The December 2008 – January 2009 Gaza massacre once again showed how Israel indulges in violence, with Tel Aviv given a green light by outgoing US President George W. Bush in his final days in office. The Israeli invasion took the lives of 1,400 Palestinians and left thousands of others wounded, disabled, widowed and orphaned, and besieged to the present day.
With a group of students, I staged a sit-in at the University of the West of England (UWE). I wanted to act not only because we in Bristol, inspired by other universities, felt it to be a moral duty to act in defence of Gaza but also because I am Palestinian and the people who were cut down are my very own. We slept on the floor at the university for over 20 days to make our voices heard and raise awareness on campus of what was going on. At first, there was a mixed reaction from other students, some complaining about the inconvenience of us staying in front of their lecture halls. Eventually, though, the plight of the people of Gaza was stronger than the people who objected to inconvenience.
From our long list of demands followed by rigorous and lengthy negotiations with the university we ended up with two scholarships for students from Gaza, each worth £45,000 and covering tuition, living costs and travel expenses; this became the Conflict Zone Bursary initiative. We students came up with the first £5000 for each bursary and the University was to release the balance. As a goodwill gesture, the Vice Chancellor, Steve West and the Deputy Vice Chancellor, John Rushforth, donated the first £1000, not included in the first £5000 commitment. They also donated surplus books to universities in Gaza, sent a letter of condemnation to the BBC for not endorsing a televised appeal for the people of Gaza and twinned with a Palestinian university.
Soon after, I had to leave Bristol for Spain to teach Arabic and English in a state school as a requirement for my degree. On my return, I found that the bursary was stagnant and the box only contained the vice chancellor’s and his deputy’s pledges. At that point, I took the lead to make the scholarships a reality and initiated a fundraising campaign with the help of other students such as Joe Odell and Ahmad Hamuda.
We approached many individuals and raised awareness in mosques and churches and amongst our local community in Bristol. As a British-Palestinian, I regard the UK as my second home but remain proudly Palestinian. With the help of many people, the Conflict Zone Bursary was not only revived but also realised with Ahmad Baraka and Rawad Hamad being accepted as students, the former to study for an undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering and the latter for a PhD in E-Learning.
For this initiative, I had to pay an expensive personal price. Allowed to visit Palestine in August 2008, August 2009 and September 2010, I was denied entry in August 2011, shortly after some press coverage about the initiative. Despite a public pledge by Israel’s Deputy Ambassador, Alon Roth Snir, in front of Bristol University postgraduate students and prominent academics such as Dr Vernon Hewitt, Dr Ryerson Christie and Professor Jutta Weldes to guarantee my re-entry, I was again refused permission to enter Palestine in June 2012.
The process was humiliating. Israeli security asked why I had to come to Israel when this was not my home. One of the officers told me, “Neither you nor your sons nor your grandsons will enter Israel; go and be a tourist in Thailand or London. They say London, is the city of love, no?” They also asked if I regarded myself as British or Palestinian, continuing: “This is the home of Israel, and Israel decides who enters its home; you decide who enters your home don’t you?”
I believe this whole process is designed to engender a feeling of powerlessness and is intended to create despair. Offering his regrets at being denied entry in 2011, the Israeli Deputy Ambassador explained that if I sent the details of my inbound flight he would guarantee that I would be allowed in at Ben Gurion Airport. Using his first name, Alon, in the correspondence, he even reflected: “We will still sit for a coffee in Tel Aviv one day, I am sure!”
I had hoped to go to the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Waqf (Religious Endowments) and Religious Affairs in Ramallah. There I would deliver the paper I had worked on for months; the one I had been invited to read. Next, I would visit the Association of Israeli Studies in Haifa, Israel.
I did not inform my mother beforehand as I know that she might have had a heart-attack if she lost touch with me if I was arrested and imprisoned. I was planning to surprise her and call her shortly after arrival to tell her, “Ana fil Quds” – I am in Jerusalem. I told my uncle and a friend in case I didn’t come back so that they would know where I was.
The Israelis took my fingerprints; I was held overnight in a cell with dirty sheets and kept under constant surveillance. I read the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” that was written on the wall and wrote my own name on the side of the bed. I wanted to contact my mother to tell her that I was going back to London and explain what had happened but was not allowed to do so. After a sleepless night and being denied food for 12 hrs, I was tired and hungry as I boarded the plane for Heathrow.
My deportation had been scheduled for 8am the day after my arrival. While waiting to be driven straight to the aircraft door, I was offered a coffee from a Druze security officer so that he could interrogate me informally.
First I was told that I was denied entry because an unspecified person in my family was a criminal. I searched my mind frantically trying to imagine who this person could be. The only person I could think of was my 85-year-old Uncle. In the 1950s he had been imprisoned in Jordan for being a Communist. If that was the case, I asked, why was I allowed to enter three times in the recent past? No answer.
Then I was asked about my family lands in what was “Someul” but has become Ramat-Aviv. The guard then asked, “Why don’t you want to sell? It is the most expensive area of Tel-Aviv.” I did not answer but felt that his overriding interest was in the land belonging to my parents and grandparents so that he could tell the world look, I bought it and they sold it to me. It was as if the Israelis were prepared to allow me entry for one more time so that I could sell the land and then I would be denied entry again.
We not only have the keys for the family homes and lands but also Ottoman, British and Palestinian title deeds, but “now we are living in other peoples’ countries subject to continuous harassment and change of laws”.
I feel that the Israelis are unaware of the land’s true value. They offer money for land that others will happily sacrifice their lives to liberate. My father and my uncles could have sold the land many times over but were prepared to live poorly in exile; how could their children ever forgive them if they sold out to the Israelis, they would ask themselves. A Palestinian proverb reads “Not by bread alone do humans survive.”
It was painful to go all the way from London, land in my own country, be put into a cell where I could feel the humidity of the sea and breath the air of my own country, but not be able to see or enter my own country.
Yazan is a British-Palestinian who was born in Jordan and currently is a PhD student at Exeter University. He earned his BA(Hons) from the University of the West of England and his MSc from the University of Bristol.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.