"Suddenly we were being fired at by IDF soldiers..."
Saleyha Ahsan is a trained doctor and freelance journalist. She has worked for BBC Radio 5 and Channel 4 News as a researcher, reporter and assistant producer. Saleyha travelled to Palestine in 2002 to offer medical assistance to the Palestinian people, as well as to film their struggle. She subsequently produced her first documentary Article 17: Doctors in Palestine in 2003. It explored the life-threatening profession of being a medic on the frontline in the town of Nablus (Occupied West Bank) and was screened at the Raindance film festival. She has also made a documentary entitled My Mother's Daughter (2007) about the relationship between Yvonne Ridley and her mother. Al-Istiqamah speaks exclusively to Saleyha about her experiences in Palestine and her feelings on the current conflict in Gaza.
Al-Istiqamah: Having been to Palestine previously for relief work, what was your reaction when you heard of this latest attack on Gaza?
Saleyha Ahsan: I just wanted to go back. It's been very hard for me, to sit here unable to help. Other people I knew who'd been before feel exactly the same way. It's so frustrating trying to get there. I drove down from Edinburgh to London, packed and ready to go. I've spent the last 2-3 weeks trying to find an organisation to go with, but understandably, each organisation wants to wait until there's a complete ceasefire, before sending their staff over. I've been trying to get some accreditation and some backing. I feel very angry.
Al-Istiqamah: What made you decide to go to the Nablus in the summer of 2002?
Saleyha Ahsan: Well, I'd been the previous year in 2001 with the BBC for a radio program that we made. It was about women activists who were spending their Christmas or New Year with Palestinian families. These were women who were Christian, Socialists, Jewish, from all kinds of backgrounds. Their aim was to show solidarity with the Palestinian people. I did that for BBC 5 Live Reports and it was called Women in Black. For a long time, I'd wanted to go to Palestine, like many people who follow the situation there, but I didn't know how to go about it. But once I had been with the BBC, I decided that I could return again at a later date.
When I went in 2002, there were the incursions going on in Jenin, the massacres. I was trying to go, but it was really difficult. One day I had enough and just got together a bit of money, a ticket to Tel Aviv and a camera.
Al-Istiqamah: What was it like at Tel Aviv airport?
Saleyha Ahsan: I was healthily nervous, as they could've done anything. I'd prepared for the worst but they were actually quite civil. I know some people were treated badly. The officials would look at my Arabic names, take my passport and put it in their pockets. I'd have all the searches, but they were courteous and professional. The same would happen at the checkpoints. It wasn't such a big ordeal. I was not wearing hijab at that time, so perhaps that's why they didn't give me much hassle.
Al-Istiqamah: Which organisation did you travel with?
Saleyha Ahsan: I went with the United Palestine Medical Relief Committee (UPMRC).
UPMRC work on the premise that they are allowed and protected by International Law to provide medical help and support. As a result, they don't ask the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) for permission. They are politically-minded. It was started off by a group of medical students during the First Intifadah.
Al-Istiqamah: You were a medical student at the time, weren't you?
Saleyha Ahsan: Yes, I wanted to go and join the ambulances. I wanted to explore the issue of whether or not medical aid was being allowed free access in times of conflict and curfew, according to International Law. I also felt obliged to go, having seen so many other people of different backgrounds travel to Palestine. I couldn't very well get angry or upset about other people not going, if I wasn't going myself. So I planned to go as a medical worker, and also to make a film. I used to travel with a Palestinian press crew. I've got so much respect for them. They used to go right up to a tank and start filming. I'd be so scared and they would attempt to reassure me. Facing a tank on an empty street is very terrifying. It could just shoot at you. Nobody would know.
Al-Istiqamah: When you visited in 2002, what was the mood of the Palestinian people?
Saleyha Ahsan: I found the situation was like a pressure cooker, about to explode. Tensions were high. The kids were quite hyper. With regard to the argument that the kids throw stones at Israeli jeeps, well, they throw stones at everybody. They threw stones at us, but we didn't shoot them! They bombarded a Palestinian press car with stones. These are kids that are living under fear, curfew, tension, death and injury. They are born in violence and thus they are also violent. It's a psychological thing. They have a pack mentality. UPMRC had a brilliant program where they tried to get these kids involved in first-aid and give them life-long skills.
Al-Istiqamah: Do the Palestinians take the sounds of gunfire as part and parcel of everyday life?
Saleyha Ahsan: They do, but they still get scared. They still jump and shudder. The younger ones especially will look to their parents for reassurance. I was amazed however at how they seem to have a reduced level of fear when facing a tank, compared to the rest of us. They've been somewhat desensitised. They are quite resilient people.
Al-Istiqamah: Who were the bulk of your patients?
Saleyha Ahsan: It was the vulnerable ones, the very old and the very young. They are the ones who suffer the most and the same would be true for today.
Al-Istiqamah: You named your documentary Article 17: Doctors in Palestine. Article 17 is part of the 4th Geneva Convention and states that "civilians should be able to access health care in situations of conflict." Did you find that to be the case in Nablus?
