Palestine

Jerusalem – Segregation in the Holy Land

Jerusalem – one of the oldest and holiest cities on Earth, important to three of the world’s major religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but recognized by everyone. It’s without a doubt one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Home to Temple Mount, Western Wall, Al-Asqa Mosque, Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The atmosphere is spiritual, walking the streets where the prophets walked felt very special, you could feel the ancient history in every stone but you could also feel the tension and pain in this troubled city.

Israeli soldiers by the Western Wall

There are many monks and pilgrims walking among military soldiers and police forces. The tragic irony, it’s history of persecution and now the persecution of it’s people hits very hard. In various news reports you hear about the violence and unrest in this holy city, the environment is unstable, yet I feel it’s beauty and peace as I walk the cobbled roads. I know I am very lucky to be here and I’m very grateful, it’s something you will never feel unless you are truly there yourself. There are various gates to enter the city, I was worried about finding the right one for where I wanted to go but people are on hand to  give me all the information I need as well as the city being sign posted very clearly, they are used to many different pilgrims and tourist visitors to the city. I’m mesmerized by watching other people, it’s a melting pot of differences and yet similarities, for many this is the journey of a lifetime, as it also is for me.

As a Muslim I was extremely excited and hopeful to pray in the Dome of the Rock, a dream of all Muslims after Mecca and Media. I knew making it to Jerusalem wouldn’t necessarily mean I would be allowed to enter the Dome of the Rock shrine so I kept my thoughts positive and focused my mind. I had heard you need to answer to Israeli soldiers at the gate to be allowed in, I wasn’t comfortable with this but I was prepared, I’d anxiously ‘revised’ my surahs just in case I forgot under pressure. Why did I have to prove my faith to a man when I wanted to have my personal conversation with God? A man of a different faith at that, but I  knew it was for ‘security’ reasons. Some people advised me to denounce my faith in order to enter Israel, to me that was ridiculous and blasphemous, I would never do that, I’m proud to say I am a Muslim, and this was going to be a good test for me.

At first I tried to enter via the wrong side, the Israeli solider tried to address me in Hebrew, which confused me as I thought he would speak to me in Arabic, I told him I only spoke English before he had a chance to respond, another man passing told me to take some steps to the entrance and said ‘he speaks Hebrew because he is Israeli’.  At this moment I felt that two religions / races which are so different are still connected as human beings and we can be civil to each other. I arrived at the correct side. Fortunately this Israeli solider spoke English and maintaining eye contact when he asked asked me my faith was enough with my Arabic name to be allowed in, it was the one place I felt the color of my skin was in my favor.

Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem

I had seen many photos but when I laid my eyes on the actual Dome, the feeling was indescribable, it was absolutely beautiful and this feeling of overwhelming emotions came over me. I had to stand for a moment and just gaze at it’s beauty in awe. Nothing else mattered, my mind emptied, I was completely in the moment. I couldn’t believe I was actually here, I had made it and I stood where many people would never be allowed to go, I was grateful, I was humble but I also tried to keep all my friends and family in my thoughts.

It was a cold day but the sun suddenly shone and the skies cleared. Inside was beautiful, and the most peaceful place, everyone was civil, I felt so much peace in my heart. I prayed for the peace and justice for the people of Palestine, it was such a warm feeling to pray alongside them. I was asked several times in the grounds if I was a Muslim, security was very tight.

I had seen the Western Wall on TV when I was a child when it was called, ‘The Wailing Wall’ and I was fascinated by the prayers which were slipped into it’s cracks, I really wanted to see it with my own eyes. Still in my hijab I wasn’t sure if Muslims were allowed but I heard the group of soldier guarding the entrance laughing and joking so decided to ask them. When they saw my British passport they instantly wanted to know more about me, some tried to talk to me in Arabic but I don’t speak it, another one from India spoke to me in Punjabi, they checked my bags and let me in. Once inside I kept my distance from the wall out of respect for the Jews who were praying. It occurred to me, many Jews and Muslims do not want conflict they just want to be allowed to practice their faith and despite everything going on there was respect for each other, after all Muslims and Jews both believe in God.

I returned to Jerusalem with a group of Palestinians who told me a very different story. At first I thought it was really nice to see Palestinians living in Jerusalem and that this sacred land would be open to everyone but I soon learnt that they are not allowed to live as equals together. Their, ‘permanent residency’ is a very fragile one which can be taken away. This surprised me a great deal.

