How I became a Terror Tourist

It’s official I am a terrorist.

I am a twenty six year old British Muslim woman. I have spent two weeks in Nablus, Palestine as a volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement. The International Solidarity Movement  (ISM) is an organisation that calls for non violent direct action to show solidarity with the Palestinian people.

The Israeli army website refers to international volunteers such as myself as ‘terror tourists.’ We are viewed as being the enemy along with two million Palestinian civilians in the west bank who are under Israeli curfew.

‘Terror tourists’ come in all shapes and sizes, nationalities and ages. It’s a near impossible task to profile one unless they carry an Italian passport. Five hundred Italians were turned back by the Israeli’s recently,  they were planning to volunteer with the ISM.  I spent two weeks with Americans, Canadians, British, Norwegians, Danish and Japanese ‘terrorists.’ It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

Nablus is the biggest city in the West Bank. It’s been invaded twice by the Israeli army. During the first invasion  in April, three hundred tanks invaded the city. The Mosque in the old city was converted into a medical centre to treat the injured and sick. One paramedic that I spoke to told me how he  worked for three days solid treating the injured civilians and the sick. Hashim a young man with sad eyes described how ten of his friends were killed by the army on the first day of the invasion and how he didn’t have the energy to cry for the dead.

The Israeli army  invaded Nablus again  in  mid June, one week before I was due to fly out to Palestine. My family tried to talk me out of going, but I told them that it was too late my flight had been booked and that I had made up my mind that I was going.

My father seemed quite calm and told me that I had very little chance of getting into the country as the Israeli’s didn’t need tourists like me. Seems like he was on the same wavelength as the Israeli army.

Nablus has a population of 120,000 people, all of whom are under curfew twenty four hours a day. The schools, universities, shops and factories have been forced to close because of the curfew. Students who have spent eleven years working towards  their exams are now forced to play the waiting game with the army.  When they leave the city the students may be able to take their exams. But they could be in for a long wait. The Israeli government has announced that their ‘operations’ in the west bank are set to continue for the next six months while the army build a fence to separate the west bank from Israel.

I spent much of my time volunteering with the Palestinian Red Crescent Society(PRCS) taking patients to hospital . The ambulances are the only thing that move in the city that is under curfew twenty four hours a day.  The ambulance drivers are continually stopped and harassed. The drivers and paramedics are often strip searched. One young paramedic was taken inside a tank and made to strip in front of nine soldiers. They told him that they were looking for explosives. When they found nothing they told him that he could leave and reminded him that he would never be their (soldiers) friend. 

Working with the paramedics was an amazing and eye opening experience. The first time I faced a tank was less than two hours after being in Nablus. My legs turned to jelly when the barrel of the tank turned to face the windscreen of the ambulance.  I began to question what the hell I was doing in Palestine and if I was up to volunteering with the ambulances. The ambulances that I traveled in were regularly stopped and searched. Patients were made to wait in the heat whilst their ID’s were checked and the ambulances were searched for ‘bombs’.  I began to adopt different strategies when it came to dealing with the soldiers. Sometimes I would engage with them, it was my way of showing them that I wasn’t scared of them. I would ask them why they were doing what they were doing. If I was met with a stony face and silence I  would keep my mouth shut and just stare at  them.  

Whilst working with the ambulances I saw how those guns and tanks are used against the civilian population of Nablus . We were called out to see a ten year old girl who had been shot in the side of her stomach because she had been looking out of her window. She had two bullet wounds, entrance and  exit. The paramedics had been called out to re-dress her bandages. When the little girl saw her wounds she began to scream. Her father calmed her down and wiped her tears. Once the paramedics had finished with her she got up unaided and insisted that she would walk out of the ambulance alone.

One night we were called out to the old city to attend to an old man who must have been in his seventies. He had seven gun shot wounds to his body. I don’t know why he was shot.  When the ambulance arrived we were hurriedly ushered in to the house and were told that soldiers had occupied the house opposite and that there were snipers on the roof. The paramedics patched him up as best they could and then we left to go on our next job.

