations of the Cross, the route Jesus is said to have taken with his cross to his crucifixion. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is built on the site where he is said to have been crucified and buried. It is an intensely atmospheric place, full of burning incense and chanting monks. It is not far from the Wailing Wall, of great significance to Jews. No wonder Jerusalem is called the centre of the world by some.

I only found out today that the 'Jewish' Quarter of the Old City was home to 6000 Muslim and Christian Palestinians prior to 1967. There was a small Arab Jewish population which had coexisted peacefully for years. In 1967, Israel occupied Jerusalem and destroyed over 1000 houses in this area, forcing these people into refugee camps. This area is now exclusively populated by wealthy Jews, and the lingua franca is American English. Israeli law forbids any non-Jewish person to live in this area.

We finished the day with a walk round the Old City and dinner. While we were eating at a street cafe, a group of Israeli Occupation Force (IOF) soldiers- they call themselves the IDF- D for defence (!)- sauntered past us. They must have identified our accents as English and came up to us to speak. They told us that they were having a 'fun night' and wanted us to join them in a group song called 'Moshiach'. This is at ten at night when the Old City is trying to sleep.

Needless to say, they got a disdainful 'no' from us. We would rather go to prison than sing with these gun-toting teenagers who humiliate the residents of Jerusalem on a daily basis by stopping them randomly and asking them for ID.

Anyway I'm tired and we need to go to Bethlehem tomorrow. See you then!

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Day 1: Ben Gurion Airport and Jerusalem

I'm here and I can't believe it. It'll take some time to sink in.

But it was no cakewalk. Flight uneventful enough, but Ben Gurion airport was, as I feared, an experience to remember. I got what is called 'the special treatment'.

Landed at 4 am. The other six got through without a hitch. They had the advantage of being white. We were all fully prepared- we had an itinerary all prepared and printed out which described how we would be visiting various holy sites in Jerusalem during our time here. I had made a dummy booking in a non-Arab hostel for one night. We even had glossy business cards printed out- the 'Manchester Interfaith Forum'. But when I got to the sulky female immigration officer, her eyebrows rose an inch. And she looked none too pleased to see my passport with my very obviously Muslim name. When she swiped it through her computer, an alarm must have gone off somewhere because an airport policewoman appeared and asked me to come with her. I was told to sit in an enclosure with other people selected for the 'special treatment'. Then followed six-and-a-half hours of waiting and being interrogated.

I was interviewed by four different plainclothes security personnel. The questions ranged from the mundane to the ridiculous-
Why are you here?
So you're Muslim? Are you religious? How many times a day do you pray?
What is your job? Which hospital do you work in? What is the phone number of the hospital?
What is your marital status?
Are you carrying any weapons? (as if I could have got them through Manchester airport or mysteriously acquired them on the plane!)
Do you know anybody in Israel or Palestine?
How many people are in your group? How long have you known each other? Is the Jewish lady in the group married?
What is your father's name? Your grandfather's name? How do you spell it? Where were your parents and grandparents born?
Are you planning to visit the West Bank?
Why did you choose your hotel?
Why are you of Indian origin? Why are you not of Pakistani origin when you are Muslim?

The infuriating thing was that the questions kept being repeated by the different personnel. I must have spelt out my grandfather's name five times. And after the initial interview, they kept coming up to me every now and again with one or two random questions- what was the name of your hospital again? Are you married?

N, one of the other members of our group was allowed to sit with me in the enclosure when I wasn't being interviewed. Thanks N- it was great to have you by my side.

All the other people being held had one thing in common- they were non-white. A woman of Palestinian origin but German citizenship had come to visit her family after 14 years. She was handed her baggage and told to get on the next plane to Germany.

After the interviews, I was taken into a room with two other security personnel where I was asked to unpack my baggage and hand each item over for inspection. I had been told that I might be strip searched- this did not happen, but a securityman wearing plastic gloves frisked me like nobody had frisked me before. There was no part of me he didn't run his hands over. He then asked me how much money I had brought- I then had to hand it to him so that he could count it!

At about 8 am I was told that everything seemed 'ok' but 'did I know who I shared my name with?' I answered that my name was an extremely common one and I probably shared it with millions of people- was I expected to change it because some unsavoury character somewhere in the world had the same name?

I was asked to wait another 'few minutes' because another official who wasn't there yet needed to interview me. An hour and a quarter later this officer appeared and asked me to follow him down a dark corridor, up several flights of aluminium steps, through several metal doors into what looked like a huge bank safe. It was an office with 'Ministry of Defence' written on the desk. There was an Israeli flag and a huge picture of a smiling Ehud Olmert behind the desk. I caught a glimpse of the officer's PC screen- it had a page open titled 'Crime File' with my name on it. So they were creating a file with all my details!

I was asked all the same questions again. However this time he also wanted to know-
Which countries have you visited (in your entire life?)
Did America allow you in?
Which medical school did you go to? Which city is it in? Which year did you pass out? Which cities have you worked in in the UK?
What are your siblings' names? What are their spouses' names? Where do they live and what jobs do they do? What is the name of the company your sister works for?
Do you know about the recent terror attacks by Muslim doctors in the UK? Did you work with any of those doctors? You are Muslim and a doctor- shouldn't we consider you a terrorist as well? (it was difficult to keep calm at this point but I managed somehow.)