A man tells us, he was imprisoned for ‘terrorism’, when we was just out and about on the street going by his daily business and on the day he was released he was arrested again. He joked the solider interrogating him didn’t even know what to ask him and even told him that as there was no real reason for his arrest. This story is being told to us in humorous way because it really is that ridiculous. This happens on a daily basis to Palestinians esp on the streets of Jerusalem.

This man had been arrested several times in Jerusalem for walking on the streets as a Palestinian.

Waiting just outside Damascus gate I saw a group of very bored looking soldiers, they looked around and saw a young Palestinian looking  man who was probably waiting for a friend,  they decided to approach. With nonchalance three heavily armed soldiers began to harass him demanding to see his passport and stretching out the contents of his bag – a pair of jeans , a tshirt and his underwear. If this wasn’t enough he was asked to put his arms up against the wall and have a body search. We were told not to take photos as these would be destroyed or worse our cameras would be broken and I didn’t want to risk it.

The penalty for carrying a knife is very high for Palestinians, as there have been knife attacks on Israeli soldiers. It’s extremely difficult for Palestinians to purchase a kitchen knife as if caught with this they can be imprisoned for 6 months. How are they supposed to cook? There is no concept of being proven innocent until proven guilty and many Palestinians are petrified of being framed for carrying weapons, which can very easily be done.

Jerusalem one of the oldest cities in the world,  resides between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean. It is claimed as the capital of both Israel and Palestine neither of which are recognized internationally (there are no embassies here), Israel holds it’s governing bodies, hence control.

East Jerusalem is seen in international eyes as occupied Palestinian territory by Israel since 1967. The Oslo Accords prohibit the establishment of any activity of the Palestinian Authority in Jerusalem. Due to the nature of Jerusalem being such an important area, occupation of the Palestinians who live there may be even harder than those living in the West Bank.

I had innocently thought Palestinians and Israelis would be living together in peace in Jerusalem before I visited, then I found out in reality they may live as neighbors in Jerusalem but there is very little communication between them. Palestinians are made to feel like foreigners in their own country.

Palestinians are not granted Israeli citizenship, even if they have been born in Jerusalem. They are given an Israeli ID card. If the Israeli government decide the center of their life is not in Jerusalem their residency can be taken, so this means they must live there, go to school (different schools from each other that is) and work in Jerusalem, not take long holidays to be away from home too long. Israeli’s on the other hand can live elsewhere even abroad and their homes and citizenship will be safe. Palestinians live in very small homes in Jerusalem in contrast to Israeli’s. Palestinians must also pay taxes to Israel, but the services they receive as a result are not the same as Israelis paying the same. Approximately 14,000 Palestinians have lost their residences in Jerusalem since 1967. Palestinians are also not usually allowed to travel from Israel’s Ben Gurion airport, they have to travel via Jordan and leave their ID cards there to collect on return.

Palestinians have to answer to military courts and are often sentenced without trials whereas Israeli’s are tried under civil laws and often given impunity.
Palestinians live in very small homes in Jerusalem in contrast to Israeli’s, they also often have their water supplies cut off.

The occupation has long been watched by human rights groups as International Humanitarian Law must apply to to any territory under occupation such as the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but this is not happening here.

I really wish more people were able to visit Jerusalem and it could become a city of peace where worshipers of all religions could pray together in unity.
Palestine, Uncategorized

Apartheid in Palestine and Israel

I didn’t know much about the segregation in Palestine before I was actually there experiencing and feeling it for myself. There is no doubt in my mind that what I saw can correctly be described as apartheid, as famously said by Nelson Mandela. In fact the Palestinians are using the similar model of non-violent resistance in Palestine as was used in South Africa to achieve freedom in hoping to do so themselves. Nelson Mandela went to prison for 27 years, there are many, many political prisoners in Palestine being held for just as long or even longer. Apartheid was a political and social system enforced in South Africa while it was under racial minority rule. I remember when this ended, I’m amazed it was actually in my lifetime, but then I came to Palestine and saw something VERY similar happening to this date I was even more shocked. There are many similarities – Palestinians and Israelis are restricted from going into different areas, they answer to different laws (civil and military) and even have to drive with identifying number plates on vehicles.

In 1993 the Oslo Accords were formed in the hope to support the peace treaty and allow Palestinians areas of self governance by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), however a Palestinian state was never created. Instead the West Bank has been divided into Areas A, B and C which are controlled differently by Israeli and Palestinian authorities. Area A is under full Palestinian control, Area B us under shared Palestinian civil control and Israeli military control and Area C is under full Israeli control. These areas are controlled by military checkpoints with heavily armed soldiers and sometimes even tanks. The Palestinians do not have equal rights as the Israelis, a significant example of this is when it comes to being granted building permits, they are almost never granted to Palestinians yet you will see Israeli settlements illegal built all over Palestine.

