By John Austin
Monday 4th February
It is another early start as we board the buses to Jerusalem for a briefing from Ray Dolphin of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
UNOCHA holds that most of the separation wall is illegal. Ray Dolphin confirms that the International Court of Justice ruled that Israel does have a right to build a wall for its own security but argues that for it to be legal it would have to follow the “Green Line” i.e. the 1967 border between Israel and Palestinian territory or be on Israeli soil but as 80% of the barrier is actually in Palestine, annexing more Palestinian territory, most of it is illegal. The wall is not yet complete but UNOCHA estimates that when it is completed some 70 illegal Israeli settlements built on Palestinian land will be on the “Israeli” side of the wall.
UNOCHA confirm the Palestinian view that the Oslo accords establishing Areas A, B and C was supposed to be temporary and transitional. We had arrived just after the inconclusive Israeli election but one of the Party’s likely to be part of the government is actually arguing for Area C to be annexed into Israel.
Ray Dolphin’s view was that in reality this had already happened. He said that an immediate and major crisis faced the Bedouin population. 18% of the West Bank near the Dead Sea had been declared a military area by the Israelis where some 5,000 Palestinians, mainly Bedouin, lived and in the far south 1,000 Bedouin were facing eviction.
Many of the Bedouin who had traditionally followed a nomadic life with their herds had been forced into static encampments and now even these lands were being taken away. 10% of the Palestinian West Bank had been declared a “nature reserve” by the Israelis and Palestinians were no longer allowed to graze their animals there.
Following the 1967 war, Israeli settlements in what was to become Area C* had grown with an Israeli population in 1972 of around 1000 settlers. By 1993 the number had grown to 110,000. It was now estimated that 300,000 Israelis lived in illegal settlements in Area C. Ray Dolphin described the current reality of Area C as “220 Palestinian islands in an Israeli sea”
He told us that all the Palestinian specialist hospitals e.g. for Ophthalmics, cardiology, cancer and paediatrics were in East Jerusalem which had been annexed by Israel so that patients from the West Bank or Gaza required permits from the Israelis to access hospital care. We learned that this was often denied or granted too late so that people missed vital operations and treatment.
He said that the most significant failure of Oslo was the failure to stop the growth of settlements and that the situation for Palestinians was far worse than it had been when Oslo was signed up to in 1993.
* Following the Oslo accords 3% of the Occupied Palestinian Territories were placed under Palestinian control (Area A) 25% was under shared control with Israel being responsible for security (Area B) and 72% was under full Israeli military control (Area C).
Ray Dolphin then gave the delegation a video presentation of the separation wall/barrier, clearly showing how it cut deep into Palestinian territory, annexing more Palestinian land and a presentation on the situation in Gaza. As we were unable to visit Gaza (and it is increasingly difficult for outsiders to do) and see the “facts on the ground” for ourselves, I am not including the details. I had visited Gaza on three occasions previously, when the situation on the ground for Palestinians was far worse than on the West Bank. The situation has clearly worsened since.
After leaving UNOCHA we travelled into Jerusalem to meet Councillor Meir Margalit at City Hall. I have very little knowledge of Cllr Margalit. He is a left wing councillor who has joined the administration. I am neither pro nor anti, but I am intrigued and I have some questions. What is a left wing politician professing concern about Palestinian rights doing in a coalition enforcing segregation and demolishing homes? I leave with the same questions and the same doubts. But I leave with an admiration and respect for a man who is pilloried by both Palestinians and Israelis. I think he is honest and doing what he thinks is right and which he genuinely believes will lead to progress and a better world for both Palestinians and Israelis.
To many Israelis he is a traitor. To the Palestinians he is a “collaborator”. His word and he confirms that is what he is.
He does, however, believe that in his role he can at best improve the lot of the Palestinians and at least prevent the worst excesses of the extreme right. The evidence suggests that he has achieved some success. Recently he has been given responsibility for East Jerusalem which means he has some responsibility for the programme of house demolitions. He argues that it is better for his party, Meretz, to have some influence rather than none and he argues that the reduction in house demolitions from 100 to 10 a year is progress. I cannot argue with that.
He does tell us, however, that demolition orders never expire so, once made, the order could be enforced the following day or twenty years later. Some people had bought houses not knowing that there was a demolition order on it.
He gave slightly different figures from those we had heard elsewhere, but they confirmed the general picture of inequality in resource distribution. He told us that 39% of the population of East Jerusalem was Palestinian but only 11% of the budget was spent on them.
He said that the Israelis were obsessed by the “demographic phantom” which gave rise to the policy of house demolitions and refusing building permits but he believes those fears could be allayed if Palestinians exercised the right to vote where they had it. Then Israelis and Palestinians could be on equal terms in running the city. There would be a time when Palestinians would be the majority.
It was put to him that if there was a real possibility of Palestinians becoming a majority in Jerusalem, the government could either abolish city-wide government or extend the boundaries of greater Jerusalem to incorporate outlying Israeli settlements.
He acknowledged that both were possibilities but that he had to fight one day at a time. He argues that Palestinians should be pragmatic and vote in elections. If they left it until they were a majority it would be too late.
He suggested that house demolitions were more about destroying Palestinian confidence and dignity than destroying homes. He maintained that the state was fighting a losing battle with 1,000 homes being built illegally every year whilst he had reduced the number of demolitions to 11 this year and doubled the number of permits for building from 100 to 200. He also claimed to have frozen the plans for Silwan. (On Saturday Mr Zakariah Odeh from the Civic Coalition for Defending Palestinians’ Rights in Jerusalem had told us that the Al Bustan Area in Silwan had been zoned as a “green area” for the King David National Park, threatening 88 Palestinian homes with demolition, containing 130 families totalling 1,400 people).