He was constantly tapping away at his computer storing this information. I wonder what they do with all the useless information they have on people.

He then proceeded to ring my sister- it would have been about seven in the morning in London- to ask her the same questions about my work, my family and her work. He didn't tell her who he was. She gave him the true answers- when he had finished with her, he passed the phone to me. I told her I was ok- she asked me whether she had been right to speak the truth. On this occasion, yes! I was to learn later that she became extremely worried when she received the phone call- because it was several hours after I landed, she didn't know whether it was the Israelis or a Palestinian faction which was holding me and wasn't sure how to answer!

The ordeal finally ended about half-past ten. Before leaving, N and I were given a cheese and vegetable baguette. The Palestinian woman got nothing. I learnt later that my friends- who, by the way, had been sitting on the cold floor throughout my interrogation- had contacted the British Embassy who had been speaking to the Israelis every 30 mins. The embassy official thought that the reason for my detention was my religion. If he hadn't been involved, I may have been held longer- probably even sent back. And I wouldn't have got the baguette!

We made our way to Jerusalem in a shared taxi. When you catch your first glimpse of the Dome of the Rock, it is breathtaking. Our hotel was in the old city and we walked through a Palestinian souq teeming with aroma, colour and people to get to it. I was overjoyed to be there.

Our hotel had a fantastic view of the old city from the terrace. After a glass of mint tea, we had an hour's sleep and then had to leave to join a tour organized by the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD). We were taken around Jerusalem by a Jewish lady of Mexican origin called Lucia and her Palestinian colleague.

The contrast between the Jewish and Arab areas of Jerusalem couldn't be more stark. Apartheid is the only way to describe it. For administrative purposes, Israel considers all of Jerusalem to be part of Israel (though the UN regards East Jerusalem as occupied). All residents of Jerusalem- Palestinian or Israeli- pay taxes (by the way, Orthodox Jews are exempted from taxation). Despite contributing 40% of taxation, the Palestinian areas only get 7% of municipal expenditure. The Jewish areas are spanking clean with wide roads, smart cars and spotless houses. The Arab areas get no garbage disposal- we saw mounds of rubbish which had been there for weeks. At night, the shopkeepers in the souq clean the streets themselves because the municipality refuses to serve them.

Since 1967, 18000 houses have been demolished in Palestine. Sometimes with the inhabitants still in the house. People go to work not knowing whether their house will still be there when they return. The reason given for demolition is that the construction does not have a permit. Even to extend his house on his own land, a Palestinian requires a permit. This costs $20000 to apply for (and is almost always never granted). So as his family grows, a Palestinian is forced to build illegally. Then in come the bulldozers. The icing on the cake is that the inhabitants have to remove the rubble themselves and the Israeli government bills them for the demolition. So, many Palestinians have taken to demolishing their houses themselves to avoid this humiliation. We saw a block of flats housing 21 families which had recently been reduced to rubble.

(ICAHD has sworn to rebuild every house that Israel demolishes. In the past ten years they have reconstructed 101 homes- some of these, several times over. Details are on the fascinating website You can also make an online donation there.)

If you are Jewish- from anywhere in the world- regardless of whether you or your family have any links to Israel- you can simply arrive here and start living. The government will pay for your airfare, six months rent, give you a flat and a job. You will be given discounts on mortgages. Yet you could have been living here for generations but because you are Palestinian, you could lose your house. And Israel is 'the only democracy in the Middle East'.

It is clear that Israel wishes to 'Judaize' Jerusalem. In the Old City, you see Israeli flags everywhere- these are houses in Arab areas whose inhabitants have been pushed out and illegally occupied by fanatic Jewish settlers. This continues unabated and the government turns a blind eye- I daresay it encourages it, Ariel Sharon has a flat in the Old City. The settlers harass the Arabs living in the surrounding houses- many have left as a result.

We also visited the Separation Wall in Jerusalem. I cannot describe how ugly this structure is. 8 metres high and topped with barbed wire, it is twice the height of the Berlin Wall. Here it cuts through a Palestinian neighbourhood, separating people on the other side from their schools, universities and offices. We visited a shop next to the Wall whose business has been destroyed by it as all his customers are trapped on the other side.

We also visited the Jewish settlement of Ma'ale Adumim. It is a beautiful, spotlessly clean city of 33000 inhabitants just east of Jerusalem. However under international law it is an illegal colony- it is built east of the Green Line of 1967 on Palestinian West Bank land. It has modern shopping malls, swimming pools and schools. The Wall in this area is being built in such a way that it will incorporate Ma'ale Adumim into Jerusalem- and therefore into Israel. So much for 'security' being the reason for the Wall.

On top of a hill near Jerusalem, you see several more settlements being built on Palestinian land. Ultimately the Wall will annex them all. I fail to understand how Israel can be serious about 'peace' when it continues this obscene landgrab. It is nothing but daylight robbery.

We went home heavy-hearted and full of despair. However we had to go out to eat. It was late- Jerusalem closes early- but we managed to find a restaurant just about to close. And then we experienced what Palestine is famous for- its hospitality. The owner laid out a veritable feast of the most delicious grilled meats, salads and sauces.

Tomorrow is a busy day. I'm visiting Physicians for Human Rights in Tel Aviv.

I can't believe it. I'm in Palestine!