Watchtowers and Walls
Sign as we go into Area A

I am not sure if the Oslo Accords were quite envisaged how they turned out to be but I was in a military zone, there were watch towers everywhere and it was very uncomfortable to know you are always being watched. it’s not like CCTV, here you can clearly see the huge watch towers, it feels more like an open air prison, and everyone is guilty of a crime they haven’t committed, including myself.

The first time I crossed the checkpoint was GILO 300 on foot at 1am as I had arrived in Israel, it was crossing from Israel to Palestine and it was intimidating even when no one else but soldiers were there, it was not a pleasant experience. Other times I only crossed in a vehicle, but I heard stories and could envisage during the daytime these checkpoints were absolute chaos, people rounded like cattle to pass through. I also saw depending on the soldiers mood they may or may not let you through. There are many instances where Palestinians have been denied passing through checkpoints, for smiling, how they look and humiliated by being forced to strip naked and left without food and water all because the soldiers felt like it. I myself had a very different treatment as I have an international passport, but I did clearly see many Palestinians being harassed.

The segregation is caused by many factors but one of the major ones is the creation of physical barriers – walls, electric fences, trenches, blockades and military checkpoints. Israeli soldiers are given clear instructions to ‘shoot to kill’ anyone trying to cross these barriers during the night.

Israeli West Bank Barrier

The Israeli West Bank Barrier is the main wall which is huge and runs across ‘The Green Line’ which is the line drawn on the map to outline the border of the state of Israel and Palestine after the Israeli-Arab war in 1967, it was not supposed to outline a permanent border. The Israeli authorities state this wall has been built as ‘protection against terrorism’, whereas to the Palestinians this wall is the creation of racial segregation and apartheid. It is 440 miles long, and more than double the length of the Green Line, 85% of it cuts into the West Bank on Palestinian land, it is aiding the annexation of land in the name of ‘security’. The result is approximately 25,000 Palestinians isolated as they can’t cross it. They are prevented from accessing their own land, employment, visiting family, friends and even lovers. Relationships and marriages cannot take place because of the location of people across the wall. Sick people can not go to the hospital. I was told about an instance where a 6 year old girl in Palestine needed dialysis but the only hospital with the facilities to help was in Jerusalem, Israel granted her a permit to go but not to any of her family, they had to find someone else to take her. I heard similar stories about Palestinian cancer patients being denied access to hospital treatment because of their location.

I want to address a point which I didn’t understand until I spoke to Palestinians. Sometimes Israeli companies illegally build factories in the West Bank on Palestinian land, and this creates jobs for the Palestinians. this is how this idea is sold to us in the outside world as a positive move. In reality it is actually a form of modern day slavery – this is how someone explained it to me, they are not given the same wages as Israeli’s doing the same jobs, by working in these illegal factories it’s giving into accepting them taking their land and most of all it creates serious divides between Palestinian communities by those refusing to work there as a form of resistance and those struggling so hard to survive they have no choice. Jobs are scarce. It really is a form of forcibly compliance, living under occupation is an extremely hard life. Palestinians attempts to be self-sustainable with their own food and water sources for example is prevented, they have to rely on food to come from Israel, this was the saddest thing for me to hear. The BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions) global movement urges people in the rest of the world not to support this by boycotting the purchase of goods from Israel from the West Bank. For more information: https://bdsmovement.net/

In my group there was an American Mexican, and someone jokes, ‘how do you like the wall’ in light of Trump coming into power. Humor is used to address such serious situations, we all laughed but it’s very daunting to stand in the shadow of the wall, esp if you are on the ‘wrong’ side.

The walls reminded me of Berlin but more sinister and a lot bigger in size. I felt offended on behalf of the Palestinians how could such ugly eyesore barriers be placed up on THEIR land. I can’t believe I was standing here in 2017 feeling the way I do.

I’m constantly mocked for being an admirer of Stalin style architecture , but looking at this towering grey structure, I feel completely different, it completely cuts into the beautiful Palestinian scenery, cuts across the blue skies,  it disrupts the peace and cuts tension into the air. It doesn’t look like protection to me it looks like apartheid. A very deliberate barrier to segregate people and land. I love graffiti but I feel as though this canvas is not worth of such beautiful art, because art should be kept and treasured but this wall should go.

Having said that, it is warming to see the wall covered in artwork and messages of hope and support from many people around the world who have been to Palestine to show their love and support for the people. I really wish I had some spray paint!!!

