Three: Of Settlements and Struggles

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(All images © 2016 Arij Limam)

City: Hebron (Al-Khalil الخليل)
Location: West Bank, Palestine
Population: 215,452 Palestinians (850 settlers)
Governance: – H1: Palestinian Authority; – H2 (20%): Administered by Israel

After a long journey consisting of the bus we were on breaking down (twice), leaving us at one point stranded on the side of the road until reinforcement came, we finally reached Al-Khalil. We were dropped off in the bustling city centre, the Palestinian H1 area, in front of a fairly modern looking shopping centre. People were going about their daily routines, and window-shopping on this high street littered with English named fashion stores and restaurants. But this city already felt different to Ramallah, I felt an authenticity about it which I immediately warmed to. It felt traditional yet modern, tense yet peaceful. And soon enough, the calm atmosphere was replaced with the sound of screeching sirens cutting through the air, followed by army tanks speeding through the busy street. This was normal in what is known as the West Bank’s most troubled city.

We were taken to see the Old City, which is situated in the Israeli military controlled area of Al-Khalil, H2. This part of Al-Khalil contains Israeli settlements where roughly 850 settlers reside, protected of course by as many, or probably more, Israeli soldiers. We strolled through the old markets and walked around the stalls laden with trinkets and traditional Palestinian ornaments. Beautiful thoubs in all sizes with intricately embroidered designs and stunning colours hanged on every stall.

Traditional markets are my favourite part of visiting a new country; they’re almost like a screenshot of the entire history and culture of a place. Each stall has its own story and each ornament its own character. But this market felt different. The first thing I noticed as we went deeper into the alleys, was the hideous metal wire mesh hanging above our heads that felt like an unnatural ceiling. This fence-like infrastructure covered the majority of the market stalls, and gave off the unnatural feeling of entrapment and claustrophobia that you would not expect in outdoor markets. I was soon informed of the grim reason for the existence of these fences, and my trepidation increased.

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I was well aware of the fact that Hebron was a hotbed for incursions and run-ins between Palestinians and the Israeli forces as well as settlers because of the large concentration of (illegal) Israeli settlements. Yet, I had not considered that these settlements were of such close proximity to the Palestinians that they were, quite literally, on top of their heads. I was shocked to hear that Israelis would forcefully take or devise cunning plans to purchase Palestinian homes located in these markets, and build (illegal) extensions upwards so that they had homes that towered above the busy markets. And the purpose of the netting put up by Palestinians was to protect themselves from the various objects, including rubbish, bottles and sharp items, thrown by settlers from their conveniently high windows. We were also told of stories where the settlers would resort to throwing liquids like bleach or dirty water onto the Palestinians when tensions were high. The makeshift barrier, in these cases, not providing sufficient protection from such horrific acts. Yet unfortunately, these were the daily struggles that Palestinians living in Hebron, and the West Bank in general, had to face.

It was because of the repetitive occurrence of incidents such as this that led to Hebron being given the name ‘Ghost Town’. According to humanitarian groups, thousands of Palestinians have had to move or relocate from their homes in Hebron following its division and the expansion of illegal settlements. We’d been told that this was due to the fact that Israeli settlers would do all they could to ensure they disrupt the daily lives of Palestinians so much that it would cause them to move, leaving more space for Israeli settlers to expand. There were constant provocations of market stall owners, including IDF soldiers at any given time coming in and turning over stalls or taking stock, which resulted in many Palestinians, afraid for their safety and for their income and livelihoods to close up their shops and move elsewhere. The scene that remained was that of locked shutters and vacant alleys where the bustling markets once stood.

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We continued weaving our way through the market until we reached a large open area, and behind all the hanging clothes I could see a street that was closed off with cement barricades, barbed wire and fences. As I approached for a closer look and prepared my

