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Middle EastTravel

West 10 to the West Bank: Reflections on My Visit to Occupied Palestine

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One of the most common requests of local Palestinians for me to share upon arriving home was to encourage Muslims to visit the holy city and reconnect to our heritage in the region. Many locals are banned from entering the courtyard. They need us to make it clear that Muslims worldwide have not abandoned the struggle for Al-Aqsa.

A few major experiences in my life I can confidently say have shaped the way I think, my identity, and my worldview; and my trip to occupied Palestine was without a doubt one of them. Not only because the trip was the first religious pilgrimage of its kind that I have embarked upon, but also because I was about to witness first-hand the Palestinian cause many of us have been championing for as long as we remember.

My drive in going was multifaceted. Faith is something we all struggle with; I believe it to be every individual’s journey to theological conviction, rational contentment, and spiritual elevation. Ultimately, every religion, including Islam, teaches you to serve God and the people around you. And as a young Muslim, I really was in need of divine reconnection. My soul needed to be fed. So, when given the opportunity with my brother to visit Palestine, ‘the Land of the Prophets’… I had no choice but to take it up, despite the challenges I had been warned of.

So, I left for neighbouring Jordan (as no flights go directly into Jerusalem), accompanied by my brother and my cousin. Three young brown men travelling to the most volatile region of the Middle East surely wouldn’t do us harm. We spent the night in Jordan and made our way to the border the next morning. We had been advised by some friends of ours to delete our social media accounts during this point in time (in case our phones were searched); and so, we only reactivated them after passing the border checkpoint.

Our experience here is something none of us can forget… witnessing apartheid before our very eyes. We didn’t know what to think really and I don’t think any of us really took it all in then. Despite having his UK passport in his hand, I remember my cousin being asked where we’re ethnically from, to which he replied, “Bangladesh”. “Iran?”, he was asked. “No… that’s not what I said.” This went on for a while, after which we were taken individually by the border staff to separate rooms. Finally, after almost 24 hours at the border control – and much questioning – we made it into Jerusalem.

Making the drive into the Old City, we were revitalised. We physically could not wait and made our way straight to the Al-Aqsa Sanctuary. For those who have never been, it’s sort of like a maze. Once you go in, you make your way around until finally reaching the mosque. We first passed by the Dome of the Rock (often wrongly mistaken for the Al-Aqsa Mosque) and then joined in congregational prayers.

The feeling was surreal; and not strangely enough, we felt at home once we arrived; perhaps because of the presence of armed Israeli officers right outside – and at every street corner – controlling access and questioning Muslim worshippers as they enter Al-Aqsa. But genuinely, the feeling of indulging in the Palestinian tea and sweets served to us as we entered the mosque, to speaking with the city locals and joining them in worship is a feeling my heart needed and still craves every day since. 

A few days later, we organised to make our way to the West Bank. While the Gaza Strip is under siege (essentially being an open-air prison), the West Bank is under occupation by international law. So as soon as we arrived, we passed by illegal Israeli settlements and came across villages where hundreds of Palestinians had been forced out of their homes. It wasn’t until we reached the ‘Palestinian-controlled’ neighbourhoods that we felt at home. I use that phrase loosely as the Palestinian officers we saw and shared laughs with were nowhere near as armed – or ‘in control’ – as the Israeli occupation soldiers we had previously encountered.

My brother described that it was comparable to a Westfield security guard, juxtaposed with US SWAT officers. Again, I don’t think any of us truly took it all in at the time. Our visit to Bethlehem too was eye-opening, from the Church of the Nativity to the tomb of the Virgin Mary. The local Christian support for the Palestinian cause was also made abundantly clear to us.

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I intentionally don’t wish to go into detail about our experience – as truly, it’s something that no recounting in writing can do justice to. You just have to experience it yourself. One anecdote of my trip I will share, however, comes from our last day there. Our shopping in the Old City Market was done and time for prayer had approached, so we naively made our way to Al-Aqsa with our shopping bags. The Israeli officers stopped us at the mosque entrance, searched our bags, and came across some t-shirts and souvenirs we had bought. Mine had written ‘Straight Outta Palestine’ on it. Another had ‘Free Palestine’ written, and others had pictures of the Palestinian flag and Al-Aqsa. The armed officers denied us entry to the compound, with one smugly remarking, “Go and tell the shopkeeper to guard your mosque.”

We later did pass that shopkeeper to tell him what happened. He then told us of the Israelis’ offers to purchase his much sought-after home, due to its close vicinity to Al-Aqsa. He had refused their offers for years (literally, he has been offered millions of pounds), believing that any money gained would be illicit and a betrayal to Al-Aqsa. Many others have been forcefully evicted from their homes in the local vicinity.

These are my reflections from my trip. But what can we do now? What do Palestinian locals themselves want us to do? First, we must reaffirm the centrality of Al-Quds [Jerusalem] to the Islamic tradition and to Muslim identity. Al-Aqsa Mosque is one of the holiest sites in Islam and the first direction towards which the early Muslims would pray. It was the second mosque built on Earth and is the only other mosque, other than the Holy Kaʾbah, mentioned by name in the Holy Qur’an. It is the point believed to be from where Prophet Muhammad ascended to the heavens for the miraculous Night Journey; and it is, in Islamic eschatology, believed to be where the Mahdī will lead Jesus in prayer after their messianic advent. So why don’t we take the journey to visit it?

One of the most common requests of local Palestinians for me to share upon arriving home was to encourage Muslims to visit the holy city and reconnect to our heritage in the region. Many locals are banned from entering the courtyard. They need us to make it clear that Muslims worldwide have not abandoned the struggle for Al-Aqsa.

Secondly, unite. Unite in our struggle for the same cause of resistance. Put aside our differences as Muslims and work together for the common goal of not just liberation from Zionist occupation, but the preservation of Islamic identity as a whole. Geopolitics is shifting every day. More and more Arab leaders (in defiance of their people’s popular opinion) are giving in to imperialist pressure and flat-out betraying the Palestinian cause – what should be our single most important priority in the region. We, as Muslims on the grassroots level, need to know not to give in to the ‘divide and conquer’ tactics of others. Common sense dictates that our unity is our strength.

All that I mentioned was just from our time there for less than 10 days. Palestinians live it every day. There are many more stories I wish I could go into, from the exact details of our questioning at the border to some more hostile interactions with the occupation forces. But I will end on this note – when one of them asked me if I think Palestine should be free… I replied, “I believe the whole world should be.”

Please support Medical Aid for Palestinians, a British charity that offers medical services to Palestinians living under occupation and as refugees.

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