Every day the ambulance drivers risk their lives to take care of the sick. They feel passionately about helping their people and when they can’t get to a patient because of the check points and harassment they get very frustrated and angry.  I was told about one paramedic who was arrested by the army, they accused him of being a suicide bomber. He was taken to an army base and his ambulance which was fitted with special equipment for premature babies was seized by the army. That was three months ago, no one has seen the paramedic or the ambulance since. His wife and children don’t know if he’s alive or dead.

The Palestinian Red Crescent Society has one hundred ambulances that operate across the west bank, taking care of two million people. Two years ago forty five ambulances were donated to the PRCS, but they never reached the organisation. Instead the ambulances were seized by the Israelis and are stationed at the borders of Jordan, Egypt and the port of Haifa in Israel. The manager of the PRCS has been told that the ambulances are being checked for ‘bombs’ by the army.

One night Khalid and Sohail, two of the paramedics  that I was working with asked me if I would go on a job with them.  ‘We have to go to the army base in Huwara, to collect some bodies …are you sure you want to go?’ Khalid asked. Once in the ambulance Sohail explained that the bodies were of two shaheeds (martyrs) who had been killed earlier in the day. They were members of Hamas and one of them was the leader.

We drove in silence through the streets of Nablus, when out of the bushes soldiers appeared with guns. Khalid stopped the ambulance and waited. The soldiers began shouting. Khalid switched off the engine and we sat still waiting for the soldiers to approach us. They told Sohail to get out of the ambulance, he climbed out and told them that we were expected at the army base to collect the bodies of the two militants. The soldiers told us that we would have to use a different route as the road was closed.

So we turned the ambulance around and took another route to get to Huwara. When we arrived at the base we were faced by seven soldiers who began to load their guns and point them in our direction. There was an ambulance waiting with the bodies of the two dead men. Khalid and Sohail began to  prepare the strechers so that they could transfer the bodies on to them.  I helped them as much as I could.

The soldiers told Khalid and Sohail that they could take the bodies out of the Israeli ambulance and into the PRCS ambulance. They pulled the first body off the stretcher and on to the ground. The dead man, the leader of Hamas was wrapped in a white body bag with the star of David on it. When I saw that body bag with the star of David  on it, something inside me snapped. I don’t know what happened but I became very angry. I know that the two dead men were ‘military’ targets for the Israeli army. But they were dead. The army had got what they wanted when they had killed them. They had their trophy’s. Was it really necessary to put this dead man, a Muslim man in a body bag with the star of David on it?  In a bid to stay calm and as an act of defiance I began to babble at the soldier nearest to me,  firing lots of questions at him. I began by asking him how they had killed the leader of Hamas-  and asked for specifics. The soldier was startled that I wanted the details and asked me where I was from. He then gave me the low down on how the man had been shot many times and his arms and legs were no longer attached to the rest of his body.  I asked him why he had been put in the body bag with the star of david on it. The soldier had nothing to say, just shuffled his feet. Khalid and Sohail looked up at me briefly and all three of us made eye contact.

I pointed to the other dead man who had been wrapped in a blanket. ‘And what about him? What did you do to him?’ I asked.

‘Him’ he said pointing in the direction of the blanket with his gun ‘we threw bombs at him’ he replied. ‘So you fried him’? I asked. He stared at me for a few seconds and then nodded ‘yes’.

Once the bodies were in the ambulance and the doors had been closed, the soldier told me to ‘have a nice day’ and then watched us drive out of the camp.

On the way to the hospital, Khalid told me that one reason why the leader of Hamas had been targeted was because he had been responsible for killing the commander who was in charge of operations in Jenin camp in April. We drove to the hospital in the same way that we had to Huwara,  in total silence.

