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). http://www.icahd.org/ 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 www.18000homes.org. 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!

33 comments:

AA said...

Dear A,

Welcome to Palestine! I am sorry to read about the way you were treated in the airport!
I hope you enjoy your stay here and make it up. We'll meet you soon.

LC said...

Hi A, really good to read your blog, sorry about your humiliating experience. Will be interested to keep reading your accounts and will pass them on to other friends. Please give D my love.
Yours in solidarity

GB said...

Thanks for this. I want to say a wonderful report, despite being so awful in places. Keep up the blogging. Warmest greetings to all. Try to persuade them to follow your example.

ME said...

Hi A- thanks for the blogspot. Sorry you got the special treatment - it is outrageous but well done for getting through it. Just as well you were not travelling alone. Enjoy the remainder of your stay and keep up the good work. I look forward to further blogging. Cheers to all.

NN said...

Mabruuk for getting in. your blog story sounded exactly like mine apart from I went solo and they didn't call home.

CW said...

Thanks for the blog. What an arrival, but I thought it might be somewhat like that. Thank heavens it was just questioning.

You're all very brave. I guess it helps having good companions.

It all brought tears to my eyes. It's not thats it's new. I suppose when it's some one you've met, the telling seems so much more real.

Sounds like anatomy & physiology have taken on a new meaning!

Bless all of you. No computer now for a week.

In Peace

DAN said...

Hi A,
It's been a long time but I've just read your blog and
wanted to let you know how interesting it is and that I'm
very impressed by everything you've been involved in over
the past months. I hope you have a wonderful time and
that you don't get harassed any more.
Take care

JL said...

It's all beautifully written and I look forward to more installments.

Take care

Brian said...

I have just got back to Pittsburgh from Palestine and, like ChestDoc, have been overwhelmed by what I saw. I'm recording my impressions in an article which notes:
"Looking and not seeing has become the lifestyle of Israeli culture that, if it did actually see, would recoil in shame. Israeli tourist guides quickly usher flocks of credulous visitors away from the inconvenient facts of a cruel occupation to indulge in exercises in ‘landscape interpretation’. Evangelicals and U.S. Congressmen, thus indoctrinated, relay the fantasy wholesale to their congregations. An alternative-reality Israel (Oz-rael?) has been brought into being as the recipient of its admirers’ ardent devotion and dollars. But perhaps Israeli society has become so calloused, so indifferent to suffering that they actually accept what they see?

Keep in touch
Brian Johnston

Brian said...

P.S.
Apropos 'suicide bombers' - what is it that is bad, the suicide or the bombing. Israeli pilots and tank commanders bomb and kill far more men, women and children - but then they go home to the comfort of their families. Is the suicide bomber, who gives his life in the act, worse?

A said...

Hi Brian
Thank you for posting on my blog. Those are powerful words indeed. Carry on the good work in the US- your job is much harder than mine!

jim said...

Your experience is so accurately described, so similar to my own. We met with the same people, went to the same places. Thank you for being so articulate and taking the time to do this.

A said...

Thank you Jim. Keep reading and spreading the word.

Ibrahamav said...

Of course it is unbelievable. There is no nation known as Palestine. There never was.

A said...

So Ibrahamav- there's no such country as Palestine? Well that's funny, because I've just been there!

Sample these quotes from a man whom no doubt you admire:

"Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame you because geography books no longer exist. Not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either. Nahlal arose in the place of Mahlul; Kibbutz Gvat in the place of Jibta; Kibbutz Sarid in the place of Huneifis; and Kefar Yehushua in the place of Tal al-Shuman. There is not a single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population."

-- David Ben Gurion, quoted in The Jewish Paradox, by Nahum Goldmann, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978, p. 99.

"Let us not ignore the truth among ourselves ... politically we are the aggressors and they defend themselves... The country is theirs, because they inhabit it, whereas we want to come here and settle down, and in their view we want to take away from them their country."
-- David Ben Gurion, quoted on pp 91-2 of Chomsky's Fateful Triangle, which appears in Simha Flapan's "Zionism and the Palestinians pp 141-2 citing a 1938 speech.