Lots of artwork and images of Che Guevara the Marxist revolutionary and leader.

Standing on the hilltop looking at the walls it doesn’t feel real.There are many, many walls, in one sense it almost feels comical and childish that walls have been built on the other hand it’s a very serious and tragic situation, though somewhat unbelievable one. I felt a real sense of sadness looking over the landscape and seeing these structures, I can’t imagine if I woke up tomorrow and there was a wall assembled preventing me from going to work and visiting my friends and family, having my freedom taken like that.

Banksy, the famous graffiti writer from the UK has been making a statement in the West Bank by creating 9 pieces on this wall, which has drawn international attention to this area of the world. More information here: http://banksyworld.blogspot.co.uk/

Banksy has now opened a hotel here, ‘with the worst view in the world’, any profits will go towards local projects. http://walledoffhotel.com/ I’m very proud to be British and seeing another pararel between an element of Hip Hop (graffiti) and the resistance.

Humorous postcards I bought from a local shop, I love the one with Santa Claus.

Moving around Palestine I felt like I was in an open air prison controlled by a police state, suffocated by having my rights taken away and I was just a visitor with an international passport. On leaving I was apprehensive to go through all the security but once out I felt a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders, I felt free. I really do hope and pray that one day the people of Palestine will also taste the freedom that so many of us around the world take for granted.

Palestine

Dheisheh Refugee Camp, Palestine

The thought of having a refugee camp for Palestinians IN Palestine is something that dumbfounded me at first, I mean this is their country how can they possibly be displaced in their own homes? To my surprise I found out the sad reality of refugee camps are scattered across Palestine, providing homes to the many expelled Palestinians.

Defined by the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) Palestine refugees are, “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.” Illegal Israeli settlements also continue to displace many families.

We went to visit the Dheisheh refugee camp, south of Bethlehem. It’s one of the largest refugee camps home to 16,000 Palestinian refugees originally from 45 villages in West Jerusalem and Hebron and home to one of my volunteer group leaders. It was built in 1949 as temporary accommodation but it’s residents have no where else to go, and with population growth it’s resources are becoming more and more exhausted.

Inside the Dheisheh refugee camp, south of Bethlehem in Palestine. Narrow roads, no road names or door numbers.

The wall on the entrance to the camp serves as a ‘wall of honor’ to those residents of the camp who have been killed by the Israeli military. Complete with photos, I can see they are far too young to have lost their lives, I can’t even imagine the grief of their parents and families. I can honestly only see faces of children, which really disturbs me.  Names of the villages where camp residents have been displaced cover the wall, this is so their roots and where they came from is not forgotten or lost in the displacement. Their original homes they have been removed from and their villages which have been destroyed. This wall provides a form of non-violent resistance, freedom of expression, a sense of community, even though I find it very disturbing, I fully understand what it represents and why it is there. It is a visual queue to the suffering of the people. I find this very disturbing, there should be no wall, these are the faces of young civilians taken by government military.

At first glance it looks like a normal street but then I see the gate which is closed for protection. Our guide a resident of the camp tells us some of the things which happens here, the tone of his voice tells me this is very real and he has been through these experiences. I find them too graphic to be fabricated. As he talks, the local shop owners come out and gather around for solidarity, more and more people join us and I can see the sadness in their eyes as they look into mine to make a connection, you don’t have to be able to speak the same language as someone to recognize the pain in their soul. This is a real community under intense occupation. The guide speaks of such horrific circumstances I find it really hard to mentally digest, tears start to dwell up in my own eyes and I do have a lump in my throat hoping now one tries to talk to me in that moment. I wonder how the guide can speak about such horrific things which have happened to his family and friends but I know he has no choice but to speak out, for him this violence is all too common and his strength comes from his struggle for a better day.

Parked car with bullet marks in the windscreen.

One thing which really shocked me was that this refugee camp comes under regular attacks from the Israeli military, mostly at night time. Israeli snipers line the roof tops adjacent to the village and are instructed to shoot various body points to disable the Palestinians, mostly children. We are told body targets are rotated, recently knees had been the target, with the aim to disable Palestinians. We are told we will meet someone who fell victim to this, I’m very glad this didn’t actually happen because I do not know if I could have dealt with this emotionally with everything else I heard. Even more disturbingly during another attack, the eyes were a target, Israeli snipers are instructed to blind the children, and all this in the name of defense? I want to point out here that the Palestinians I saw here had no means of retaliation of defending themselves even, these attacks are not in the form of Israeli security, it’s beyond sadistic. What I was was Palestinians treated less than human or even animals, I truly felt sick to my stomach.

