I am a journalist focused on U.S. foreign policy in the Muslim-majority world, and I have spent years trying not to write about Israel and Palestine.
I couldn’t possibly get it right, I told myself. I imagine the assumptions my byline triggers for some readers — that anyone with a Muslim background must dislike Israel and, quite possibly, Jews — and I feel suffocated. I picture a different kind of reader, one with a name like mine or a similar focus on highlighting injustice, and I feel pressured.
I experience an anxiety familiar to all reporters: the fear of never knowing quite enough, of releasing something with your name on it into a world filled with people wiser on the subject than you, risking embarrassment, bad-faith attacks, accusations of misusing the right to free speech, or worse. Amid the increasing popularity of attacks on the press, journalist friends and I often joke about getting canceled. That has a particular meaning if your ability to live in the country you’ve called home for a decade depends on an employer-sponsored visa.
Last summer, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, which focuses on Israel’s role in the Palestinian territories ― the occupied West Bank and Gaza ― invited me to visit as part of a delegation of journalists from the U.S. and Europe. They didn’t know I was a Pakistani citizen, holding a passport that announces on page three that it is valid for all countries in the world except Israel.
I applied for a visa anyway. I got it, and an official Israeli press credential ― the first ever given to a Pakistani in the 71-year history of the state, according to Ron Paz of the government press office. “Hopefully you open the door for others,” he wrote in an email prior to my arrival.
Many Israelis and Palestinians chronicle their realities with commitment and professionalism; ubiquitous foreign correspondents supplement that coverage. Most of them are white. People like me — hundreds of millions of citizens from the vast majority of Muslim countries without diplomatic relations with Israel — rarely get a firsthand understanding.
What, then, to expect from visiting as a brown man with a Muslim name, granted official approval but carrying documents that weren’t remotely Western or even Middle Eastern?
One constant: knowing my chance to learn depended on unprecedented approval from the very people I sought to impartially cover ― and that the privilege they conferred could evaporate at any time.
“I applied for a visa anyway. I got it, and an official Israeli press credential ― the first ever given to a Pakistani in the 71-year history of the state.”
When I visited Israel’s embassy in Washington, a security officer told me to pull down my pants. He said the metal button on my jeans was a problem and ran his metal detector up between my legs. I’ve never had an experience like that while visiting the CIA, the Pentagon or the State Department, the White House or Congress or dozens of embassies.
I spent 30 minutes between the stripping and the questions: first, “Are you going to Israel to protest?” and slightly later, “Did you know your name means ‘big martyr’ in Arabic?” (Pakistan’s national language is Urdu). I walked into the consular section of the embassy dazed and desperate for a shower. The guy behind me in the security line came in less than five minutes later. I couldn’t tell if his pants had a metal button, too.
No Israeli official treated me that way when I was in the country or in the West Bank, which is largely governed by the Israeli military. I didn’t get detained at the airport on my way in or out, courtesy of Paz and precautions by my hosts at B’Tselem. I never removed an item of clothing other than shoes or a belt.
That made me different in a stark, disturbing way. In cars with Israeli license plates, I zipped in and out of the West Bank with the ease of turning onto a freeway. The first time, one of my hosts pointed out the separate part of the checkpoint where officials were slowly processing a long line of cars with Palestinian plates.
In Hebron, a town of religious importance and a painful history of Jewish suffering that has become a microcosm of how the Israeli occupation works since settlers began moving in following the 1967 war, guards stopped me and my guide, Yehuda Shaul. Shaul wanted to take me down a certain road in the dilapidated city center, where a small group of growing settlements has replaced the old downtown of the West Bank’s biggest city. They told him Muslims couldn’t walk there because it was the Jewish entrance to the Tomb of the Patriarchs.
Sweating, conscious we only had a couple of hours there, we bluffed: Could they be sure I was Muslim? The guard spoke to her superior through a walkie-talkie, then laughed. Shaul translated the Hebrew exchange. “He says he’s not Muslim but his name is Ahmed,” she said. “Tell him to go to the Palestinian village on the hill instead. I’m sure he’ll find it a joyful experience,” came the answer.