By the way, thanks for coming back to my blog. It can't be that bad, you've read it right to the end!

Ivor Hughes said...

Your blog was a hand trembling throat aching experience and my head screams inside at the type of mind that could sanction such behavior.

One day and .. maybe not in my lifetime .. but the monsters will stand in shackles before a Panel of Judges at the International Court in the Hague .. until then I can only salute the incredible fortitude of the Palestinian People.

Namaste.

A said...

Dear Ivor
Salaam
Thanks for the comment- you have described perfectly what I feel all the time.
Don't let the anger consume you- utilize it for the Palestinian cause. Speak to everyone and anyone about them. And direct them to the blog.

Ivor Hughes said...

A.
you may depend on that .. and I wear the foul labels that they pin upon me as a badge of honor.

Salutations.
Ivor

Daphna said...

thank you for your beautiful words, and for caring. I wish more people will read and do somethine

Anonymous said...

Hi sir,
I am really happy because of reading your blog .It really affects me. your way of writing is very simple and effective while you are transferring deep meaning through easy words.I love honesty which is appeard in your writings.
thanks for being honest.
thanks for every thing.

your student

A said...

Dear anonymous 'student'
Thank you very much. Who are you? Drop me a line with your email. Comments are moderated here, so I won't display it.
A

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your blog! A small piece in a big puzzle of truth and justice!

Anonymous said...

My first trip to Palestine was twenty years ago this year, during the first Intifada. Oddly, little has changed there...except maybe for the wall. Thank you sooooo very much for your wonderful site. I am currently writing a book myself. Good luck to you and to all of our friends in Palestine.

Anonymous said...

Just a word of encouragement. More people need to learn forthemselves what is going on in Palestine. I led a group in October 2007 - spending most of our time around Bethlehem - having been there with my young family in Oct 2004. I take your point about the need for the evagelical wing of the Christian church to recognise and do something about what is going on. However for your information I and the other 16 people who went to encourage and support, learn about, develop links with Palestinians are all evangelical Christians. Evangelicals - in the UK and around the world are waking to what is happening.

A said...

Dear evangelical Christian brother,

Thanks for your comment. I have recently become aware of what some people label 'alternative' Christian evangelism. It is indeed encouraging what you are doing. I wish you all the best in what is undoubtedly a difficult endeavour. You will certainly face name-calling and maybe even ostracism, but don't stop shouting.

Anonymous said...

I just went thru your blog and came across some pictures, which can truly hurt the feelings of muslims, especially the ones with the Prophet (PBUH) / Religion involved...

Kindly, remove them...

Much appreciated

A said...

Dear anonymous
Yes, some of the graffiti and pictures are offensive to Muslims. Can you imagine how offensive they must be to the Palestinians of Hebron- who have to see them every day?
The reason I included these pictures is to show the racist nature of the Hebron settlers and their immunity from censure by the Israeli authorities. So the pictures will not be removed, it is important the world sees this reality.

Anonymous said...

hi, your story is very interesting like lots of people here said.
your way of explaining it is simple and effective.
me and a friend want to go there too but we are both muslim ( I am Turkish and he is Egyptian) we tried Israel once through Taba/Eilat Border but they made us wait longer dan 7 hours :S so we told them to fuck of and give our passport back while they Egyptian border guard smiled at us :D
but your story makes me so mad especialy about those hebron settlers man i feel sorry for the people there they cant beat them back becasue the IDF is guarding them, but our main reason that we want to go is Jerusalem , we want to go to Al-Aqsa and pray and see the city but i have a question , who controls the entrance to the temple mount?? the IDF or the musslims and do you need anything that prooves that you are a muslim?

A said...

