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!