Cllr Martin Mitchell: ‘Justice isn’t relative but happiness is’ (day 3)

Sunday 3 February

Every day seems enormously larger than the one before.

We visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. There’s time  only to report that Jesus participated in another miracle not widely written up – he defended his mother from the charge of being a slut. Nothing remarkable about that you may say. Hang on a sec – it’s not just that he was a barrack room lawyer, it’s the fact that he was a barrack room lawyer at seven DAYS old. Don’t laugh! It’s true!

meeting the Governor of Hebron

Photocredit: Labour2Palestine (Creative Comms licence)

We journey to Hebron in the south where we meet Governor Kamel Hamid who’s been appointed by the President to look after the area. He speaks of the Israeli  Jewish settlements which are steadily surrounding the city centre itself. 400 Jews in the town’s ancient centre, he says, are supported by at least 1600 Israeli soldiers. He reckons the Israeli settlements could have been removed if the Israeli Labour Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, had not been assassinated in 1995. Now he remarks,” there’s no sign of life in the peace process’. The Governor explains that at present even the Palestinian President cannot move outside his base without Israeli permission.

Soon afterwards we meet the Mayor of Hebron at his civic HQ. He just won an election in November 2012, the first municipal election in 36 years. The Mayor, Dr. Daoud I Zatari, tells us the two-state solution (Israel and Palestine living in separate states) is “accepted” by all the Palestinian community. However, at present a journey from the north to the south of the city takes 35 minutes instead of 2-3 minutes because of the presence of the Jewish Israeli encampment in the heart of the city. The Mayor chats to us, he says he thinks Blackpool is “a BEAUTIFUL PLACE”. Yes, he has been to Blackpool.

Austin 103

Photocredit: John Austin (Creative Comms licence)

The Mayor was elected as one of the 15 councillors on a List system. Interestingly, of the two successful List coalitions both contain Fatah( Labour’s sister party) candidates.

I ask the Mayor about economic development. He says it’s slow going, he explains that Tony Blair was appointed by the UN to promote economic growth. The Mayor relates that Tony appears full of good intentions but so far hasn’t delivered anything of substance. Blair’s been in the position for over five years.

We go to the town’s historic market street in the traditional centre. Most shops are closed as shopkeepers and customers became tired of being harssed by Israeli soldiers and settlers.

Austin 129

Photocredit: John Austin (Creative Comms licence)

We approach the town’s Ibrahimi mosque which dates from the seventh century AD. We go through airport-type security again although this time it’s friendly. Our guide for the day, Basil, explains that the security including numerous checkpoints has paralysed the core of the city. The stated reason for the massive security is the 1994 massacre by Jewish extremist Baruch Goldstein of 19 Muslims who were slain as they prayed inside the Mosque. The Mosque had until this time been shared between Jews and Muslims, each worshipping at the various tombs inside including those of Abraham, Joseph, Jacob and Sarah. After Goldstein’s masacre the mosque was closed by the Israeli Government and then re-opened with one half for Jews only while anyone but Israel Jews can visit the other half (each can visit the whole for ten days a year while the other group can’t access it at all.)

Austin 202

Photocredit: John Austin (Creative Comms licence)

The old city centre’s main residential street can be entered only by Israeli Jewish settlers and a tiny minority of Palestinians who still live there. We are shown another street in the centre half of which can be accessed by Palestinians but only because one Palestinian family is in situ. Two members of the family (both less than two years of age) were killed by Israeli settlers in a smoke attack. The israeli soldiers who are all around never protect Palestinians from Israelis and predictably no culprits were found.

Nearby another street has been closed to Palestinians. Here a Yeshiva, a Jewish theological college, was built on top of a Palestinian secondary school. Once the Yeshiva was built the Israeli Government decided the school was a security risk because of its proximity to the Yeshiva (of course the school had been there first). Hence the school was closed and Palestinians are now kept out of the street.

soldiers, old town Hebron

Photocredit: Labour2Palestine (Creative Comms licence)

We visit Shuhada St. where non-Israelis canot pass beyond a certain point. Although this is not uncommon in Hebron’s historic centre there’s a plan to mount an international campaign around this particular street.  A local, Issa, tells us that Israel has imported a Jewish criminal from America who can carry out attacks on Arabs with impunity. He lives in the next street.