The entrance to the al-Aqsa compound is controlled by the IDF- including some Arab recruits. There are specific visiting times, but at prayer times only Muslims are allowed. You had better carry some ID such as your passport indicating that you have a Muslim name. Good luck!

Velma said...

Well written article.

A said...

Here is a letter that a fellow UK activist, AC, wrote to the Guardian on 25 Nov 2008:

Dear Editor

I have just returned to the UK from Jerusalem. Last Tuesday a large group of us, hearing that the Al Khurd family had been evicted from their home in Sheikh Jarrah district of East Jerusalem, went to visit them.

Receving us in the newly-erected blue tarpaulin tent which was now her home, Fawzieh Al-Khurd related how several years ago a Jewish family had taken up residency in part of her home while her own family were still living in it. Recently her husband was hospitalised due to a heart condition and diabetes. While she was at the hospital with her husband, the Jewish family took advantage of her absence to move into yet more rooms of her house.

Last Sunday night at 3am. a truck, full of furniture, drew up. The door of her house was pushed in, Muhammed Al-Khurd, whose poor health necessitates the use of a wheelchair, was thrown onto the ground outside his home. His wife, Fawzieh, still in her night clothes, was thrown after him, followed by all their furniture. One of our group,staying in the hotel above the house, was woken by Fawzieh's screaming. He saw from his hotel window the truckload of furniture being moved in, followed by the Jewish family.

The next day three of us, British citizens, went to the British Consulate, behind the Al-Khurd house, to report what we had seen and heard. Afterwards we walked past the house, now draped in bunting of Israeli flags, with a large blue and white Israeli flag mounted provocatively on the roof. We saw the Jewish "residents" going in with their small children and stopped one of them to ask why she had taken the house: she walked passed us saying something in Hebrew. We went once more to see the Al-Khurd family. Two canvas tents now stood on the rocky ground directly beneath the house. What happened? we asked. Fawzieh told us that Jerusalem Municipality personnel had been the night before and demolished the blue tent she was living in. Someone had brought her these two smaller canvas tents.

A few hours ago, I received an email telling me that Mohammed Al-Khurd died today. I wonder how Fawzieh, a most dignified, gentle and articulate woman, is coping with such profound cruelty, loss and injustice? In our last conversation with her she said tearfully "Britain brought this virus to us, Britain must now take the virus away". She made it clear that she was referring to the Balfour Declaration and the British/UN decision to partition Palestine, leading to the destruction and depopulation of over 400 Palestinian villages and six towns.The Al-Khurd family had been one of the tens of thousands of victims of that expulsion.

The Israelis, in defiance of international law and UN Resolutions, are still attempting to drive Palestinians out of East Jerusalem in their determination to Judaise the entire city. When will the British Government and the EU have the courage to act in order bring this brutal colonisation of Palestinian territories to an end? An obvious lever is to suspend the EU-Israel Association Agreement until such time that Israel returns to its 67 borders and complies with the many UN Resolutions and humanitarian laws it has flouted for decades.

Yours sincerely

Anonymous said...

Dear A,
I was surfing about Nablus, when i suddenly saw your blog.its so touching , and i feel somewhat sad because some people are treated like pigs .its just so unfair.I love Nablus like my second country even though havent been there yet, but im planning to visit it when i can.and experience what you had experience.this blog is a proof that palestinians are being mistreated, and you did a fine job letting the world know about it.the pictures gave tears in my eyes , walahe.the children and woman and old folks are the most vulnerable victims,its just heartbreaking.i just hope the ,!two -state solution !works out.long live palestine.

nondas35 said...

I had the opportunity to visit Hebron near the Cave of the Patriarchs and I witnessed some of what you have documented in your blogs. I visited both sides of the fence & I saw the graffiti & the garbage. I was there around the same time you were - end of Sept. 2007 - I also heard the story of the gynecologist that was run out. This was a real eye opening experience

Thank you for sharing this amazing experience & doing such a wonderful job of blogging! :)
~Ananda