He said as an activist on the outside he would not have to compromise but would achieve little but politicians were forced to make compromises and in order to achieve anything he felt he needed to be on the inside.
He was optimistic that a younger generation, born since 1967 would see that there is a land which doesn’t belong to Israel. It might take some time before they came to vote for his Party but he pointed to the recent demonstrations for civil justice as a positive step forward and even his own appointment by the Mayor which he thought was partly to appease secular Jews and ensure their support.
We then travel by mini-bus to Al Walaja for lunch at Oxfam Ansar Centre with Dr Mazin Qumsiyeh and and Dr Jessie Chang and with Lubna Hajajla of the local Women’s Committee. We are told that the village once had a population of 23,000 Palestinians but the number had reduced to 2,500 as a result of Israeli harassment, demolitions and forced eviction. One third of all the men in Al Walajia have spent some time in Israeli jails. Dr Qumsiyeh is dismissive of the Palestinian Authority which he describes as a “sub-contractor” for the Israeli Government and he believes that Palestinians in Gaza are deluding themselves if they think they have a government. It is occupation and one of the most profitable in history.
We go out into the village which will soon be completely surrounded by the Separation Wall.
We meet two Palestinian villagers.
Omar whose home is isolated and on “the wrong side” of the wall says the Israelis have offered him many financial inducements to leave. They have also dug large holes and trenches alongside his house on the pretext of an archeological search, which have undermined the foundations of his home and caused flooding. He says that they have also destabilized it by blasting the nearby hillside.
His house is now being surrounded by wall with a dedicated road tunnel being built as his only means of entry. He says that when he and his family peacefully protested by standing in front of the Israeli bulldozers they were thrown down the hill and one of his children was injured.
Will he eventually leave? “No”, he says. This is his land and he will not leave
Dr Qumsiyeh says that another weapon which the Israelis use to drive the Palestinians out is water. He says that in 1948 eighteen natural springs or wells served the village but now they have access to only three and, when the wall is completed, this will be reduced to only one.
Nearby settlements have unrestricted access to water, controlled by the National Israeli water company, Mekorot, who often cut off the supply to the village. Mekorot claims to be one of the world’s most advanced water utilities
The other Palestinian villager, Zakaria, stood with us on a hillside looking at his olive orchard which he could no longer access as it was on the other side of a new settlers’ road. The road and fence were still under construction and he pointed to other olive groves that would be destroyed.
He said he had a favourite fig tree that he used to sit under in the shade. It was not needed for the road building and he told the construction workers what it meant to him and asked them to ensure it was preserved. The following day, despite the fact that the tree was not in the path of the road, they dumped all the debris from the road building on top of the tree, killing it.
We travel back to Bethlehem and en route see a horrendous site of a steel armour-clad protected highway cutting a swathe through Palestinian lands connecting two road tunnels to illegal settlements.
In Bethlehem we meet Leila Sansour of Open Bethlehem at the Bethlehem Peace Centre. After a visual presentation of life in Bethlehem, increasingly cut-off and isolated by the Wall and settlements, Martin and Sara are presented with “passports” as honorary citizens of Open Bethlehem.
We return to East Jerusalem to meet the British Consul-General, Sir Vincent Fean. We have an informative and interesting discussion under the “Chatham House Rule”. Some of the group leave early to meet some families facing eviction from their homes in Beit Safafa. We thank the Consul-General, who is effectively the British Ambassador to Palestine in all but name. As a veteran of Ambassadorial and diplomatic briefings, I rate this one highly.
Later that evening a group of us had a fascinating discussion over dinner with Dr Uri Davis, the author of “Israel, An Apartheid State”.
Dr Davis is a member of Fateh’s Revolutionary Council leadership (and Convenor of its Committee on Resistance to the Settlements, the Apartheid Wall and Ethnic Cleansing). He is probably the first person of Jewish origin and of European origin to be elected to the Revolutionary Council.
In a report back of this nature, it is impossible to do justice to Uri’s views. He is very careful about language and at every step seeks to explain what he means when he uses particular words. He makes a very clear distinction for example between political and spiritual Zionism. He used to describe himself as a Palestinian Jew but today describes himself as a Palestinian Hebrew of Jewish origins and he wants to see Fateh as a broader-based movement that stands for equal rights for both Arabs and Jews in a constitutional democratic federated Republic of Palestine informed by the values of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, standard of international law and all UN resolutions relevant to the question of Palestine.
He accepts the policy of Fateh in aiming for a 2-state solution as the policy which the international community and the Palestinians have agreed on the understanding that it includes the implementation of the right of all 1948 Palestine refugee families to return and to the re-possession of the titles to their properties (incorporating their inheritance rights inside Israel.) Only apartheid Israel is the dissenting party, falsely claiming that such implementation must result in Jewish families becoming homeless. But he explains his “ideal” solution, a federated state, the democratic (and hopefully socialist) Federal Republic of Palestine embracing three entities with economic union, a Hebrew State of Palestine, an Arab State of Palestine, and the third entity, the corpus separatum of the City of Jerusalem as per UN General Assembly Resolution 181(ii) of 1947 with sovereignty vested with the Federal Parliament, with religious institutions separated from the state, and with all Arab and non-Arab citizens equal before the law and free to determine where they lived.
The discussion could have gone on through the night. There was much to think about. It was invigorating to be in the company of a man with such clarity of thought and vision. I am sure the evening will stimulate much future debate but tomorrow would be the last day in Palestine for most of the delegation and we had an early start the following morning.