Our wonderful and painful experience attempting to help the Palestinians

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Hajira Qureshi

Sha'ban 16, 1425 2004-10-01

Special Reports

by Hajira Qureshi (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 8, Sha'ban, 1425)

Three British Muslimahs made headlines last month when they were arrested by the Israeli authorities in Jerusalem and accused of involvement in terrorism, before being cleared. Although they had gone to teach Palestinian children in Nablus, they ended up highlighting instead the Israelis’ harassment of international activists who try to assist the Palestinians. Here we publish accounts of their experiences by HAJIRA QURESHI, a student of mathematics at Cambridge University, and SMRA GHAFOOR, a primary-school teacher.

When my two travelling companions and I arrived at Tel Aviv on September 7, the plan was to spend a couple of days in Jerusalem before going to Nablus, in the occupied West Bank, to spend three weeks doing community work with children. Our plans changed abruptly at 3.30am on September 10, the day we were due to leave for Nablus, when Israeli police knocked on the door of our hostel rooms. Our rooms were ransacked, and we were strip-searched before being taken to an investigation centre. We were apparently accused of involvement in terrorism, although the details are unclear, as the proceedings were all in Hebrew and we were initially not permitted to see lawyers. Although the case was eventually dismissed, the judge concluding that there was no evidence against us, we were still obliged to leave the country under threat of further legal action and deportation. The greatest frustration when we arrived back in London on September 17, to be met by the BBC at the airport, was that we had not been able to get to Nablus or to do any of the kind of work we had gone there to do.

What we did manage to do, in the two days we spent in Jerusalem before being arrested, was spend much of our time in Masjid al-Aqsa (which, incidentally, should not be confused with the Dome of the Rock, which is the magnificent octagonal blue structure with the prominent gold dome commonly seen in pictures of the Haram al-Shareef.) Even with the Israeli police at every gate to the Haram al-Shareef, controlling access and generally being obnoxious, those were blessed days spent in ibadah: praying in jama’ah, praying alone, making du’a, and reading and memorising the Qur’an.

Being in Masjid al-Aqsa is unlike anything else in the world — even, according to one of my companions, unlike being in Makkah and Madinah. Unlike the Haramain, the Old City and the Haram al-Shareef appear completely untouched by the passage of time; you could believe it’s a thousand years ago when you’re there. All the streets are cobbled, the buildings are made of stone, and the shops are small and poky but not uncomfortable. It is an incredible place, but not just a place for prayer. The Haram al-Shareef, if it weren’t under occupation, would be a home for the Muslim community. Apart from the two mosques (the Dome of the Rock has also been converted into a masjid), it also has trees, wudu’ areas, large open spaces and shaded spaces for people to work, study, socialise, and spend the time of day with their fellow Muslims or in companionable solitude. Instead of being the hub of community life, it is a tightly-controlled island of peace constantly under the eyes of the occupiers of Palestine. And it is only by the grace of Allah that it has not yet been taken by the Israelis, as they certainly want to — there are regularzionist protests outside the Haram al-Shareef, demanding that it be taken over for the Jews.

The Old City is only one part of Jerusalem; there are also East Jerusalem and the New City (orWest Jerusalem). However, the Old City is the heart of Jerusalem, walled off from the rest ofJerusalem by a historical wall. Inside the walls, the Old City is divided into four parts: the Muslim quarter, the Jewish quarter, the Christian quarter and the Armenian quarter. East Jerusalem is where the Palestinians live, and the New City (where all the Israeli and foreign money goes) is where all the Israelis live; it looks more like a European city that a Middle Eastern one.

Meeting the Palestinians in the Old City, you realise that they are probably among the best-off in that suffering land today. They all have livelihoods and live in relative security, in that they are not under the constant threat of attack by Israeli soldiers and settlers, like those in the West Bankand Ghazzah. But visible signs of the occupation still abound. Israeli police and civilians walk around the Old City, all heavily armed, which comes as a bit of a shock to a British Muslim, as theOld City looks as harmless as Covent Garden. The entire city is also under constant camera surveillance, although we didn’t notice that until our hostel manager pointed the cameras out. Far more obvious are the Israeli flags flying all over the Muslim quarter of the Old City, as if to say “you may live here, but we are in charge; you are here only on sufferance.”

Despite all this, our first Israeli lawyer (supposedly sympathetic to the Palestinians) was too scared to walk 100 metres from Damascus Gate (a gate of the Old City leading into the Muslim quarter) to our hostel without us. Our arresting police officer would not walk through the Old City by himself, although he was armed. Our lawyer explained, believe it or not, that the Israelis feel that they are the victims, weak and under attack, and without friends in the world!