img_20160723_145334phone to take photos, an elderly man who was sitting behind a stall nearby said ‘ديري بالك’ and motioned with his head upwards. I looked up and saw that he was warning me about the CCTV cameras that were perched above the metal barricade. Graffiti on the wall indicated that this was the road known as ‘Shuhada Street’. ‘Martyrs Street’ as it is also known, used to be a main street that led from the markets to Al-Ibrahimi Mosque. Many Palestinians used this street to access the vegetable markets for their daily shopping, as well as other necessities, and several homes were also located on it. After the 1994 massacre in Al-Ibrahimi Mosque (which I will go into detail about further down), this road was completely closed off by Israeli soldiers, their reason for this being ‘to protect Israeli settlers’. No Palestinian cars were allowed to drive through, no one allowed to enter, and the shops on this road were all forced to shut. Palestinians living on this road were forced to access their homes through back doors, or even from roofs that could be accessed using neighbours houses. The street was opened briefly, and restrictedly, in 1997, but after the second intifada, and to this day; it remains inaccessible to Palestinians, while settlers continue to use it with the protection of Israeli soldiers. (Read this for more)

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After this, we were taken to visit the Ibrahimi Mosque, or the Cave of the Patriarchs. This site holds religious significance in Islam, Judaism and Christianity, and was historically used by all three faiths, but today, and ever since the Zionist occupation of Palestine, it has become a site of struggle and resistance and has been witness to bloodshed and discrimination. Prayer spaces are also one of my favourite places to visit when in a different country, as they are spiritual sanctuaries and always provide me with a feeling of peace and serenity. Yet even before entering the grounds of this mosque, I felt uneasy as we were faced with an Israeli checkpoint that we had to pass through to enter the mosque. This was the first checkpoint I had experienced, on foot, since my arrival in Palestine, and it was not one I would like to repeat.

As I stood there, facing me was what I can only describe as a hideous, grey, rusting metal contraption, resembling prisons I had only seen in movies. Standing in a single file line, we walked, one by one, up to the rotating metal bar gate. I stepped up to the gate and pushed on the metal bars expecting them to rotate, allowing me to pass through. The gate did not open the first time I pushed and at that moment all I remember feeling was claustrophobic (even though it was not a completely closed space), and anxious as if I had done something wrong and was being punished. I then heard the horrid sound of the buzzer, indicating that the soldier controlling the gate had unlocked it, and sure enough, my next push of the bars spun them around setting me free. On the other side stood the makeshift control room where Israeli soldiers were stationed, armed and watching the gates, two soldiers were also standing outside to check passports of anyone entering. After we’d passed the checkpoint and the soldiers, I couldn’t help but feel angry at the entire situation. I knew that crossing checkpoints such as these were a daily occurrence for many Palestinians across the West Bank, with even worse experiences in Gaza, but what angered me most was that this checkpoint was put up in front of a place of worship, a ‘sanctuary’. It made me angry that worshippers seeking to find peace and tranquillity in prayer were required to experience this horrible checkpoint in order to access what is meant to be a safe space.

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(I was unable to take pictures of the large checkpoint mentioned above as I was wary of the soldiers keeping a close eye, but a quick Google search will bring up an array of images. The image above is one I took, of another temporarily unmanned much smaller checkpoint nearby, with the same rotating metal bars)

Once inside, the familiarity of the mosque, with its pillars, domed ceiling, colourful mosaics, beautiful Arabic calligraphy, and symmetrical Islamic art designs eased my angst. I was overcome with the familiar feeling of serenity and tranquillity that I was accustomed to in places of worship, but, yet again, this was short-lived as we were taken on a tour of the site and informed of some of its painful history. img_20160723_135958The first thing we visited was the cenotaph of the prophet Ibrahim (peace be upon him), I immediately noticed a glass barrier near the window on the opposite side of the room containing the crypt. We were told that this was bulletproof glass, and that just on the other side of the window was the rest of the mosque, which was only for Jewish worshippers, and access for Palestinians was forbidden. Al Haram al Ibrahimi was divided into an area for Muslims and an area for Jewish Israelis after the Ibrahimi Mosque Massacre, which took place in 1994. In Ramadan of that year, American-Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein stormed the mosque during morning prayers, opening fire on Muslim worshippers and murdering 29 people (including children as young as 12), leaving 125 others wounded. Chips and cracks in the walls and ceiling are still visible to this day.