Saleyha Ahsan: No, that certainly wasn't the case. In Nablus and Ramallah, there were curfews, where nobody was allowed out for several hours a day. When the curfews would be lifted, Nablus was like a normal bustling city again, but on other days it would be a ghost town. During these curfew periods, there would be phone calls to the various medical agencies — either the Red Crescent or the UPMRC — for primary health care. These were the sort of ailments that you would see a GP about in the UK. With the UPMRC, we used to defy curfews. I was an international volunteer, but being foreigners, we felt a bit protected.
Al-Istiqamah: Were you distinguishable by your clothing?
Saleyha Ahsan: Yes, we used to wear a high visibility bib which said 'UPMRC' on the back.
Al-Istiqamah: We know that Israeli soldiers have shot western journalists and aid workers over the years. How much protection does being a foreign aid worker or journalist give you?
Saleyha Ahsan: What's happening right now in Gaza demonstrates that being a UN aid worker or a journalist doesn't really give you much protection. Israel laughs in the face of the UN. It has no respect for the Red Cross or Red Crescent.
Al-Istiqamah: Did you encounter any hassle as an international volunteer?
Saleyha Ahsan: Yes, we would still get stopped in the ambulance. The ambulances would still get searched…
Al-Istiqamah: Was this at checkpoints?
Saleyha Ahsan: Yes. And these checkpoints could be random ones anywhere. Sometimes we wouldn't be allowed to go through.
Al-Istiqamah: What reason would the IDF give for preventing the ambulances from getting through?
Saleyha Ahsan: Sometimes they would say "Oh, it's for your own safety. There are people with guns in that area." In actuality, the only ones with guns in the area were them (the IDF).
Al-Istiqamah: Did they ever say that they suspect you of helping insurgents?
Saleyha Ahsan: No, not to us. I did see some of the ambulances that had been ridden with bullet holes from earlier on in the year. That was when the IDF had been shooting at anyone and anything — including ambulances. At that time, they had used the argument that "we've found fighters in the back" or "we've discovered weapons being smuggled from one place to another." Now in Gaza they've been targeting ambulances and UN facilities. They've hit ambulances in Gaza and killed at least 12 medical workers. I haven't heard that the IDF has claimed to have found a mortar in the back of the ambulance. They were using that excuse in 2002 but they're not using it now.
Al-Istiqamah: Did you ever come under fire?
Saleyha Ahsan: Yes… We were on the rooftop once, just filming the site where a man had been shot dead the day before. His brother was gesturing and explaining what had happened. He was just saying "We were shot at. My brother just fell down. We had to drag the body down the stairs…" Suddenly we were being fired at by IDF soldiers. It took me a bit of time to realise that we were being shot at. On other occasions, a soldier in a tank would point his gun towards us. It was very intimidating. I'm not a brave person and I do get scared in these situations.
Al-Istiqamah: Did you meet any settlers?
Saleyha Ahsan: Yes I did and I found them to be the most vicious and arrogant of people. They throw their rubbish down the hill at the Palestinian homes. They take pot shots at the Palestinians. Even the IDF has had run-ins with them, especially in 2005 when they were removing them from Gaza.
Israel has been planting these horrid artificial settlements up and down the West Bank, often on beautiful pieces of land on high ground — very strategic positions — sometimes a stone's throw from a Palestinian village that has been there for hundreds or thousands of years. The settlers feel it's their religious right to live there. It's called Aliya in Hebrew – the migration to Israel. Many of them however, especially those from Eastern Europe, migrate there due to the economic package offered as an incentive: a nice house amidst olive groves and sometimes a job too.
Al-Istiqamah: Do you think Israel wants peace?
Saleyha Ahsan: Israel has offered what we call a 'swiss cheese Palestine' – a Palestine full of holes. This offered the Palestinians a few areas which were not united, whilst Israel would build their settlements everywhere. It wasn't something that the Palestinians could agree to. The soldiers in the IDF with whom we discussed these issues have been fed the argument that Israel was willing to give so much, but the Palestinians didn't respect the peace agreements.
Al-Istiqamah: They feel that Israel has the moral high-ground?
Saleyha Ahsan: Yeah. From what I saw, many Palestinians would be content to go back to the pre-1967 borders, as proposed by the Arab Peace Initiative. They just wanted to live safely, like other people. Others would argue that all "this is all of our land, and we want it all back". With the Oslo Accords in 1993, the Palestinians were being given a half-hearted gesture. Under that agreement, Palestinians would never be able to become a united territory. I think the Palestinians would be willing to accept a peace proposal, as long as it was offering them a fair deal.
Al-Istiqamah: What can be done to stop Israel's state-sponsored terrorism?
Saleyha Ahsan: Amongst the international community, I think only America could really put pressure on Israel, but of course they aren't willing to do so. They supply Israel with so much aid. There's a huge Jewish lobby in America.
Al-Istiqamah: Do you think the appointment of Obama as President will make a difference?
Saleyha Ahsan: It will be interesting to see what will happen.
Al-Istiqamah: His pre-election speeches did indicate that he was a staunch supporter of Israel.