We took the long way, stopping briefly so Shaul could use a restroom I wasn’t permitted to enter. I spent six minutes waiting, watched by a guard making sure I stayed on my side of the line and guiltily deflecting questions from a Palestinian boy who wanted to know if I was Muslim. When we started walking again through the eerie silence, we used a road that isn’t barred to all Muslims but is specifically prohibited to Palestinians after a devastating 1994 attack by a settler sparked fear of retaliation. (It’s almost always Palestinian rights that get curtailed after violence, Shaul noted).
On one street, we passed a sign on the second story of a house. “Arabs are prohibited,” it read. “This is apartheid.” The woman living inside was a local activist who, like the few other Palestinians who hadn’t given up on the neighborhood despite policies like the welding shut of their front doors, had spent years entering and exiting her own home through back alleys and neighboring roofs. We walked all the way through, to a checkpoint beyond which we could see the parts of Hebron not treated as special security zones for settlers. I’m not sure about joyful, but it looked alive.
“They told him Muslims couldn’t walk there because it was the Jewish entrance to the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Sweating, conscious we only had a couple of hours there, we bluffed: Could they be sure I was Muslim?”
Gaza City felt a little too close to home ― to bitter personal knowledge of how historically marginalized communities can oppress some of their own members. I met Fatimah Ashour, a smart, hilarious young lawyer with the kind of verve in the face of a tough reality that I associate with many of my friends back home in Karachi. She deeply opposes Israel’s blockade of the region.
She’s also unable to practice her profession because of Palestinian policy. Hamas, the militant Islamist group that’s ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007, has since 2009 required any woman appearing in court to wear a headscarf. Ashour refuses, which means she can’t appear before a judge.
Earlier that day, I spent time with two mothers who had lost their 14-year-old sons, Luai Kahil and Amir al-Nimrah, in an Israeli airstrike in the summer of 2018. They have become used to sharing a story that sounds too painful to be true, of two buddies hanging out one Saturday afternoon, taking a selfie, and then being hit with a missile. Hearing it the first time, I teared up. Trying to look elsewhere so they wouldn’t notice ― who was I, compared to them, to cry? ― I noticed big posters featuring pictures of the boys. I read the inscription: Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an armed group fighting Israel.
I learned that many memorials for local victims of Israeli actions are made in the same few places. For those willing to take advantage of personal tragedy, their community’s pain can be a goldmine. Militants and militaries across Muslim-majority nations like Pakistan are masters of the practice, turning individuals into symbols of causes they had little connection to in life.
Six members of our group got permission from Israel, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority to visit Gaza, thanks to B’Tselem. As we slept there overnight, the Israeli military launched a strike into Gaza City against an Islamic Jihad commander; the retaliation, a barrage of rockets into Israel, woke me up, but I convinced myself it was just a sound from my childhood, the dawn call to prayer. I got another hour of sleep before I acknowledged the actual situation: that we were, without prior preparation, now stuck in the middle of intense fighting.
I texted Paz, my Israeli government contact, as much as I thought I could get away with. I was asking whether the squabble would worsen and when Israel would reopen its checkpoint. Really, I was more nervous than curious: My country had no ties with the government whose choices would now determine my future, and part of me was still sure I had no right to be in this space to begin with. I needed to know someone with some degree of influence still saw me.
He did, and he was more honest than I could be. He shared his own anxieties, of being a father to children who couldn’t play outside for fear of a stray rocket and the gutting feeling of hearing the siren warning that attacks were incoming. I was getting a real taste of life in the conflict, Paz told me.
For Palestinians, the experience veered from somewhere near Paz’s to outright hellish. B’Tselem’s Gaza representative, Muhammed Sabah, visited us; he was also balancing concern for his family with helping outsiders. It wasn’t so bad to sit there with us, wound up and tapping at our phones, and look out at the Mediterranean, just as stunning as it had been the day before but newly featuring Israeli ships that had drawn closer, into our line of sight, to maintain a tighter blockade.