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Following our tour of the complex, we were invited to visit the village of Sa’ir, which is in the Hebron governorate and not too far from the Old City. After a short journey, the taxi we had taken from the Old City stopped some distance away from the entrance to Sa’ir itself. As we disembarked, it became clear why we could not be taken into the village by car, as there had been large cement blocks forming a barrier on either side of the roundabout which leads from the centre of Al-Khalil to the towns and villages nearby. This roundabout is known as the Beit Einun junction, and it was evident not just from the blockade, but also from the Israeli flags that were spray-painted on the cement blocks, that this site was one that had witnessed several clashes. The reason for this was that both Palestinian and Israeli settlers share this junction, as the bypass road leads to Kiryat Arbaa, an illegal Israeli settlement with heavy military protection. We were told that there was usually a heavy Israeli military presence with armed soldiers and military vehicles at the junction, for the reason of ‘protecting the settlers from knife attacks by Palestinians’. A google search on the Beit Einun junction brings up very recent articles, including from early 2016 through to Ramadan just before I had arrived in Palestine, of horrible events taking place here. Children as young as 15 being shot by soldiers at this junction, as shocking at it is, we were told, was a common occurrence.

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We were told many stories while in Sa’ir, some more painful than others, but one story in particular struck me, as I felt it embodied the spirit of resistance and strength that was at the root of the Palestinian cause. I was told this story by a man – whom I shall call Yusuf – while he showed us onto the balcony of his home, which provided a direct view of the Beit Einun junction. “I see everything from this balcony”, Yusuf said in Arabic, “but there is one thing I witnessed here a long time ago that has never left my memory”.
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“It was during the second intifada, which took place in 2000, that Israeli forces raided and closed the entrances to several towns, villages and camps in the West Bank. They had ultimately partitioned and created sieges around many of these villages and camps, making movement between these areas and the centre of Al-Khalil and other major cities almost impossible. It was as though we were living in giant prisons. This was when the Beit Einun junction was closed off and guarded by Israeli soldiers and army tanks prepared to shoot on the spot anyone who they saw trying to cross. For many Palestinians, this junction was the only route into Al-Khalil from the surrounding villages, and we used it to get to work, for shopping, for our children to get to school, to reach the nearest hospital, and so on. So we had to find a way to cross, and many did this by crawling through the grape vines that were near the road, as far from the soldiers as possible, trying to avoid being seen by soldiers. Many young men and children were shot and even killed while attempting this treacherous feat. But one day, as I was looking out from my balcony, I saw a father with 3 children, the eldest looking no more than 10 years old, and they were all carrying what looked like school bags on their backs. They were attempting to cross the junction into Al-Khalil, as I could see them crawling through the grape vines. As they reached the end of the field, they were faced with the dangerous part of having to run as quick as they can across the part of the road that was open and in direct view of the soldiers. Sure enough, they made a break for it, running to reach the other side, but at this moment, they were spotted by the Israeli soldiers at the far end of the road, who did not wait a second before opening fire directly at them. But thanks to God, the father covered his children as they ran and made it to the other side taking cover behind a hill. I didn’t see that any of them had been injured, but I noticed that there was a bag lying in the middle of the open road where the soldiers were still shooting. One of the boys must have dropped it. I looked back at the father and his sons taking cover and checking for any injuries, when suddenly one of the young boys realised that he no longer had his bag and upon seeing it in the middle of the road, he did the unthinkable and ran back in the line of fire to retrieve it. He ducked his head and he ran, crouching low, grabbed his bag, and miraculously made it back to his father and brothers.”

“I was in complete and utter shock at that moment, with so many thoughts going through my head and so many feelings towards this young child. I realised then that this young generation of Palestinians will not and will never give up or back down on their rights, even if it costs them their lives. For this young boy, it was his right to an education. Will power, strength, determination, daring, and making quick decisions, these are the characteristics of the children of Palestine. The children who have had their rights unjustly stripped away from them, but who will never give up and never back down, and will someday take back what is rightfully theirs.”

It took me a while to take in what Yusuf had said. His story had stirred up so many emotions within me, and for the first time since my arrival in Palestine, I experienced the feeling that I was told to prepare myself for emotionally before coming here. Although this story in particular did not end in the death of the child, alhamdullilah, I couldn’t help but feel choked up and tried to hold back my tears, because for me, this story put everything into perspective and materialised the Palestinian cause in my mind. The Palestinian cause was one that my parents had instilled in me from a young age, as an Arab and as a Muslim, I had grown up attached to it, and this attachment grew the older I got and the more I studied about the conflict. But it was only at this moment, hearing Yusuf’s experiences, and seeing the occupation through his eyes – as he relayed to me his fears for the safety of his two young daughters who had to cross the junction daily to reach their school – that I felt the physicality of it. The universality of it. It was a Human cause, not just a Muslim or Arab one. I felt the weight of the cause on my chest… the brutality of the occupation… the injustice…the oppression…the anger, and it is a feeling and weight I carry around with me to this day.

