Day 1 – Friday 1st February
John Austin records his recollections of the first two days of Labour2Palestine’s recent visit.
Apart from organisers, Martin and Sara from Labour2Palestine, I didn’t know any of the participants prior to the trip. I had met a few, a week earlier, at a briefing meeting in London and two more on the journey from St Pancras to Luton. A few more introductions followed at the airport before we all separated to board the plane for Tel Aviv, remembering from that point not to mention Palestine or the West Bank. I was now on my way to Jerusalem as a tourist. I had travelled via Tel Aviv on a previous visit to Palestine, ten years earlier, when I was an MP. Then I had told the immigration authorities, on arrival that I would be visiting Palestine. This resulted in being taken to an interrogation room – left just waiting for most of the time – but I did have my mobile phone and was able to telephone the British Consulate in East Jerusalem who knew of my visit and were part of the programme. I am sure this may have speeded up my entry but colleagues and our transport had been kept waiting for nearly two hours following my arrival. If an MP could be treated like that, I was naturally concerned how I might be treated as an ordinary member of the public.
Anxiety began to set in as I stood in the queue for Passport Control and could see people in front of me being taken to one side and questioned or led away. I was asked if I had been to Israel before, where I was going, where I was staying and the purpose of my visit. I simply replied that I had been to Israel several years ago, that I was visiting Jerusalem as a tourist and gave the name of a hotel. Relief & surprise when no further questions were asked and my passport was returned with an entry permit.
Once through immigration and customs we re-grouped but had to sit around waiting for those whose interrogation had been a little more rigorous. I think the Israelis clearly do some profiling – maybe there are some advantages in being a white, grey-haired pensioner! Those who had been subjected to additional questioning were the younger members of the delegation, our Asian colleagues and those with Islamic names.
We boarded our two buses. One group, all from Battersea CLP, who knew each other, and a second bus with a disparate group from different parts of the country, who were together for the first time.
Our driver, Hesham, and the bus-hire company were from Jerusalem and so were able to take us in and out of Jerusalem and, when on the West Bank, drive on Israeli “settler only” roads.
Although it was dark we knew as soon as we had crossed from an Israeli road to a Palestinian one – the change from a smooth ride to a very bumpy one was noticeable.
In the pouring rain we arrived at the Rocky Hotel (so-called because it is built into the rock) in Ramallah. With time for a quick shower and change, we set off for dinner with Dr Nabil Shaath, Fatah Commissioner for International Relations, negotiator, former foreign minister, former acting prime minister. I was pleased that we were joined by an old friend, Dr Husam Zomlot, now Executive Director of Fatah International Relations Commission and known to some of the delegation from his period as deputy head of mission in London under Afif Safieh.
Nabil Shaath was his usual eloquent self and gave generously of his time, staying for questions long after his schedule. This was especially kind, as he had to be up very early the following morning to attend a Socialist International meeting in Portugal. International travel is not easy for Palestinians, even diplomats, whose movements are controlled by Israel.
Dr Shaath thought that agreement was near in the 1990s but all progress was halted with the assassination of Israel’s Labour Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin. Despite a catalogue of set-backs for Palestine, despite major concessions during the so-called peace process he remained surprisingly optimistic about Palestine’s prospects because of the unsustainability of Israel as it is.
He also told us that Fatah had reached agreement in principle with Hamas over Palestinian-wide elections and he expected these to take place within a year or so. Husam Zomlot said that whilst Palestine had won the moral and legal arguments, things were changing daily on the ground in Israel’s favour. The growth of settlements, essentially illegal colonies, and further seizure of Palestinian land had to be resisted. An occupied people had a legal right to resist occupation and to use force, but he felt that the Palestinians’ strongest weapon was non-violence.