This was all new to me, I never imagined the refugee camps would also be under occupation and attack, I thought they would be a safe haven, but I was wrong, no where is safe. The camp is full of predominately Muslims, most women where the hijab (headscarf). In fear of night raids many have now resorted to sleeping in their full clothing such as jeans in case they are ambushed at night by the IDF. This is not uncommon, it happens 2-3 times a week, we were told it happened during my stay in Palestine. Children are often taken in the night without their parents being informed – it could be the child was ‘seen’ throwing a stone and could be taken and imprisoned for up to 10 years. Tear gas canisters are also thrown into the camps, not only does this cause asphyxiation but has been shown to cause birth defects in any pregnant women in the camp. Why are they doing this? I can only assume their aim is to scare the inhabitants to leave the camp so it can be destroyed to make way for even more illegal Israeli settlements.

Water tanks all Palestinian homes need.

As we walk through the camp, we can see how small the living quarters are I can’t even imagine families living in these. Palestinian homes can easily be differentiated from Israeli homes because they have huge black water tanks on them which create eyesores can be seen on the rooftops. They need these to to reserve water as it is cut off on a very regular basis by the Israeli military and re-routed back to their illegal settlements nearby. 15% of the camp is not connected to the local public sewage system. Similarity their electricity is also limited. Due to building permits, houses are being built on top of each other.

Homes are built on top of each other.

I see all sorts of people in the community, some of the most beautiful children I’ve ever seen, some elderly, a blind man walks past the backdrop of some graffiti – there is ‘hope’. There is a lot street art and graffiti, these powerful images bring colour and life to the grey hopeless walls of the camp. They are also a form of freedom of expression and resistance. They provide a glimpse into the hopes and dreams of the Palestinians for a better future.  The walls of the camp are also covered in the faces of leader, poets, writers and martyrs. It is a way to honor the lives and memory of many of the camps residence who have been killed. Those who sacrificed their lives for the cause will not be forgotten.

The cartoon on the left is known as, ‘Handala’, it’s now become a symbol of the refugees. Created by Naji al-Ali. Handala represents Naji al-Ali at the age of 10 years old, when he was forced to leave Palestine. He represents his turn back to the world, rejecting the outside solutions. Naji al-Ali was assassinated in 1987 in London.

An international woman, walks down and chants, ‘welcome’ , I imagine she is staying in the camp as part of a volunteer program maybe to help educate the children and show solidarity, I feel proud and start thinking I am here to see but next time I would like to do more. While I was looking at volunteer programs, I did come across one where you stay in the camp, and you can also find a room on air bnb.

A group of young girls come up to me and ask, ‘what’s your name’, I tell them mine and ask them theirs, they are very happy to meet us and equally I am happy to meet them, it was a beautiful moment in which I wished I could speak fluent Arabic so I could converse more.

We are taken to a spot where a tree has been planted as a memorial for a young boy who was murdered in cold blood. He was shot in the head by a bullet which shattered into 30 pieces, his skull was destroyed into even more pieces as he died in a pool of blood on impact. An elderly lady came out to help him but saw his body and returned to her home because it was too much to witness, I imagine if that had been my mother. I would never want her to be exposed to such a graphic scene but also feeling of such helplessness. I can’t imagine this happening on my doorstop, in my home. The residents must also suffer much physiological damage from all of these raids and also depression, but there is no help for that. I don’t even know how children grow up in this environment, what must go through their minds.

That night returning to my hotel I felt very sick, my body temperature had completely dropped and nothing I could do would bring it up, I’m determined I was in a state of shock. I couldn’t attend the evening lecture, I heard it was very quiet that evening. I was so shocked by the violence towards children, I had naively believed the refugee camps would be a sanctuary, but instead it’s residence were sitting ducks to extremely violent attacks.

When asked why don’t they leave, ‘If we leave then we will be giving up, we have a right to be here, we have a right to live’. True words, why should they be scared out of their own homes, but even more to the point where would they go? Suddenly all the blessings in my own personal life flooded me, I had a spacious roof over my head, running water, it was safe to sleep at night. I didn’t have to live in constant fear of loosing my life or loosing a family member.  I became aware of my privileges and the important things in life.

Once I had returned home to the UK, I found it very difficult to sleep because it was ‘too quiet’ and the tension I felt in Palestine was no longer on my shoulders, I was ‘safe’. I imagine the children of camp are also not used to the sound of peace which is heartbreaking.