Back on the bus our guide for the day, Basil, speaks out. He says the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO)’s decision to sign away control over the city’s old centre to Israel was “not only a mistake but a crime”. This is significant as so far the Arabs have provided a united front and there has been no anti-Arafat sentiment. Basil also denounces the PLO’s decision to allow the Israei Goverment to collect Palestinian taxes in all of Palestine.

Hebron old Town

Photocredit: Labour2Palestine (Creative Comms licence)

We meet the Governor again for lunch. With him is a member of the Palestinian Authority, a man who was once jailed for 28 years, longer than Nelson Mandela. I’ll see Abu Ali yatta again later on.

After lunch we go into the hills south of Hebron where the Israelis plan to remove 8 Palestinian villages – they say to make room for an Israeli firing range. Basil suspects once the villagers are pushed out the area will be handed to the Jewish National Fund who will then build Israeli Jewish setlements.

We get off the bus in Sosia, a shabby group of hut-like structures in the hils. On 31 January the Israeli Supreme Court gave the villagers 90 days to prove ownership of the land or get out. We meet the vilage Council. They explain that Sosia is sandwiched between two recently built Israeli settlements which are not going to be dismantled. Between 1986 and 2000 the wells the Sosia villagers relied on for water have been damaged as the Israelis have taken the most fertile land. Sosia now has to import its water from Israel at a cost four times the previous cost.

Like everywhere else we’ve been we get a very warm reception – they want us to tell the world what’s going on. The villagers want Palestine to pursue justice in the International Criminal Court. Just as we’re leaving I get Basil to ask Abu Ali yatta why he spent 28 years in the slammer. He explains he shot at an Israeli soldier.

Back on the bus Basil opens up again. He says the Oslo accords that the PLO  signed in the early 1990s were the biggest mistake in the history of the Palestinian struggle. Somebody asks him if he’s in favour of the two-state solution or the one-state solution. He says he prefers the one-state solution. According to Basil the treaties of the 1990s were fundamentally mistaken because in practice they have allowed a) the extension of Israeli colonies on Palestinian land and b) the “apartheid wall”, the security barrier which is in fact a land grab since 88% of it is on Palestinian land. The treaties have made a viable Palestinian state impossible. Since Palestine can never be contiguous again a two-state solution is also impossible. He favours a Palestine based on 1967 borders.

I ask him  if the two state solution is impractical then why have all the politicians we have met favoured it, e.g. the Mayor of Hebron. Basil says the Mayor was speaking politically, he like everybody else knows it just won’t work. All of the public know this privately says Basil. In actual fact the choice between a two state solution and a one state solution is a choice between two impossibles. This being the case Basil prefers the one state solution.

on the bus!

Photocredit: Labour2Palestine (Creative Comms licence)

Opening up even more, Basil says the United States’ support for Israel is linked to capitalism. “If Israel was not rentable for capitalism the U.S. would not support Israel.” Basil is sharply and smoothly dressed and superbly eloquent, he doesn’t seem like a communist, nevertheless his doors of perception are well and truly open.

Something happens : a full-blown discussion breaks out on board bus. People who haven’t spoken up before become engaged in  a heated but polite discussion of the Palestinian question. I appoint myself chairman and have to keep order. There’s something invigorating in seeing the less likely suspects adding to the fiery mass of views on the subject at hand. Basil has started something here.

There’s reference to the precious materials in the region as the key driver of U.S. support for Israel and the U.S.’s geopolitical interests. Enlarging on answers to questions, Basil refers to the invention of the ‘Zionist personality” which in practice serves America. He even refers to “Arab Zionism”, by this he means the effective support for Israel by Arab states. We seem to have argued ourselves to a standstill when we arrive at a glassblowing and ceramics factory.

glass blower, Hebron

Photocredit: Labour2Palestine (Creative Comms licence)

We see a superb display of creative art by a fellow who makes an ornamental vase in an open furnace by, amongst other methods, blowing through a very long pipe. He gets a laugh when, amidst the complex process, he lights a cigarette from the fire without using his hands. He shows incredible skill to finish the ornate vase, he does this about a hundred times a day. At the factory the local Council present us with plates on which our names have been printed – a tremendous gift of friendship. I’ll be keeping my plate in a safe place.

I talk to Will from London. ‘Most people here seem pretty happy,’ I say. He agrees, saying happiness is relative. We agree that relative happiness should never be used to justify acceptance of the status quo. He eloquently remarks, ” Justice isn’t relative but happiness is.”

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