We proceeded toward Jerusalem from Mecca on April 22. We were a group of 42 persons. We boarded a bus at midnight and reached Jeddah in two hours. Dar-as Salam, a well-known travel agency in North America, organised our trip. The guide - an Ethiopian born young man settled in Medina, announced that we were heading towards Palestine.
I could not imagine that my wife and I were part of a group that would soon set our foot on the soil of Palestine. Where is Palestine? Does this country exist only in name with no sovereign authority on the land it claims its own? It has a government, a president, a parliament and even a security force under its command but can hardly exercise its writ anywhere in its territory. It is under the occupation of a country of seven million people with the strongest and brutal military in the world. This is Israel, created in 1948, on the land where the Palestinians were living for thousands of years. The creation of Israel was followed by war between the Jews and the Arabs. The Arabs were unprepared, poorly equipped and fragmented and lost the battle. They were expelled by Israel and their land and homes were taken away by the Jews.
The persecution of the Jews by the Nazi government during the World War II generated profound sympathy across the world. The international community led by the United States, Soviet Union and Britain acceded to the demands of the beleaguered community in granting them a territory in Palestine, which they claimed God had promised in the holy book, Tawrat. Soon after its creation Israeli leaders proclaimed that the new state would be a Jewish country and the Jews all over the world would be welcome to settle in Israel.
The exodus of the Palestinians from the land occupied by Israel created an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Thousands sought refuge in neighbouring Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt. In 1960s the Palestinians got united under the charismatic leadership of Yasser Arafat and resolved to regain their homeland by armed actions. Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) became a vehicle for the achievement of the goal. PLO launched guerrilla warfare successfully hitting the Israeli targets at home and abroad.
In 1967 the Arabs launched a war against Israel to regain the Arab land but it failed miserably. Israel carried out pre-emptive attacks against its enemies and occupied great chunks of territory from Egypt, Jordan and Syria. The six days war dealt a humiliating defeat to the Arabs. Six years later, another attempt was made by the Arabs. They did better than before but could not achieve much success. President Anwar Sadat decided to end the animosity and instead apply diplomacy to regain the lost territory. He signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1978, regained control over the Suez Canal and recovered most of the Sinai Peninsula. Jordan followed suit. Talks began with Syria but got stalled after disagreement over division of the Golan Height became insurmountable.
PLO signed the Oslo Accord in 1993 at the mediation of the United States granting autonomy to the Palestinians on the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, and setting up a Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and a security force to govern Palestine. The agreement fell apart in 2000 for various reasons. Fighting followed and Israeli security forces brought the entire West Bank and East Jerusalem under its occupation again. Palestinian Authority thus exists only in name now.
As our bus was driving along the scarcely populated areas of Jordan, my mind moved back to the 1960s - two nationalist movements shook the youth in the world at that time. One was the Vietnam's unification struggle against the United States-backed Saigon government and the other was the Palestinian liberation war. The Vietnam War came to an end with the defeat of the US army in 1975. Vietnam is now a unified country in south Asia. But Palestine still remains under occupation. There has been a slide in the support of the international community towards Israel, and of late, the Europeans have shown more understanding on the legitimate demands of the Palestinians. As the bus crossed the King Hussein Bridge and stopped at Jordan-Israel border, my rumination of the past came to a halt. I realised that we needed to pass through the immigration and customs. The process was smooth at the Jordanian side. But the ordeal began at the Israeli immigration. We lined up but there was no immigration official at the counter. We found some empty chairs and benches and we sat for some time. After an hour an immigration officer showed up and we approached her with our passports. She looked at our passports, read out the first names and we pronounced last names.
Amongst us there was a young doctor accompanying his father. Since he was in his 40s he was required to complete a two page form. He was kept waiting at the counter. Hamzeh, our guide, assured that the doctor would be allowed to join us but it would take more time and suggested that we proceed. We boarded another luxury bus and drove through the Judean desert. Hamzeh, fluent in English, Hebrew and Arabic, and well versed on Middle East history told us interesting stories as the bus was moving towards Jerusalem. In the evening we reached the Golden Walls Hotel in East Jerusalem.
On the following morning, we had a tour across the eastern part of the city. We stopped at a place of panoramic view, took photographs and then visited the tomb of Prophet Daud. Hazrat Omar visited Jerusalem in 630 and signed the peace agreement with the Mayor of the city. Omar accepted all legitimate demands of the residents, guaranteed protection of their religious and personal properties. He selected a site for the construction of a mosque, later on known as Omar Mosque but decreed that a Church should also be built in close proximity to the mosque. Since then a tradition has evolved that whenever a mosque is built, a church needed to be constructed in the same neighbourhood. The tranquillity that exists between the Muslims and the Christians in Palestine, many believe, is rooted in that famous decree. We were then taken to the Mount Olives to visit the tomb of Rabia al-Adawiyya popularly known as Rabia Basri. She was born in Basra, Iraq and grew up there, and later migrated to Palestine. We also visited Salman Al-Farsi mosque. Al-Farsi was a great Sahabi and a great defense strategist. He played a crucial role in the battle of Khandak and secured Muslim victory.
In the afternoon my wife and I along with an Afghan family went to the Al-Aqsa Mosque. It's a grand mosque. This is the third holiest mosque for the Muslims and revered as the site from where Prophet Mohammed (Pbh) made the divine journey of Mehraz. Our visit coincided with the Day of Mehraz and many devotees were seen assembled at the mosque. We had Meghrib and Isha prayers at the mosque but the crowds were comparatively small. Large areas of the mosque were found empty.
On the third day, we visited the West Bank. We saw the 1300 kilometers long wall separating the Palestinians from their agricultural lands. The International Court of Justice declared the construction of the wall a violation of international law. Our first stoppage was in Hebron. It was a poor locality. The people would leave the area for work and return at the weekend. We visited the tombs of Prophet Ibrahim, his wife Sara Ibrahim and Prophet Yakub. In 1995, a settler entered the mosque in the early hours and shot at the people in prayer. About 30 devotees were killed and over hundreds injured. Consequently, violence erupted all over Palestine. In response, Israeli government erected wall separating the tombs of Prophet Yusuf and Prophet Yakub and placed these under Israeli security. The gates are kept open on certain days only.
After 15 minute uphill walk we reached the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem-- the birth place of Prophet Isa. We saw the site where the Prophet was born. The church looked magnificent. Services were ongoing and we quietly roamed around the church.
The next stoppage was at HalaHul - the house where Prophet Yunus had lived for about a year. Adjacent to the house there was a mosque. The Khatib of the mosque briefed us about the situation and lamented that 1.6 billion Muslims are doing too little for the cause of the Palestinians. He complained that though he could visit the United States and Indonesia, his request to visit Al-Aqsa was turned down by Israel. The Khatib suggested that Muslims in greater number should visit Jerusalem. On our way back we stopped at "Maqam Prophet Musa" where Prophet Musa was buried. The Jews believed Moses was buried in Jordan.
April 26 was our last day in Palestine. We left the hotel in the morning and drove to Amman through the border crossing. Another guide received us at the Jordanian side and took us to the Dead Sea and then to "People of the Cave". We returned to the hotel in Amman in the evening.
The writer is a former official of the United Nations.
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