Thursday, September 20, 2007

Now: A village in northern England

I have been home for three weeks. When I got back I was so exhausted I fell ill. Back to normal now.

My life has changed forever. What I witnessed in those two weeks in the West Bank will haunt me till I die. I am almost resentful of my idyllic life here, and sometimes I wish I was back in Palestine- my second home.

Some people have told me I was 'brave' to go to such a dangerous place. There is nothing brave about what I did- breathing in a bit of teargas and dodging a few rubber bullets does not make me a hero. I am back in England living my comfortable life, driving my fast car to my secure job. Yet my friends in Palestine are still queuing at checkpoints in the sun, facing tanks and live bullets in the camps, coming home to find their houses demolished, and watching helplessly as the evil Wall and the greedy settlements devour their land.

I have been speaking to friends and family since my return, and they have been horrified by what they have heard. Most of them had no idea how bad things were. A few have criticized me for being 'too one-sided'. In the weeks and months to come, when I do my talks and write my articles, some people will be baying for my blood. I know that. But I couldn't care less. I've been there and I know the truth.

I shall attempt to counter these arguments here.

'There are two sides to every story.' Indeed. May I ask you what the 'other side' to the Iraq war is? Or, for that matter, what was the 'other side' to apartheid? To Nazism? Sometimes, there is a wrong and a right. An oppressor and an oppressed. I know which side I'm on.

'The Palestinians are hot-headed Islamic extremists.' Nonsense. This has nothing to do with Islam. All Palestinians- Muslim and Christian- are fighting a battle for survival. And, by the way, they are a highly educated, cultured and intelligent people, thank you very much.

'Israel has suffered terribly at the hands of suicide bombers.' True. I condemn all violence against civilians, whether they be Palestinian or Israeli. But history did not start with suicide bombings. They only began in the 1990s. While I will never condone them, I am not sure how I would react if I had to watch my mother die while giving birth at a checkpoint. Or if I were forced to see my father strip in public. Or if soldiers stormed my house at 3 in the morning and pumped bullets into my sister. And if I knew that there was no government, army, police or judiciary to fight my corner, I don't think I'd throw flowers at Israeli soldiers.

Do you want to stop suicide bombings? Easy. Make it an equal battle. Give the Palestinians F-16s and Apache helicopters. There is another solution though: stop treating them like animals, and give them justice. Read these powerful words by an Israeli woman who lost her daughter in a suicide bombing:

'You are anti-Semitic.' Rubbish. I have many Jewish friends in Britain, and now in Israel as well. They are disgusted at what Israel is doing, and are fighting a brave and often dangerous battle, sometimes at the expense of being ostracized by family and friends. The leading critics of Israeli policy- Noam Chomsky, Amira Hass, Ilan Pappe, Norman Finkelstein, the late Tanya Reinhart- are all Jewish.

This is not a centuries-old Jews versus Muslims conflict. It is a matter of basic human rights. If one is criticizing house demolitions, checkpoints, extrajudicial executions etc, and one is accused of being anti-Semitic, then the accuser is bizarre indeed. In order for these criticisms to be anti-Semitic, the accuser has to accept those violations of international law as inherent characteristics of Judaism. So who is being anti-Semitic here?

'There are so many conflicts in the world today- why are you so obsessed with Palestine?' In case you hadn't guessed by now, justice for Palestine is the key to peace in the Middle East. It is a festering sore in the flesh of every Arab; the longer it goes on, the more resentful of the West they become.

Yes, there are many terrible conflicts like Darfur, Somalia, the Congo, Chechnya and Kashmir. But these are relatively recent, while the oppression of the Palestinians has been going on for 60 years. It is the longest ongoing occupation in the world today- and the only one apart from Iraq. And the only one where the oppressor is being financed and armed to the teeth by the 'civilized' world. I went to Palestine at some risk to myself to learn the truth. If your heart bleeds for Colombia, that's admirable. When are you packing your bags then?

'The Palestinian leaders are to blame- look at how corrupt they've been. They've swallowed millions of dollars worth of aid.' Possible. That doesn't give Israel the right to kill, imprison and humiliate Palestinian civilians though. And when the Palestinians did vote out their corrupt leaders, how did the West reward them? With sanctions. Can't win.

'The other Arabs don't help the Palestinians.' This is largely true and should lead us to support the Palestinians all the more for it.

'There are 22 Arab states, why can't the Palestinians go there?' This argument assumes that all Arab/Muslim states are the same, rather than acknowledging the wide variety of cultures, foods, customs and dialects represented by them. By the same logic, if France were to occupy Britain tomorrow, the British should simply pack their bags and move to Italy; after all, Italy is also a predominantly white and Christian country.