Saleyha Ahsan: That's true, but I recently heard an interview on al-Jazeera with someone within the Obama establishment and he was very opposed to what was going on in Gaza. And he said that he wasn't the only one who felt that this blind acceptance of what Israel was doing must stop. I was gob smacked to hear someone from Congress speak out so openly.
Al-Istiqamah: Do you think that many Americans resent the influence that the Jewish lobby has?
Saleyha Ahsan: I think they do, that possibly they feel that they are not free to express their views. The Jewish lobby can make a politician's life miserable via hate mail, campaigning against them, seeking out any skeletons in the closet etc.
Al-Istiqamah: What do you make of the lack of international condemnation, from the western and Arab world?
Saleyha Ahsan: The silence from the Arab world angers me more. It indicates to me that they support Israel too. I was so impressed with Patrick Seale, who is a journalist and writer on the Middle East. He said that the Arab countries have been "feeble" and I wouldn't use any other word to describe their approach. They've just humiliated themselves. I understand the politics and that the Arab countries don't want to cross Israel or her allies. But in the 1970's when there was the Yom Kipper war, the ruler of Saudi Arabic did withdrew Saudi oil from world markets, in protest over Western support for Israel and it worked. He mysteriously died. It was said that one of his family went mad and killed him.
Al-Istiqamah: King Faisal?
Saleyha Ahsan: Yeah, that was him. Any Middle Eastern country that speaks out for Palestine comes under fire. Look at Iraq. Saddam Hussein, for all his faults, used to openly support Palestine. Iran openly supports Palestine and it's in the crosshairs. Lebanon, look what happened there in 2006.
Al-Istiqamah: What was your best memory of your time in Palestine?
Saleyha Ahsan: On the day I was leaving, one of the Palestinian journalists was taking me through the checkpoint. I'd stayed with his family for weeks and worked with him on a daily basis. He turned to me and said "it made a big difference to us that you came, because you're a Muslim." I was almost in tears. A lot of people do come to help, from various walks of life. I've never forgotten that sentiment. It made the whole three months mean that much more. This is our struggle as Muslims. We should be taking action.
When I went to UAE and was a stone's throw away from Palestine, I was amazed by how indifferent they are to the plight of the Palestinians. I was in Al-Ain to give a talk on healthcare in Palestine at a medical conference. It was hardly given any recognition. It was attended more by foreigners than the Arabs. When I gave the same talk here in the UK, it was packed out. People of all races attended, wanting to know how to help.
Al-Istiqamah: Did you get to pray in masjid al-Aqsa?
Saleyha Ahsan: It was my local mosque for a week. I stayed in Jerusalem for a week or two and the hotel I was staying at was very close to al-Aqsa. I could hear the adhan from it. I'd have to recite surah fatiha to the Israeli soliders at the gate to prove that I was Muslim and gain admittance.
Al-Istiqamah: What do you see as the future for Palestine?
Saleyha Ahsan: I have no idea. It's clear that Israel doesn't want a two-state solution. I think there'll always be a bloody struggle in Palestine. Fatah has been very quiet. Mahmood Abbas has been very quiet.
Al-Istiqamah: There was an article in the guardian by Shiraz Maher which stated that British Muslims should support Israel over Hamas, as they are a democracy. What do you make of that opinion?
Saleyha Ahsan: I can’t stand these apologists. Yes Israel is the only democracy within the Middle East, but having said that, Hamas was democratically elected. If Hamas was seen as a viable, negotiable entity, whereby other countries could sit at the table with, Israel would feel threatened. Hamas are not controllable by Israel and that's why they have such a vicious PR campaign against them.
Al-Istiqamah: The western leaders rejected the choice of the Palestinian people as to whom they wanted in power.
Saleyha Ahsan: Exactly. The same thing happened in Algeria. When an Islamic government was democratically selected, it was thrown out the next day. A horrific civil war ensued and hundreds of thousands were killed. We are still seeing the repercussions of that today. So many Algerians are leaving France, due to the discrimination that they face there. A lot of the men detained under anti-terror legislation in the UK were Algerian Muslim men who fled an oppressive regime.
Israel has no intention of accepting democracy for the other Middle Eastern countries. Hamas provided a social framework, healthcare and welfare. Crime was reduced. They are Islamic. They are Muslims. They aren't corrupt. People began to feel secure and what's wrong with that? There was a brilliant article in the Guardian by Avi Shlaim. He's a professor of international relations at Oxford and also served in the Israeli army. He clearly says that Hamas are not the bogeymen that Isreal portrays them as. They are a political power. Their military wing is separate.
Al-Istiqamah: Finally, what would you advise our readers to do in light of the current invasion of Gaza?
Saleyha Ahsan: Keep your eye on the ball. For the last few years there's been a horrifc blockade in Gaza. No press media were allowed in. Now we've got the focus put on Gaza, we have to run with it. We need to completely support the Palestinian people. Go on demonstrations. Keep up the pressure. Don't forget about the plight of the Palestinian people when it is no longer headline news.
Al-Istiqamah: Saleyha Ahsan, Jazakillah khairan for this informative interview.
Saleyha Ahsan: No problem.