Wandering child in the refugee camp.
Mural in the camp depicting a handshake across the Israeli barrier wall, symbolizing peace between Israel and Palestine.

News links to fore mentioned activities:

Israeli Harassment of the camps: https://electronicintifada.net/content/israeli-captain-i-will-make-you-all-disabled/17821

Airbnb to stay in the Dheisheh camp: http://againstthecompass.com/en/dheisheh-palestinian-refugee-camp-bethelehem/

 

Palestine

Hebron – The Militarized Civilian ‘Ghost’ Town (My visit to Hell on Earth)

The, ‘Ghost Town’ of Palestine – Hebron

Hebron, (الْخَلِيل‎‎) – The largest Palestinian city in the West Bank.

I had heard the city Hebron mentioned a lot in the news over the years,  so I knew a lot happened there, but I didn’t know what exactly. I didn’t  know what to expect on going there but I can honestly say, it has to be the most devastating places I have ever been in my life. Surprisingly so as it is home of the fourth holiest site in Islam – the Ibrahimi mosque (Cave of the Patriarchs) is also very sacred in Judaism.

Hebron is the largest city in the West Bank, with a population of 200,000 Palestinians and under 1000 Jews, it has a special protocol not governed like the rest of the West Bank I visited which is divided up into authority areas A, B and C.

To fully appreciate it’s current state we need to be aware of an incident which occurred here. In 1994 an Israeli settler in Hebron opened fire on worshipers during prayer at the mosque killing 29  Palestinians and injuring many others. As a result of this, the area has been turned into a militarized zone to protect the 7 Jewish families living in the area from Palestinian threat – yes the irony. Instead of helping those who were affected by the tragedy Israeli authorities took two thirds of the Mosque and set Hebron as a military zone putting the Palestinians under very heavy oppression, which I witnessed myself.

I thought it was somewhat ironic, the tomb of the prophets who underwent persecution is now in a area persecuting it’s people. I ask myself what is prayer without application, have we learnt nothing? Yet on the other hand it is suffering which causes the spirit to grow, but this suffering was immense.

Being in Hebron, I almost felt guilty for taking out my SLR camera which probably cost more money than most people there have but then I felt that I needed to take some photos to share what I was seeing with the world. I had never seen Hebron presented like this in the media. A resident came out and started talking to me with tears in his eyes, he told me to take photos and to show the world what was really happening, that Israel did not want them to be there and were trying to force them out but they were not going anywhere, it was their home and they were going to stay, ‘we will never leave’. I could not believe what I was seeing, that this was actually real and allowed to happen and even supported by international governments despite violating international laws? This was the militarization of civilian villages many conspiracy theorists talk about, but this was 100% real, I was standing in the middle of it.

We are greeted by our guide, who has clearly been victim to a violent attack, over half of his face has been scarred by a skin graft and half of his hair is missing, I wanted to know his story but at the same time I didn’t dare to ask. He tells us, ‘Today I don’t want you to see Hebron, I want you to feel it’. When people tell you things like this it seems like words but when we entered, various emotions hit me very hard. I’m constantly being told I am a strong person and I do tend to put my emotions to one side when I need to focus, but what I felt in Hebron I could not control and I was not prepared for it. Many years of watching violent movies and music I thought I had been desensitized to the cruelest human infliction but when I saw things here it was real and it affected me a great deal. Usually whenever I’ve gone on a tour, I’ve been told stories of painful histories where many people have been murdered, but this time what I was being told was actually happening in real time, in fact any one of us could be shot in this moment or see someone else shot in the name of, ‘security’ and there would be nothing we could do about it. I was in an area under great injustice and the world is allowing it to happen, this really dumbfounded me, I felt helpless. I had a lump in my throat, but I wanted to be strong for the people. I knew me being here was giving them hope they liked to see international ‘tourists’, as it made them feel the world had not abandoned them entirely.

Upon entering we are subjected to crossing a military checkpoint guarded by Israeli soldiers. We have to go though barrier gates in single file as the soldiers watch from a box and press a button for us to enter. It is very intimidating, but being in a group of mixed internationals we are given some leeway, if we were Palestinian we would have had our passports thoroughly checked and possibly even denied access which happens on a daily basis if the soldiers are bored (I saw some getting a hard time, simply because of their appearance, and I could relate). There is a very strong military presence here, I see several tank like vehicles and groups of soldiers, hanging around almost looking bored. All of them are carrying M16 rifles which are semi automatic weapons made in the USA which outclass the traditional AK-47 guns. What strikes me about the soldiers is how young they are, they seem to be teenagers maybe 18 or 19, many of whom have come from outside of Israel to join the military (I met soldiers from India and Ethiopia, they are granted a good salary and life in Israel in return for blind obedience to state orders). The atmosphere is very tense, everyone is on edge, you could be shot or arrested in seconds for any reason, and this does happen, even in situations of unfortunate misunderstandings.

