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!