Two: Ween 3a Ramallah

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City: Ramallah
Location: West Bank, Palestine
Population: 35,140
Governance: Area A, Palestinian Authority

Ramallah was very different to what I had imagined Palestine, in particular the West Bank, would be like. At times, I would be walking around the streets and I would forget I was in Palestine, thinking instead that I was in any other Arab country. The fancy restaurants (and bars), tall buildings, 5-star hotels, flashy cars; it didn’t feel like the Occupied Palestine I had seen on TV or read about in the history books.

This was probably because of my naivety rather than anything else. Reading up on Ramallah’s history now explains to me part of the reason as to why this city seemed so img_20160806_165948different. At the moment, Ramallah is considered the ‘de facto administrative capital’ of Palestine. This is because it houses the main government building of the Palestinian Authority (PA) around the area of the burial place of the late Yasser Arafat in the Mukataa. Although the PA officially ‘governs’ Ramallah; Israel and by extension the IDF has control (as with the whole of Palestine) over certain things such as the movement of Palestinians around the West Bank, into Jerusalem and Gaza, as well as ‘security’ control which allows them free reign to perform arrests (or worse) in the area.

I’ve often heard of Ramallah being called a ‘bubble’ by Palestinians. Most use this term to describe the economic growth that it has experienced over the past decade, which does not reflect the economic situation of the rest of the West Bank and Gaza where poverty is widespread. The international aid poured into this city, as well as the return of wealthy expats, are what most believe to be, the reasons behind this economic spurt. However, sitting in the famous Rukab’s eating ice cream and hearing conversations in English, German, Spanish amongst other languages, made me feel like Ramallah was a bubble in all sense of the word.  It felt comfortable, eerily comfortable, like nothing wrong was happening in the world. It’s this sense of safety and security that I found most unsettling, and this was augmented after I had visited other cities in the West Bank and seen the drastically different situations there.

I heard from a Palestinian woman (living in the UK but coming to visit family) what her views were on Ramallah. She had warned us not to let the Ramallah delusion form our opinions on the realities of life in Occupied Palestine. I read an article recently that summed up: “Ramallah is a useful mirage for the Israeli authorities but behind the façade of economic peace and stability the Israeli government continues to colonise the land it is occupying illegally. The international community has been blinded by the limited economic success of Ramallah, while the rest of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip remains constricted in the most brutal way imaginable.” (MEMO), although written 2 years ago, this view still resonates with many today.

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However, it would be wrong to assume that everyone living in Ramallah was happy to be living in this bubble and conforming to the unjust society around them.  I would suspect that the majority of the inhabitants are not happy with the situation to say the least. They still live under occupation, and this is clear as soon as the buildings start coming in to view as the rickety servees drives in from Jerusalem. The black or white plastic cylinders on top of all the homes, buildings and apartment blocks are a stark reminder of the reality. These cylinders contain the water ‘allowance’ given to Palestinians by the ‘state of Israel’. Palestinians do not have the luxury of an unlimited supply of running water; water in the West Bank is a commodity controlled by the occupier. The average Palestinian family would be lucky to have enough water to last through the month, because once the tank fill is emptied, you would be required to wait until the next month, or sometimes wait until the Israeli’s decide to refill it. Of course, no such issues arise for Israeli citizens who enjoy a 24-hour unlimited supply of water illegaly siphoned from Palestinian land.

I was speaking to a friend of mine whilst I was in Ramallah, describing the views and telling her of my surprise at what I had seen life to be like, and she replied, “Do you blame them for living?”. That’s what it comes down to under occupation, earning enough to provide for your family. A lot of these families in Ramallah work hard to earn a living and go through daily struggles I couldn’t even begin to img_20160802_194506imagine. Who was I, an outsider, to come and judge their lifestyles and means based on the few main roads I had traversed in the centre of the city. It is important for us to try to understand the scope of the occupation. The issue of Palestine goes far
beyond an attempt to land-grab by illegal occupying forces. The occupier wants more than to take land, he wants to spread fear, unrest, enforce an ideology, and wipe out a people. It is this living in fear that we do not -nor will ever – comprehend as outsiders. The strong ones who have felt loss and pain will rise up and use all means necessary to resist. But not all are strong and react in the same way. Some are afraid, and have also experienced so much loss and pain that I could not blame them for getting on with their lives and trying, above all else, to keep their loved ones alive.