We went through a military office checkpoint into the mosque, a friend and I went to perform our wudu (ritual ablution before praying), the sudden contrast of the broken toilets and flooded floors to the state of the art military checkpoint we had just entered, this made absolutely no sense to me, why money was invested into ‘protecting’ a holy site but not for the holy site’s actual maintenance (not on the Muslim side anyway, the Jews have a different entrance, which I imagine to look very different). As we were given the mosque tour, I noticed I could only see tourists and hardly any Muslims inside actually praying, I later found out that mass majority of them are not allowed to enter. Even some of the survivors of the 1994 massacre also being denied entry, even the mosque staff are given a hard time on entering despite having special ID cards which is supposed to prevent any harassment. I found this really sad, the purpose of a mosque is so Muslims can pray in congregation and this gives them hope and a sense of community, here I was at this very holy site and it was being denied, as if all bits of hope were trying to be diminished.

My friend and I left the group to go and pray. Mosques should be peaceful institutions of prayer but I could not help but feel this was one haunted by its violent past, my imagination ran wild thinking of what it must have been like to be stood here during the day of the shooting. The tour continued and we re-joined the group, I hadn’t realized the tour guide and seen us and came to shake my hand, ‘I saw you praying, please pray for us’. There was a very deep sincerity in his voice. This moved me, because again it showed how much the Palestinians were grateful for our support, hope and prayers. It’s also very unusual for a Muslim man to approach woman to shake her hand esp in a mosque, and I really respected that he did that. This struggle goes way beyond common social taboos. Palestine was not like some of the other countries I have been too where there is a high Muslim majority, they are progressive in how they treat woman.

We left the mosque and entered the streets of Hebron. I saw two very young children playing with a toy truck in a rubbish dump, among dilapidated buildings, this really made me sad, I thought of the young children in my own family, no child should have to live like this, I dred to think what was even in the rubbish.

Violence has become such a normal part of everyday life in Palestine, I saw many toys and key rings in the form of weapons, guns, fighter jets and bombs. This should not be normal, but these children see it on a daily basis.

As we walk down the street it is a complete ghost town. This used to be a bustling city with many tourists now all you can see is closed shops. The military has shut them all down, even if they were open there would be very little business due to the fear of people visiting this area being harassed by the military, a joke is made that we should be fine as a group of internationals today as we have some, ‘blondes in our group’. Now all I see is graffiti, ‘fight ghost town. It’s very clear to me the Palestinian people are not poor by nature, they are having their livelihoods taken from them and driven into absolute poverty.

One of the ‘open’ shops in Hebron, an old man works as a tailor.

 

 

All of these shops have been forcibly closed down by the Israeli military.

There are many children around, if I had entered this area without any knowledge of what was going on I would automatically have assumed the military was there to protect the them, but in contrary they are here to defend themselves from the children, who Israel have declared, ‘dangerous’ think about that for a moment. This actually made me feel really sick as those any children born as Palestinians were less than children, even less than human, and seen as inferior beings, this really struck me hard, they are not even old enough to know what is going on around them, yet they are ‘guilty’. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be born into this environment as a child. The day before had met a teenage girl who had gone to study in the USA, she told me she didn’t know what it was like to be, ‘free’ she had lived in Palestine her whole life under occupation, she thought it was, ‘normal’. This is not normal, and Hebron in particular is an open air prison. A 9pm curfew is inflicted on the residence of Hebron if they are caught on the ‘wrong’ side of the checkpoint they are not allowed to cross and return to their homes, and will most probably be arrested for being out past curfew.

Being the most ‘Palestinian / Arab’ looking of the group I am swamped by very young children trying to sell me Palestine souvenirs to make a little bit of money, they immediately ask me if I am Muslim in Arabic and appeal to this by saying it would be Sadaqah (what Muslims call a charity donation). I gave away all of my money in three different currencies, I felt it was needed here much more here than in my pocket. One of the children gave me a black bracelet with ‘Palestine’ written on it, but quickly took it back and gave me a red one instead, I guess he though it would suit a woman more and actually I’m wearing it now as I write this thinking of that child.

These children are absolutely beautiful but not a single child is smiling, they have clearly been traumatized by their reality. I was told the children did not used to beg for money, but things have changed in past few years and there is more desperation now. It saddened me deeply as I know not many people visit this area at all.

