Labour to Palestine. A trip worth making

by Will Martindale

In early February, Martin Linton led a dozen Battersea Labour Party members on a visit to Palestine.

It wasn’t an enjoyable trip, or at least, enjoyable isn’t the right word. Palestine is a land of concrete, razor wire and guns, dusty, dirty and always The Wall. The message too was repetitive. We heard from the UN, a Jerusalem councillor, the Mayor of Hebron, a mother of a child prisoner, and Salim, a man whose house had been demolished six times: for Palestinians the situation is desperate.

The trip started in East Jerusalem with a briefing on the geography. Israel is the same size as Wales, the West Bank a little smaller than Devon, and Gaza is just a marathon long and a 10k wide. Here is the centre of religion, the centre of geopolitics and the centre of all that can be wrong with humankind.

Jeff, near Western Wall
Will with Jeff Halper, Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD)

Few places more so than Hebron which we visited on day two. Hebron’s a 20 mile drive due South of Jerusalem, and the resting place of Abraham of the Abrahamic religions. It’s a City of 250,000 Palestinians and 400 Israeli settlers guarded by 2,000 well armed troops.

Hebron old Town
Will and others listening to Basel

We visited a market with a chicken wire ceiling. “There to protect Palestinian shoppers from falling debris, food waste and worse, thrown by settlers living above” our charismatic tour guide explained. Heborn’s Mosque is half Synagogue. A bullet proof glass partition cuts the building in two:
Jews to the left, Muslims to the right. It’s sadly symbolic: A people so close, yet so so far. We end the tour on a rooftop, inspecting a Palestinian water tank sporting two Israeli bullet holes, draining scarce water and
hope.

Day three was Al Walaja, a 2,000 strong village, a mile or two South of Jerusalem. In 1994 the Oslo Accords proclaimed a shared capital, West Jerusalem for Israel, East Jerusalem for Palestine. The Green Line that splits the two puts Al Walaja firmly in East Jerusalem, and thus Palestine’s West Bank. But since then dozens of Israeli settlements encircle Jerusalem’s East, connected by an Israeli only road network, giving little chance to a two state solution with an East Jerusalem capital.

Omar, al Walaja
Omar standing in front of his house

90% of Al Walajans have left, encircled by The Wall, with just one exit point, life isn’t fun. The exit’s land is owned by Omar, a small holder farmer who makes a living from a two acre olive grove. Omar was offered a few thousand for his land, then a few thousand more. He refused. The final offer, he tells us, was well over a million. But although life is hard, Omar knows that if he leaves it is yet another Palestinian gone; another with no right to return.

It’s near impossible to understand. For me, development was always one of poverty alleviation. Palestinians are poor, but that’s not the issue. Here development is an issue of justice. A view shared by a Jewish friend of a friend I met for lunch at the Hebrew University.

The trip was well organised. From meeting to visit to presentation to meeting. Tiring and inspiring, with high level access, “it’s a delegation, not a holiday” Martin reminded us.

Fateh plate presentation
Will with Kifah from Fateh

We did tourism too. Jerusalem and Bethlehem were disappointingly unholy. Bus loads of tourists, some religious, most not, click away on mobile phone cameras. The cave where Jesus was born, reduced to a chorus of fake shutter sounds.

On the last day I walked alone through the Kalandia checkpoint, a gap in The Wall that connects East Jerusalem with the West Bank. Stuck in a cage with metal bars left right in front behind, with loud speakers loud loud speakers shouting instructions I couldn’t understand, with 18 year old soldiers sporting automatic rifles, with a Palestinian child screaming for his separated mother … I suddenly felt very lonely.

Two peoples, both victims, one strong, one weak, with divisions so deep as to drown out the voice of reason. If not enjoyable, it was provocative. I arrived with a million questions and I left with several million more. And for that, it was a trip worth making.

Will Martindale is Parliamentary candidate for Battersea.

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