Once we reached the hospital, the Doctors, pathologists and porters were all waiting for us. I sat outside while the stretchers were taken inside the hospital. Khalid came out and told me that he didn’t want me to look at the bodies. He looked sad and tired. ‘This is crazy. This will cause big problems for Israel’. He sat down and lit a cigarette. Everyone inside the hospital was just as depressed as Khalid. I told Khalid that I wanted to see the bodies, that I had come to Palestine to see what was happening to people and to learn. ‘But they are in a bad way, it’s not good.’ Khalid told me as he dragged on his cigarette. The pathologist, who I had seen many times before came outside and told me that it was up to me, but he would show me the bodies if I wanted to see them. I followed him into the hospital took to where the two bodies were.  The pathologist asked the porter to lift the sheets that were covering the bodies. What I saw will stay with me forever.

Asides from working with the PRCS as an International volunteer I participated in demonstrations against the illegal occupation  of Palestine and the curfew  of Nablus. The demonstrations were amazing and really boosted the moral of the people and the volunteers. We managed to get coverage on CNN which made the people of Nablus smile. Here were the people of Nablus, under house arrest  twenty four hours a day marching on the streets of the old city demanding justice, freedom and peace. 

As  internationals we spent most of out time as observers, documenting human rights violations and collecting data to send to human rights organisations and other agencies. We walked for hours to get to villages around Nablus that had been occupied by soldiers. As we approached one house we were met with gun shots, a tactic that is often used to scare people. I can tell you now, it works.  We stopped and put our hands in the air with our passports firmly clenched. 

Ray, an American volunteer shouted out to the soldiers to tell them that we had come to talk to them and that we had come in peace. The soldiers told us to go away and that we should leave. We stood our ground and waited for a few minutes. Ray continued to shout towards the soldiers telling them why we were here. Eventually they agreed that two of us could go and talk to them.

A Palestinian woman, her daughter and her grandson stood with us as we watched Ray and Siama walk towards the soldiers.  The young Palestinian woman turned around and pleaded with us ‘please let me go too.’ 

‘No. You must stay here, please stay here’. Susan, another American volunteer responded. ‘But that’s my home’ the woman replied. We all stood in silence and looked to the ground. She was right. That was here home. Her home where she lived with her child, her mother and her family. Her home that she had worked hard for. Her home that was a place where she had felt secure and happy. Now it had been taken over by the army and she had to flee along with her child and family to a friends house. She didn’t even have time to take clothes and toys for her son who was holding on to his mothers hand as she stood next to us fighting back tears.

Ray shouted back and told us that the soldiers had said that the woman could go into the house to collect a few clothes and belongings for her son. The young woman’s mothers stepped forward and said that she would go instead. We watched as she made her way into the house. Siama told us afterwards that she could hear the woman howling at the top of her voice. She asked the soldier what was going on and demanded to be let inside to know if the woman was ok. The soldier told her that it was ok, the woman was upset because of the damage done to her house by the soldiers.  When the woman walked out of the house, she was sobbing and carrying a bag of clothes and a few toys. She walked towards us slowly as her daughter went to help her. She handed over the bag and then sat by the side of the road and wept. I had to swallow hard and fought back my tears. Susan and I looked at one another and took a deep breath.  I so wanted to say something to the woman, something that would make her feel better. But there were no words that I could use that would make her feel better, make those soldiers leave her home and her land. No words.

I walked over to her and gave her my bottle of mineral water. Then I helped her get up and hugged her. That was all I could do. Her daughter was also crying as her son looked on. I held her hand and told her that she had to stay voice was cracking , I was finding it hard to follow my own advice. We walked back to the house were they were staying.  Walking besides the young woman,  I told her I was sorry that I couldn’t do anything to help, but that she had to believe me, that thousands of people around the world cared about what was happening to her and her family and millions like her and that was why we were here, so that we could see with our own eyes what was happening and tell others. ‘I know that the people are good.’ she sobbed. ‘It’s the government’s, the Americans and the British governments. Why do they watch as they kill us and take our homes?’ Once again I was left wondering what I could say to her. I hugged her and kissed her goodbye and told her that I would never forget her or her mother. Or the people of Nablus and Palestine.  Never.