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:

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.