Palestinian child trying to make some money by selling key rings in the, ‘Ghost Town’ of Hebron.

Another child begins to walk with me and I give him some money, I really want the world to see so I ask him if we can take a photo together, in doing so I can see he is vulnerable, I don’t want to take advantage but I feel the world needs to see this. We are over shadowed by what was once their school that has now been occupied and turned into a military fortress, complete with barbed wires and flags of Israel, as I look up a sniper is looking back down at us with a rifle, it’s a horrible feeling. I tell the child to never give up hope and be strong, I’m not sure if he understood me but he did look into my eyes and I may have imagined he gave me close to a slight smile. I don’t even know if he has family or even both parents.

Israeli sniper on what used to be a school for Palestinian children is now a military fortress for Israel.

As we walk through the few shops which remain open, we are their only customers, I wonder how they make enough money to survive but I think perhaps the habit of going to work is a clear signal they will not give up, it gives them hope. After all they have every right to be there, this is their land. I see a man praying in his tiny shop, the floor is just big enough to place his prayer mat, I liked this image it was one of strong faith. As we walked through the streets, I could see nets had been put up on the streets between the shops, why? Israeli settlers live over looking these shops and throw their rubbish onto the Palestinians below, what a disgusting thought one human would throw their waste on another, but it happens here to such an extend a ‘solution’ had to be put in place.

We came to the checkpoint at Shuhadah street, this is an openly segregated area only Jews and non-Palestinians are allowed to pass through. Our tour guide was Palestinian therefore the military would not allow him to pass, but the rest of the group could go as we had foreign passports. As a stand of solidarity with our guide and the Palestinian people we all refused to pass the checkpoint and were wished, ‘a good day’ by the soldiers with a sense of pride that they had such authority over us. They soon became very irritated at us taking photos of them at the checkpoint. It seems Israel is very proud of having such power of injustice but as soon as you try to document it they become angry because places like Hebron are a bubble of injustice the outside world has yet to need completely see clearly.

As we turn around to take the long way around what would have been a couple of minutes walk if we had been let through the checkpoint, we saw an Israeli settler see us and gather a huge group of settlers fresh out of the synagogue to proudly intercept us on the street. They stop and make comments about the Palestinians not belonging in Hebron, then smile as they marched on past us through the checkpoint we had been denied access to. What disturbed me the most about seeing this was the last person in their group who was very young, just a boy, carried an assault rifle as if to ‘protect’ the group. Israeli settlers are legally allowed to carry weapons and shoot Palestinians, whereas Palestinians can be sentenced for up to 10 years for throwing stones, even at walls. As I attempted to take a photograph of this unbelievable scene which took me a couple of seconds to process in my mind, the boy turned to me and said, ‘no photos on Shabat’ as his gun swayed by his shoulder. This baffled me, photos are not allowed yet carrying weapons is? Most of the weapons I saw carried by Israelis were semi-automatic and were ready to use at very close range, which would only mean vast amounts of damage, there is no doubt, they are shooting to kill in the name of defense when there is no real threat from Palestinians.

Smiling Israeli settlers carrying weapons to ‘protect’ themselves against Palestinians. they were allowed to cross the checkpoint whereas we were not because we had Palestinians with us.

We went to a family home for lunch and even though I had lost my appetite the hospitality was overwhelming, as we sat in this house eating the most delicious rice dishes, I felt as though I was in the home of my aunt and uncle, it reminded me of my childhood, the furniture, the rugs all like my uncle used to have. It hit me I could easily have been born in Hebron and been living the nightmare that these people are going through everyday. I can not sit back and do nothing, if anything I will share my experiences. Lunch was quiet, we went up to the roof and again it reminded me of the rooftops of Pakistan. However one side in Palestine we saw the Ibrahimini mosque against a military backdrop and the other side we saw some soldiers harassing youths.

Maybe an hour after we had left Hebron, a 14 year old Palestinian girl was arrested for trying to stab an Israeli solider, I dred to think how long she will be put in prison for. In an area of such a high level of military control I really cannot believe a little girl would actually do this, I’m quite a fearless person at times and I would never dream of doing anything out of line in this environment, it is one in which you can not win whatever you try to do.

That night I did not sleep at all, many things passed through my mind, firstly that what is really going on here is not being shown in the media but also if it was this easy to militarize this town it could happen anywhere in the world and it’s civilians would be defenseless. I have a lot of love and respect for the Palestinians of Hebron who face this battle of the most brutal occupation on a daily basis in their own homes.