It was clearly frustrating for him to corral a member of our group who had decided to go out and try reporting without protective gear, local contacts or much knowledge of Arabic. We were spectators who would almost certainly leave a place that experts say is suffering to the point it might become unlivable. Twelve hours after we left, another Israeli strike killed eight civilians, including five children.
The five other men in my group were Europeans. They were in touch with their embassies; one government got the United Nations to put our hotel on a no-strike list for the Israeli military. We joked with each other to calm our nerves. They turned to an outlet I didn’t have: reporting, publishing dispatches I couldn’t because my bosses and I had agreed to avoid publicly discussing my trip until I was back in the U.S.
Feeling helpless, I tortured myself by tracking Twitter updates from a Fox News reporter referring to himself as “the only foreign correspondent inside Gaza,” then tortured myself further by thinking about what a petty, selfish concern that was.
“As we slept there overnight, the Israeli military launched a strike into Gaza City against an Islamic Jihad commander; the retaliation, a barrage of rockets into Israel, woke me up.”
Our privilege shaped our departure ― enabling it in some ways and making it harder in others. Israeli and foreign government contacts got us on the list of people, primarily international aid workers, who were approved to pass through the checkpoint into Israel for the brief period it was open on the second day of the clash. Hamas authorities didn’t trouble us, but they did keep us waiting outside their office to watch as, in the clear sky over our heads, rockets flew and were loudly intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system. Someone pressed us about where we were from: just Europe, my colleagues repeated as I stared at the ground.
To the Palestinian Authority, which controls the no man’s land between Hamas’ post and Israel’s, we seemed to represent an opportunity. Holding us back for hours — first by saying officials had lost some of our documents and then by arguing that two of the guys’ names weren’t on the list — meant maintaining pressure on the Israelis to keep the checkpoint open longer.
They processed my approval the fastest. I had pestered them the most, but I also had the least valuable passport. We got through the Israeli side of the checkpoint with just a small hitch: needing to rush for 10 minutes to a shelter, also known as the outdoor women’s restroom, when rockets started landing nearby.
I’ll remember the stories of lives disfigured by decades of violence, the historic sites, and the beauty and the hospitality ― Israelis eagerly talking about wanting to visit Pakistan, Palestinians ensuring no interview was devoid of snacks ― but I’ll also remember that constant awareness of status, of needing to prove it and think about it. I’ll remember the fear of misremembering the Quranic verse a burly Arab guard asked me to recite to prove I was Muslim and could enter the Dome of the Rock, and the lump in my throat when an Israeli officer younger than me held my visa between bright acrylic nails and told me it meant if I entered Gaza I couldn’t go back into Israel.
I still don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of slights by both sides, or the legal doctrines and political considerations that will determine if anyone will ever be held accountable or peace can one day be achieved.
But I do have new empathy that’s stronger than my old fear. And I know interested parties will keep vying to win over perspectives like mine.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest comeback, weeks before a criminal trial, has Israel’s hard right newly confident and its liberals loudly warning of democratic decay ― as Palestinians worry Netanyahu will fulfill campaign promises to annex occupied land.
B’Tselem seeks media attention for its mission to end an occupation it calls blatantly immoral; Israeli officials want press about both the threats their nation faces and evidence it is willing to see Palestinians thrive. Muslim public opinion is in demand, too. Palestinians have sought support from fellow Arabs and other Muslims for decades, while Israel is courting regional governments with increasing visibility and success to show it can strengthen its position in the Middle East before resolving its conflict with Palestine.
I’m better prepared to write about those dynamics and do right by the people whose lives they define after doing two kinds of work: learning as much as I could on the ground ― then interrogating what was affecting and limiting my understanding. People like me are going to keep wanting and needing to cover Israel and Palestine. I hope others realize sooner what took me all this time.