Of course, there are many more such arguments and I shall happily answer any queries you may have. Just leave a comment on the blog.

I must go now. There are letters to be written, talks to be prepared and a film to edit. But if my diary has moved you at all, and you wish to join the Palestinian cause, please visit any of the links on the right. But the most important thing you can do is to spread awareness. So forward this blog to as many people as possible. And talk about Palestine. Whenever I asked a Palestinian, 'What is the single most important thing we can do for you?' the answer was always, 'Tell people about us.'

It has been a pleasure to write for you.


(I have taken some ideas for this entry from the booklet 'Counter-Rhetoric'. It is available from the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.)

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Day 14: Ben Gurion Airport

After my meeting with the students, I go back to the hotel and spend the rest of the evening there. The stomach bug has really got a hold and I must rest.

I have booked a shared Israeli taxi at a cost of 45 shekels per person to drive us to Ben Gurion. It shall be picking us up at 2 am from Jaffa Gate, which is a fair hike up the hill from our hotel. Not a thrilling prospect for the middle of the night but we have no choice. He refuses to come to Damascus Gate. I know the reason- it is too near the Arab area.

I tell SH, the hotel owner, of these arrangements. He has an alternative. He can book us a Palestinian taxi for 50 shekels per head from Damascus Gate. I have no hesitation in taking up the offer- I cannot pass up this final opportunity to pump money into the Palestinian economy. We try to contact the Israeli company to cancel but they do not pick up the phone. Oh well, never mind. I am secretly pleased that they will lose 270 shekels!

However our group cannot even take a taxi ride without causing chaos. The taxi driver and SH have just helped us and our baggage into the van when another vehicle screeches to a halt in front of us. It is trying to block us from leaving. It is the Israeli taxi!

The Israeli taxi driver gets out and starts arguing with our driver and SH. 'You have stolen my customers'. SH puts his head into our van. 'Did you book an Israeli taxi by any chance?' I can sense the tension in his voice. We give him the answer he wants. 'No', we chorus, shaking our heads vigorously. The Israeli puts his head in next. 'Which one of you is **** (my surname)?' I had booked the taxi in my name. 'No, there's nobody by that name here.' He finally leaves and we depart.

We know he isn't fooled. It would be too much of a coincidence for two groups of six people to be leaving for the airport from exactly the same spot in Jerusalem at the same time. I realize he has my mobile number- I switch the phone off. SH rings our taxi driver to warn us that the Israeli is hot on our heels (he has some other passengers for the airport). He warns us not to divulge the name of our hotel to anyone. He is obviously worried that someone from the company may cause trouble for him. We reassure him.

As we approach Ben Gurion, the taxi is stopped at a security barrier. An Israeli soldier takes our passports away. When he returns, he asks us, 'So, did you have a good time in Israel? Ate lots of hummus, falafel and baklava?' I am infuriated beyond words. Since when did these become Israeli dishes? Not content with stealing the Palestinians' land, do they want to claim their cuisine as their own too? It may seem like a petty observation to make, but you have to understand that our nerves are frayed as a result of what we have seen in our two weeks here.

As the massive terminal looms ahead, I am reminded of the words of Yasser Darwish from Birzeit University: 'My family lived in a village once. It no longer exists. They call it Ben Gurion airport now.'

I am filled with a sense of foreboding as we enter the airport. I have been warned that the interrogation on the way out can be worse than on arrival. The Israelis have been known to take people off the plane after boarding, then put them back on again just in time. No doubt, the sole purpose is intimidation.

Usually the first thing you do at an airport is check in. Not here- we have to join a queue for questioning. We tell the security officers that we are a group of six. They decide to question two of the women in our group- and leave me alone. Unbelievable. If I was sitting, I would have fallen off my chair.

K and D get asked why we'd come to Israel, where we'd been, who we'd met, how we travelled around, why we'd come to Israel (again!), how we knew each other, how long we'd known each other, why we'd come to Israel (yet again!).....and so on. Needless to say, our preparation is flawless. The story about a multi-faith group spending two weeks in Jerusalem visiting holy sites works. Although the officers do ask, 'But why would Christians and Jews want to socialize with Muslims?'

The next step is baggage inspection. Everything goes through an x-ray machine. Then some bags are selected for manual inspection. Mine is among them. A smiling female security officer asks me to open the case and show her my sandals. She runs an electonic 'sniffer' over them. I can see what the problem is- the soles are very thick, and could potentially hide banned substances or explosives. She is not interested in anything else. 'So my sandals have set an alarm off, have they?' I ask her jokingly. 'No, don't worry, everything is fine,' she reassures me.

We then proceed to check-in, which is uneventful. After this is the usual airport security check where you get frisked and your cabin baggage is looked at. No problems here either. At any other airport, the next step is to proceed to the gate. Not here. A sign ahead of us says 'Immigration'. My heart sinks. They will be waiting for me here.