I overheard a conversation once while on a servees between the driver and a fellow Palestinian passenger. The driver had been in his profession for more than 30 years, his working life spent navigating roads and transporting people. “The IDF are ruthless” he was saying, I listened in on the ensuing conversation in Arabic, peeling my eyes off the beautiful mountainous landscape outside the window. “My friend has just had his taxi taken away, and not just that, he was fined a ridiculous amount of shekels, and he’s even been taken to court”. “Ya Allah, leesh? Allah yihlikhum”, the passenger asked why. The driver replied that his friend had been driving on a main road shared by Palestinians and Israeli settlers leading to Ramallah, when a settler began manoeuvring dangerously alongside his taxi and attempting to overtake him. The friend was not breaking any rules and was going below the speed limit, but just as this settler car overtook him, it drives up in front and brakes sharply. Thankfully, the friend was not speeding but a collision could not have been avoided, the friends taxi had rammed into the settlers car. The settler comes out of his car shouting and yelling profanities, takes the friends number plate and calls for IDF soldiers. The settler demanded compensation and took the matter to court. “Why didn’t your friend tell the soldiers what really happened, it would have been clear from the position of the impact that he was not at fault” the passenger asked. The driver scoffed, “You think they would have believed him. That’s what the Zionists do, they intimidate us and think they control us, what could he have done?”. “Allah yihlikhum w yintaqim minhum ya Rab”. The journey continued silently, it seemed like a sense of deflation and powerlessness had just filled the servees. “Luqmat 3eesh”. Sustenance.

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One: The Airport Experience

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This was it; I was making the journey I didn’t think I would ever make. Palestine, فلسطين, the Holy Land. I was incredibly grateful for the opportunity to go with the organisation Unipal as a volunteer to teach English at Deir Ammar Refugee Camp west of Ramallah. I had to mentally prepare myself for what I would potentially witness, as I had studied, heard all the stories, and read all the articles on the injustices happening to Palestinians. Nothing could prepare me for what I saw and heard when I was there. I now put faces to names and real families to stories, and my time there, witnessing the injustices has just made me angrier and more determined to tell the world what is happening to other humans.

My airport experience was not uncommon; in fact I had it a lot easier than others, but it was still like nothing I had ever been through.

As the plane landed and the captain’s microphone crackled saying ‘Thank you for flying with us and we wish you pleasant travels in Israel”, a round of applause erupted from the passengers as they congratulated each other on making it safely to ‘Israel’. I didn’t know what to feel, it was surreal knowing I had just landed in Palestine, but I also felt a pang of anger as I heard those around me talking excitedly about what they were going to do in Tel Aviv and what attractions they were going to see. It angered me that they can just come and go as tourists enjoying the restaurants and beaches and shopping centres, while the rest of Palestine is under occupation and travelling from your home to the nearest hospital could be a laborious task and sometimes impossible for Palestinians.

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‘Welcome to Israel’ read the sign as we got off the shuttle and into the airport hall. The dreaded passport control was coming up as I waited in the queue. I went up to the desk and was greeted by a man who took my passport and started typing into his computer. “Where are you coming from?”, “What’s your father’s name?”, “What’s the name of your grandfather”, “What’s your mother’s name?”, “Where are your parents from?”. He typed away as he asked all these questions, but when I said my parents were from Tunisia he stopped and looked up at me, then looked at my passport, which showed no indication of me being Tunisian. “You’re not born in Tunisia?”; “No, I was born in Albania” I replied, “But my family all live in London now”. “Ah, that’s why you look like that, you’re not Tunisian?”, he seemed really puzzled, as was I at this point, was he saying I didn’t look Arab enough? “Yes, I am Tunisian originally but my parents moved around a lot, so I was born somewhere else, that doesn’t mean I’m not Tunisian”, my tone was getting a bit frustrated and I was tired, jetlagged and lacking sleep, the man was not impressed. “What’s the purpose of your visit?” he asked his last question. After explaining that I came with an organisation as part of an educational exchange to teach English, he did not look pleased at all, “Teach?!” he replied questioningly, eyebrows knitted together, he then picked up the telephone and spoke in Hebrew, none of which I understood.