Life in the Old City appears relatively normal, but it is when you get into the New City that the reality of the occupation becomes obvious. Before entering any restaurant, cinema, shop or some other public place, Palestinians are searched, thoroughly body and bag. The frustration Palestinians feel when they want to travel from one town to another, having to pass through checkpoint after checkpoint unless they somehow go around them, being repeatedly body-searched and frequently insulted, harassed or humiliated, is immense. It is clear that much of this Israeli behaviour is gratuitous, designed simply to exercise and demonstrate their power, but they are not accountable to anyone; Palestinians and, to a lesser extent, the international activists who stand in solidarity with them, are simply fair game.

Once we had been arrested, it quickly became clear that we would have to leave the country, even though the court concluded that there was no evidence against us. Our lawyer learnt, off the record, that the official reason for ordering us to leave was that certain peoples might try to “take advantage” of us. Most people felt that the Israeli authorities wanted to deter other Muslims from joining the international activists. The British Consulate were no help, even though we are all British citizens. Of course this was no great surprise; the British government’s unwillingness to stand up to the Israelis has been repeatedly demonstrated, notably in its attitude to the Tom Hurndall case and their lack of support when MPs such as Robin Cook and Anne Campbell are the targets of abuse from Israelis. When the British consul finally came to see us on September 12, when we were under house arrest, he told us that this is Israel and you can’t make Israel do anything and you can’t put pressure on it. All you can do is leave and get out of this situation as soon as possible to avoid further trouble — the Israelis are not accountable to anyone.

Despite the restrictions placed on us, we were able to see more of Jerusalem before having to leave Palestine, taking a tour of the city with a lawyer. Nothing could have prepared us for the reality of the apartheid wall that the zionists are building to imprison the Palestinians in small parts of their own country. This is not a wall marking the boundary between two countries, Israel andPalestine. Instead it surrounds individual cities in the West Bank. For example, there is a wall all the way around Ram Allah or Nablus. It is 8 metres high – it seems to go on as high as the eye can see. It is solid concrete, blocking out the sunlight. There is only one gate through the wall, which the Israelis close whenever they want. The gate is open for about 2 hours a day. This is what I always imagined a concentration camp looked like. It cuts between the houses of relatives; it crosses between a man’s house and his land, so he can’t farm it. I had been on demonstrations against this wall in London, but I had had no idea about the horrific reality of it. It creates a sense of desolation and suffocation, as no doubt it is designed to do.

There is, of course, blatant racism. My friends and I would be standing in a queue and we’d be taken out and thoroughly checked away from everyone else. This is the sort of behaviour the Palestinians have to put up with all the time; if anything, we probably got it easier once it became apparent to the Israelis that we were foreigners. In Britain the way the Israelis behave would be considered scandalous, and be the subject of complaints and investigations. In Palestine it is an omnipresent reality: this is Israel, the Jews can behave as they like towards the Palestinians, they are not to be questioned, and they can get away with anything. Every Israeli I met – and we met several, going through the legal system – asked me how I study at university with hijab. I told them I work, play, study, participate in society as a fully-functioning member with my hijab on, and it isn’t a problem at all. Tolerance really isn’t in the Israeli vocabulary.

That we are British undoubtedly influenced the way we were treated by all the Israelis we met. We would certainly never have been treated as we were by the Israeli police, intelligence and judiciary had we not been British and spoken good English. When we were permitted to return to our hostel, and told Palestinians what had happened, that the Israelis are so stupid, and that I wasn’t frightened, one simply looked at us and said, “Hajar! You can only do this because you are British. We Palestinians can’t go in smiling!’

Since that moment I feel like such a fraud. What has happened to us is not important because we were mistreated in any way; we are fine. This is not about us; it is about the realities of thezionist occupation of Palestine, and the plight of the Palestinians, that we were able to witness in some small way. The injustice we suffered is insignificant on the scale of those routinely suffered by others in Palestine; the story is in the illegitimacy and oppressive nature of Israel. We came toPalestine to experience an aspect of the occupation and we ended up experiencing a different aspect of the occupation. These things happen.

While all this was going on, we received a phone call from an activist who is in Nablus right now. She made a point with which I would like to conclude this article. She said, “you know the media have picked up on your story for some reason, and you’ve got more media coverage than any of us has ever had; so use it well”. We never got to Nablus to do what we had planned to do. We didn’t get to meet and help the young children we were going to teach. And now that the Israelis may have our names blacklisted, we might never get to go back. So, as activists inside Palestine, we didn’t have much of a career. And yet we have been given so much media attention. There are so many more who are achieving much more than we have, who deserve much more attention than we do, the many, many activists who are in Palestine or have been to Palestine to help in any way they can. These activists who put their lives in danger to be in Palestine as witnesses to the Israeli brutality and who stand side by side with the Palestinians in solidarity, these people are the real activists who deserve all the help and support that we can offer them.

Yet all of us outsiders are there to help, at most. The real mujahideen, suffering and struggling for the freedom of Palestine, Jerusalem and the Haram al-Shareef, are our Palestinian brothers and sisters. They are the ones who are giving up their lives in the way of Allah and for His sake, and deserve our support in this world and our prayers that they will be recognised and rewarded in the next. Ameen.

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