The others get through without a hitch. After the officer swipes my passport, there is an uncomfortable silence for what feels like an eternity. I know what has happened. A phone has rung somewhere. Sure enough, a securitywoman appears and takes my passport. 'Come with me please.' I follow her- but the others are having none of it. They follow too. I am asked to wait on a bench. The others crowd round me. There is barely half an hour to takeoff.

The door to the security office is open, and we see an officer inspecting my passport and tapping something into a computer. Aha. He will be looking at my 'Crime File'. L goes up to him and demands to know why her friend is being detained. 'Your friend?' he says incredulously. To him, obviously, friendship between people of different religions and races is an alien concept. We are so fortunate in the UK! He sends L away.

It is now perilously close to our departure time. The others march to the office and surround the securityman.
'We have a flight to catch.'
'You won't miss it.'
'But what about our friend?'
'We have to complete the procedure.'
They come back.

The officer finally puts his head round the door and calls my name. I walk to the office. He looks at me for a second, then hands me my passport. 'Have a nice flight.'

What was all that about?

It is a mad scramble to the gate, and we are the last people on the plane. After we settle into our seats, our relief gives way to an overwhelming sadness. It has been an incredible two weeks. Leaving is an unbearable wrench.

We take off.

Goodbye Palestine. You are now part of me.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Day 13: Jerusalem

After a hearty breakfast we say farewell to our hosts. We pile into a servees bound for Ramallah. It is about an hour-and-a-half away. The temperature drops as we ascend- no wonder Ramallah used to be a favourite destination for Palestinians in the summer.

At the taxi station in Ramallah we start looking for a servees to Jerusalem. 'Jerusalem?' laughs a driver. 'I'm not allowed there'. We had forgotten for a moment that Palestinians from the West Bank are forbidden to enter Jerusalem. He drops us off at Qalandiya checkpoint, where we must change again. The driver at Qalandiya knows a 'secret' route which will bypass the checkpoint. We have no hesitation in taking advantage of this opportunity to fool the soldiers!
As we approach Jerusalem, our hearts sink again. The Israeli domination is overwhelming here. Settlements surrounding the city. The Wall, wherever you turn. And Israeli flags fluttering above occupied houses in Palestinian areas. It is difficult not to feel suffocated and we wish we were back in the West Bank.

We get dropped off at Damascus Gate and make our way back to the same hotel we first stayed at. After a shower and a rest, we take a taxi to the office of B'Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization dedicated to documenting human rights abuses in the Occupied Territories. Their office is in a multistorey block in West Jerusalem. It is not immediately visible so K asks a man in an office on the ground floor for directions. As he comes out he sees me and his face changes colour spectacularly. He obviously thinks I am Palestinian and makes a racist comment in Hebrew. I admit that my knowledge of Hebrew is non-existent, but I can recognize swearing when I hear it.

Our meeting with the B'Tselem representative is brief. Having witnessed the appalling situation in the West Bank, we are curious to know why there isn't more of an uproar in Israeli society. She reminds us that at the height of the Intifada in 2002, there were several suicide bombings by Palestinians. These were used to justify oppressive measures in the West Bank and Gaza. I find this logic hard to decipher- history did not start with suicide bombings. The Palestinians have been suffering for sixty years. Suicide bombings- which I have no hesitation in condemning- only began in the 1990s as a result of intolerable frustration and helplessness.

I ask her why they are so few dissenting voices in Israel today, when suicide bombings are more or less a thing of the past, yet the inhuman treatment of Palestinians continues. She states that because there is a relative calm within Israel itself, people have very little interest in the suffering of the other side and are content to carry on with their lives as normal. At this, the words of Anan Qadri in Nablus come to my mind. Israel- and indeed the world- ignores the suffering of the Palestinians at its own peril. There is a limit to their tolerance and that threshold is not far away.

B'Tselem produces fantastic literature, maps and multimedia presentations and their website is well worth a visit.

The strain of the trip has started to tell on us. Already two people have had upset stomachs. It is now my turn. I choose to stay in the hotel for the evening while the others go out to dinner.

The next morning we shuffle through the piles of books, leaflets, maps and CD-ROMs that we have accumulated. I also have 10 hours of videotape. There is no way we are taking all this through the airport, it will simply get confiscated. We have been advised to use the Israeli post office to send stuff back, as anything posted from an Arab post office is likely to be searched by the Israelis and may take months to reach the UK; if it does at all.

Even a visit to the post office is an experience here; we pass through metal detectors and a guard searches our bags. We parcel our stuff and hand it to the clerk, who glares at me while she snaps at N. It is not until we leave the post office that I realize why- I still have my Palestinian wristband on!