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He’d summoned a grumpy looking lady who took my passport from his hand and walked away with it without saying a word to me. “Follow the lady”, the man told me, “They’re just going to ask you a few more questions, nothing to worry about, goodbye”. I hurried after the lady as everyone in the queue behind me was watching the scene with suspicion, as we got away from the queue of people, she indicated to a room in the corner and said “stay in there”. I went into the waiting room and found a chair to sit in. Everyone in the waiting room was Arab/Muslim looking (unsurprisingly); and I noticed the only other hijabi’s on the flight were also sat here. After hours of sitting around watching people being called up one by one, and making conversation with some lovely people stuck in the same situation as me, I was finally called up by a different Israeli lady who took me into someone’s office.

An Israeli soldier was sat at his computer and signalled for me to sit on the opposite side of his desk. He had my passport and was clearly entering all my information into his screen. For the fifteen minutes or so that I was sat there, he had asked me questions about my family and friends, my studies, and what I do. He also asked me to give him all my email addresses, my home address as well as my mobile and home number, and contact numbers of anyone I knew in ‘Israel’. Every time I gave him a piece of information he would type something in his computer and look at his screen then at me with scrutiny. If this was supposed to be some sort of way to intimidate me, it was working; I did not like the idea of him searching up anything about me he could find. Finally, after showing him the letter provided by Unipal of proof I would be working in a UN school, and him looking at the paper and googling all the names and addresses on it, he said he was done and that I could go. I asked for my passport back, but he scoffed and said, “No this is staying here, you’re going back to the room”.IMG_20160714_195951

I went back to my seat in the waiting room with a little TV screen in the corner, and after a while my friend and fellow Unipaler who was on a later flight came in to the room. I updated her on the situation and how long I had been sitting here. We spoke to others in the waiting room as we tried to pass the time, and we found out that a fellow Londoner who had been waiting for 12 hours prior, had just been refused entry and was going to be sent on a flight back to the UK. I had heard stories like these, but I didn’t think it would happen in front of me, and that I would witness this unjust occupying force in action.

We started to get a little worried, when my friend was just then called up for her turn of questioning; but she came back a few moments later saying they were asking for me as well. We went up together and were greeted by a man looming over us holding our passports in his hand. “I’ve got your passports”, he said in his slightly accented but otherwise perfect English, “But I will give them to you on one condition…we know what you do in the UK, we know you are activists in your University and are part of those groups”. I interrupted him to say that I did not go to the same University as my friend did, and that my Uni didn’t actually have a Palestine Society (even though I was part of Palestine activism with other groups). It was clear they had done some limited research. “NO, shh, you listen now!” he replied angrily, I made a mental note not to interrupt him again. “We know everything” he continued, “You can do whatever you want in London, but here in Israel you are under our rule. No demonstrations no nothing. You will be targeted when you travel in West Bank, I’m warning you. If you cause trouble in Israel we will cause trouble for you.” What did he mean we would be targeted? By Palestinian extremists? Trying to turn us into activists? And was he threatening us by saying he could cause trouble for us? Everything he was saying was an absolute joke, but we said nothing, as we didn’t want this to last longer than it had to. He thrust the passports in our hands and walked off. We opened our passports and sure enough there was our Entry Permit card from the ‘State of Israel’ allowing us a maximum 9-month stay in Occupied Palestine. This little card was all it took to get through security into the main airport lounge and then through all checkpoints and barriers set up across the country for the month that I would be here.

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I was glad for the ordeal to be over, but could not help but feel sick with anger as this was not even a fraction of what Palestinians whether living in the West Bank/Gaza or living abroad go through every time they even dare to visit their own land, the country of their parents, grandparents and a long, long line of ancestors. And it was only the lucky ones who are allowed back, most Palestinians who were evicted from their lands since 1948, and even now, have never been back and will never be allowed back to their homes while illegal inhumane Israeli forces occupy Palestine.