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‘We heard these loud noises. The sirens went off. Then the missiles started’

Veteran Palestine campaigner CHRIS DRAKE returns from the West Bank and talks to Morning Star northern reporter Peter Lazenby about things that happened there ‘that she’ll never forget’

IN THE al-Shifa hospital in Gaza, doctors have written a message on a noticeboard.

It reads: “Whoever stays here until the end will tell the story. We did what we could. Remember us.”

The hospital in devastated northern Gaza is currently occupied by Israeli soldiers.

Christine Drake brought the message back with her from her latest stint as a voluntary worker in Palestine.

Drake, who lives in Yorkshire, had few problems in Palestine, but that wasn’t the case when she returned to Britain where she was threatened with an intrusive body search by a male Heathrow airport official who told her “you’ll probably enjoy it.”

The threat came when she refused to remove her kufiya, a traditional Arab scarf, which she customarily wears.

She was also threatened with arrest by police at the airport and when she arrived home she was told by neighbours that police had visited the flat and taken photographs of pro-Palestine posters she displays in her ground-floor windows.

Drake is accustomed to abuse.

The 76-year-old retired social worker spends three months of every year working in Palestine, sometimes acting as an international observer, at other times helping with the olive harvest, and often participating in protests against Israel in the West Bank.

In her home town of Hebden Bridge in the West Yorkshire Pennines, for four days a week she stages a one-person regular protest in the town square in support of Palestine. The four feet 11 inches tall, white-haired pensioner uses a folding clothes rack to display photos of the latest Palestinian victims of Israeli atrocities and maps of the growing areas of Palestine stolen for illegal Israeli settlements.

Her latest visit to Palestine began on September 28, 10 days before the attack on Israel by Hamas which killed more than 1,300 Israelis.

A few weeks earlier she’d attended a meeting in Hebden Bridge organised by Halifax Friends of Palestine which was playing host to four workers from Shu’fat refugee camp which borders East Jerusalem.

After talking to the workers she decided to return to Palestine to spend a month working in the camp with the team members who care for children and people with disabilities.

She flew to Israel and first visited friends in in Ramallah in the West Bank.

”We were supposed to be returning to the camp on the Sunday, October 8, but then the war started,” she said. “It was surreal. I started hearing these loud noises. If you’ve only ever seen war on films, or read about it in a book, the start of a war is very different. We heard these loud noises. The sirens went off. We were in an apartment. We went out onto the balcony. Then the missiles started. We could hear the thud of the Iron Dome intercepting them. Then we saw the explosions and the flames. That was on the Saturday.

“We were still in Ramallah. We couldn’t go back to Shu’fat because they were closing the roads.

“The family I was staying with, they were following it minute by minute on Al Jazeera.

“I didn’t want to do that. I went into the centre of Ramallah to a protest. Everybody was doing that. I did that every day. I was there for two-and-a-half weeks. People got to know me.

“A couple of things happened to me that I’ll never forget. I went to a demonstration in al-Manara Square in Ramallah. Two young people had been killed, two martyrs. The bodies were being released for burial. They were 16 or 17. The family wheeled the first body out. It was covered in a Palestinian flag. Before they carried him down the steps to take him away to be buried, one of the family members threw the flag from the top of the steps. I found out later that that’s what they do. They throw the flag to the mourners.

“It landed at my feet. I picked it up. There was a young man behind me. I tried to hand it to him. He said ‘no, this is yours’.”

The flag which covered the body now hangs in a window of her flat in Hebden Bridge.

“One day I went down there were a lot of children,” she said. “The children had made all these signs. They all had kufiyas on. We were talking for ages. They were going to set off on a march. They said ‘come with us.’ They asked how old I was — they always ask how old you are. I told them I was 76 — old enough to be their grandma. One of them said ‘you can come as my grandma.’ So I went on the march as their grandma.

“The Palestine Authority police were a bit heavy-handed with them. Eighty per cent of the people of Palestine don’t trust the Palestine Authority and I’m not surprised — I mean what do they do for the people?

“When we got back to the square two of the children came up to me. They’d been carrying a little banner that said “1948 — to return is our right and our will’ in Arabic and English. They folded it up very nicely and gave it to me.”

The words referred of course to the 1948 Nakba — the catastrophe — when 700,000 Palestinians were evicted from their homes and cleared from their land to create the state of Israel.

“After I’d been in Ramallah for two weeks I got a phone call from the embassy or whatever telling me everybody had to leave. Basically the borders were closing. It was getting difficult in Ramallah.”

With friends she headed for the Jordanian border. There were problems there with Israeli police who told her she was not allowed to travel on a bus with Palestinians.

“It was just racism,” she said.

Her friends had booked her on a flight to Heathrow and a flight from there to Manchester. She travelled wearing her Arab headscarf — the kufiya. After arriving at Heathrow she was queuing for her domestic flight to Manchester.

“A youngish bloke at the gate told me to take my scarf off. I said no, it’s just an item of clothing. He said I was trying to stage a demonstration. Another said: ‘If you don’t take it off I’m going to take you to another room and do a personal search.’ Then he smiled and said ‘but you’d like that, wouldn’t you?’

“When I finally got through there were two police waiting for me. They didn’t tell me what I’d done but they wanted my details. They threatened to arrest me. They were appalling, shouting at me. They threatened to arrest me, to take me to the police station. I was tired and cold. That was the last thing I wanted. So I gave them a date of birth. It wasn’t mine though.

“I got home really, really late and the next day a friend and neighbour came round and said the police had been and had been taking photos of my windows.”

Her ground-floor flat sits by the side of trans-Pennine Rochdale Canal tow path which is used by many of the tourists who visit the town, more so since the successful TV police drama Happy Valley, some of which was filmed there. Her windows are covered in hand-made posters carrying information about what is happening in Israel.

She plans to resume her daily vigils for Palestine in the town square once she recovers from a chest infection contracted when she got back to England. But she brought back with her messages from Palestine which she will be spreading.

“We have to keep telling people that what’s happening now didn’t start on October 7. It started in 1948,” she said. “We have to keep saying that. It’s been going on all those years.”

She also brought back the message from doctors in the al-Shifa hospital in Gaza. The words are on a new poster in her window. She was given the massage just after the power supply to the hospital’s intensive care unit had gone off because the fuel for its generators had run out.

“They were doctors trying to save lives,” she said.

“They wrote: ‘Whoever stays here until the end will tell the story. We did our best. Remember us’.”

When Drake returns to her daily vigils in the town square she knows she will suffer regular verbal abuse and threats, as she has done ever since she started her vigils in 2014, prompted by Israel’s attack on Gaza that year.

“Do I care? Do I hell!” she said.

She is taking legal advice with the intention of suing Heathrow airport and the police over their treatment of her.

“I don’t know if I can do anything but I’m going to try,” she said.

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