It is Friday and I am looking forward to praying at al-Aqsa again. It is not difficult to find the way, everyone seems to be headed in its direction. When I enter the compound, I have to wade through a sea of humanity. On Fridays, the Dome of the Rock is reserved for women while men pray at al-Aqsa. However, the mosques can only accommodate a limited number so most pray outside in the baking sun. I am early, and lucky enough to find a place inside al-Aqsa.

It is an intense experience- rivalled only by my visits to Mecca and Medina at the age of ten. I am acutely aware that I may never be able to come here again. I pray for the health and wellbeing of my family and friends and beg for our sins to be forgiven. I also beseech the Almighty to bring to an end the suffering of all oppressed people, wherever they may be.

I have arranged to meet some medical students from al-Quds University. The student from Manchester researching the effects of occupation on health has said she will come too. But finding someone in the al-Aqsa compound just after Friday prayers is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Several frantic phone calls and text messages later- 'I'm standing near the fountain.....I've put up my silver umbrella.....I'm in a red t-shirt.....I'm under the tree.....Which tree? There are hundreds.....'- we all manage to find each other.

We walk to a cafe and order chilled drinks. Apart from the two al-Quds medical students, there is a theology student and two foreign medical students- one British, one Polish- on their electives here.

To understand the unique situation that al-Quds students- and indeed all Palestinian Jerusalemites- face, it is important to revisit 1967 when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza, and illegally annexed East Jerusalem. Israel declared Jerusalem to be 'the unified capital of Israel'; a position not recognized by the international community, including the United States.

The Palestinian residents of Jerusalem were offered Israeli citizenship- however this entailed pledging allegiance to Israel. Unsurprisingly, most of them declined. They were therefore declared 'residents' without citizenship, and are obliged to carry blue Jerusalem ID cards. The space next to 'Nationality' on these cards is blank. The residents of the West Bank, in contrast, carry green ID cards.

Blue ID holders cannot travel to the West Bank, and those with green ID cannot enter Jerusalem. This situation has divided families- including married couples. If a Jerusalem resident marries a West Bank Palestinian, it is forbidden for them to live together either in the West Bank or Jerusalem. As a result, many couples live illegally, in constant fear that one of them will be discovered and expelled. The only precedent to this obscene situation is that of South Africa under apartheid.

The students- M and Z- explain that the campus of the medical school is located in the Jerusalem suburb of Abu Dis. The main teaching hospital- Maqassed- is in the city proper. You used to be unable to tell where Abu Dis ended and Jerusalem started. Not any more. The Wall has separated the two and for all practical purposes, Abu Dis is now in the West Bank.

Z tells us that of the 40 students in his year, 5 have blue ID and the rest green. You can imagine the consequences. To go to Maqassed for their training, students with green ID need a special permit- which is very difficult to obtain. Even those who manage to get one can never be sure they will make it to the hospital as they are frequently turned away at the checkpoint for no reason. Therefore most green ID students are forced to travel to West Bank hospitals for their clinics- across more checkpoints.

The converse situation is that blue ID students may be able to attend clinics but are often stopped from going to lectures in Abu Dis. And this is no straightforward trip- a journey that should take no more than ten minutes can last an hour and a half due to checkpoints and the circuitous route the students have to take.

When they do manage to qualify, al-Quds doctors are prohibited from working in hospitals in Jerusalem and Israel as their qualification is not recognized by Israel. The West Bank hospitals are only an option for those with green ID. This situation forces many to go abroad.

All political activity on campus is forbidden. Z tells us about Imaduddin, a bright 4th year student who tried to initate an Islamic Society. Four months ago, the Israelis arrested him. He is still in administrative detention without charge. University starts in two weeks, and he will almost certainly lose a year. We shake our heads in disbelief- almost every campus in the UK has Islamic, Jewish and Hindu Societies for religious minority students.

Closures of the University are frequent- sometimes forced by the Israelis, sometimes due to financial troubles. Z tells us that his anatomy course was only able to cover the thorax and abdomen before classes were stopped. The students had to somehow study the rest of the human body themselves- they were tested on all areas in their exams. One can see why the University did this- otherwise it would take forever for the students to graduate.

An average of two medical students get arrested every year- no reason is provided. Soldiers enter the campus and its residences at will. M tells us that at the height of the Intifada students often got beaten up, simply for coming from centres of resistance like Nablus and Jenin.

We are dumbfounded by what we hear- in the UK, the main worry of many students is deciding where to get drunk on a Friday night. Yet in Palestine, we are reminded, once again, that obtaining a university education is a never-ending struggle.

(If you wish to support the medical school, visit The Foundation for Al-Quds University Medical School: