October 7, 2007
I have been following the debate in these columns with a mixture of interest and incredulity. I wonder how many of those who accuse Tom Hickey and Derek Summerfield of 'anti-Israel bias' and 'anti-Semitism' have actually visited the West Bank or Gaza to see the facts for themselves. I had the good fortune to visit Israel and the West Bank for two weeks in August. What I saw there changed my life forever.
We spent a lot of time at checkpoints in the West Bank. 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. At Huwwara checkpoint near Nablus, we saw a queue extending for half a kilometre out of the cramped shed and into the merciless sun. One by one, the Palestinians were called forward and their documents inspected. Some got through, others were turned back. Depending on the mood of the soldier. The explanation given for the checkpoints- 'security'- is a lie, as the barriers mostly stand between Palestinian cities and towns, not between Palestine and Israel.
Israel, through its system of 700 checkpoints, roadblocks and earth mounds in the West Bank strangles the Palestinians' freedom of movement. 68 women have been forced to give birth at checkpoints since the year 2000 (www.ifamericansknew.org). Half of the babies involved have died, as have 4 of the women. Many of the babies born have suffered irreversible brain damage. Imagine being the helpless husband or son of a woman forced to endure the pain of labour on the baking earth at a checkpoint- with an armed soldier looking on- and you will begin to understand how suicide bombers are born.
18000 houses have been demolished by Israel since 1967, often over the heads of their inhabitants (Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions- www.icahd.org). The reason given again? The big lie- security. The truth is that even if a Palestinian owns a piece of land, to build or extend an existing dwelling on it, he must put in an application costing $20000. This is almost uniformly rejected, and as his family grows, he is forced to build illegally. Then in come the bulldozers. The Palestinian then has to clear the rubble themselves and pay the Israeli government for the cost of demolishing his house.
There have been several references in these columns to the attempted terrorist attacks by Muslim doctors in Britain. Such people would do well to remember that the first 'doctor terrorist' was Jewish- Baruch Goldstein, who gunned down 29 Palestinians at prayer in the city of Hebron in 1994, injuring 150 others. A shrine to Goldstein has been erected in the fanatical settlement of 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.
In the old city of Hebron, 400 fanatical settlers- protected by Israeli Defence Force soldiers- hold 30000 Palestinians to ransom. They stone and kick the inhabitants, while the Israeli army forbids Palestinians to drive- in some areas, even to walk- on the streets. I saw for myself the concrete blocks, rubbish and human excrement thrown down onto passing Palestinians by the illegal settlers occupying the flats above Arab shops. The racist graffiti is shocking:
- 'Arabs to the gas chambers!' - '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!'
(If anybody finds this unbelievable, give me your email address and I shall be all too happy to send you photographic evidence.)
Walking through old Hebron, you pass row upon row of abandoned shops with their doors welded together and spray-painted with the Star of David. The resonance of the Warsaw ghetto is chilling.
As for the stance that Israel is the 'only democracy in the Middle East' and 'treats all its citizens equally', I invite you to visit the Negev desert in Israel. The Israeli organization Physicians for Human Rights (www.phr.org.il) told us of the plight of Bedouins there. There are 60 villages which have existed before 1948, the existence of which Israel does not recognize. As a result they have no healthcare, electricity or clean water. Their infant mortality rate is 7 times the Israeli average- in the 4th richest country in the world, with possibly the best healthcare system anywhere.
Those who grieve at the potential loss of academic freedom that a boycott of Israel may cause would do well to learn about the violation of Palestinian academic freedom. We visited Birzeit University just outside Ramallah. There we were told by Yasser Darwish, the Public Relations officer for the institution, how during the Second Intifada the Israelis constructed a checkpoint between Ramallah city and Birzeit. 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.
Healthcare is not a 'basic human right' in Palestine. It is incredible that some people have been highlighting the graciousness of Israel in agreeing to treat wounded and ill Palestinians. Under the Geneva conventions, an occupying power has responsibility for the health of the people it occupies.
In Nablus, we visited Rafidia Hospital, the main general hospital. We were met by Dr Sadaqah, the Deputy Director. He told 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.
Do you hear the Israeli Medical Association protesting against these gross violations of human rights by Israel?
I had the good fortune to interview two students from Al Quds University Medical School in Jerusalem. 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 explained 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. Israel's Separation Wall has separated the two and for all practical purposes, Abu Dis is now in the West Bank.
One of the students told 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.
As for those who claim that Israel, with its violations of human rights, is 'merely defending itself', I would like to bring to your attention the following statistic from the BBC: 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. Follow the link below for the story:
Now that I am back in the UK- and have opened my mouth in these columns- I know I shall be accused of being anti-Semitic. This is intellectually bankrupt nonsense. 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. (Also remember- 12% of Palestinians are Christians, and this number includes leading figures like Hanan Ashrawi and the late Edward Said.) 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?
Another question I am likely to be asked is, '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.
You may wonder what all this has got to do with the debate over a boycott. Well, despite individual dissenting voices, it is clear that Israeli academia and the Israeli Medical Association have failed to come out as a body and condemn the occupation. This is despite repeated calls by Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights organizations. By their silence, they are complicit in human rights abuses- I have no choice but to campaign for a boycott.
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 Nelson Mandela, Ronnie Kasrils and Desmond 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, I have 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?
Asad Khan, Specialist Registrar, Respiratory Medicine Wythenshawe Hospital, Manchester, M23 9LT
For a full account of my trip, please visit
Competing interests: I am a Muslim who refuses to be labelled an anti-Semite simply for criticizing the oppressive policies of the Israeli state