A guest post from Alastair Osborne
Who would have thought Rio could have matched London’s stunning opening ceremony but from the moment Rio 2016 got underway it was mardi gras time. As the athletes entered the Olympic stadium, the loudest cheer was reserved for the newly recognised State of Palestine, now wholly independent and self governing, following full recognition by the UN and the successful peace negotiations with Israel. OK – so it’s a dream, but one worth dedicating considerable effort to making a reality.
I recently returned from a Labour2Palestine tour that gave me the opportunity to see for myself the situation facing the Palestinian people under Israeli occupation and oppression. It’s hard to explain the qualitative difference between mere intellectual knowledge of what’s going on and actually touching seeing hearing smelling and tasting it for yourself. All five senses were fully engaged during our week in Palestine and yet, when questioned by the Israeli ‘child soldier’ at the last checkpoint before Tel Aviv airport on our way home, we found ourselves explaining that we hadn’t been anywhere, we hadn’t seen anything and we hadn’t spoken to anyone. We had just sat around in Jerusalem chatting to each other.
As far as that young man was concerned, we hadn’t been staying in Ramallah. We hadn’t heard from the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) about their work to stop illegal demolition of Palestinian homes or their campaign against evictions, deportations and discrimination. If we had mentioned the Wall, he would have corrected us and pointed out that it is a security fence – but Mark Thomas in his book Extreme Rambling explains that if you can’t buy it at B&Q it’s not a fence. If we had met with ICAHD they would have told us of the 26,000 demolitions since 1967 – all illegal under international law. We didn’t share with him our visit to the village of Al Walajajust beyond the Jerusalem boundary which the Israeli’s are in the process of encircling with an 8 metre concrete wall, stealing the land and attempting to drive the people away. We didn’t even tell him about our visit to an Israeli Kibbutz where we were able to get an Israeli perspective on things.
No – we had just hung about Jerusalem chat, chat, chatting.
No-one thought of name dropping the impressive Australian lawyer, Gerard Horton, who campaigns for the rights of child prisoners or mentioning that he had taken some of us to the Ofer Military Court to see at first hand young Palestinian juveniles being denied their basic human rights in a mockery of justice, while the rest of us walked round a refugee camp built for 1000 and now housing 8,500 in 1 square kilometre. It wasn’t the right time to tell him how emotionally drained we all were after our visit to the village of Nabi Saleh, the location of weekly peaceful demonstrations against the Israeli theft of their land and blocking of their roads, as well as the abuse at the hands of the Israeli settlers. We had sat listening to the dignified and courageous testimony of community resistance from two women and their families. Their eyewitness and video accounts of the Israeli soldiers’ brutality and that of the nearby settlers were heartbreaking. We heard from the teenage son of one of the women – much the same age as the young Israeli soldier at the checkpoint – how he had been arrested and taken from his home three times at night; how he had been humiliated and abused as part of an act of collective punishment against the village for stone throwing by persons unknown. He told his story in a matter of fact tone, even adding that on one occasion he had been watching football on TV when they came for him – Real Madrid v Zaragoza. The young soldier on the checkpoint might have been watching the same game that night.
We didn’t tell him about our visit to Hebron, a city of 225,000 where the city centre is now banned to all Palestinians because of the presence of 1000 Israeli settlers. We didn’t try to explain to him the obscene juxtaposition of Jericho’s rich cultural and biblical heritage such as the ancient city at Tell Es-Sultan and the Mount of Temptation alongside the brutal evidence of everyday Israeli subjugation. The ‘City of Palms’ is an enclave of the Jordan Valley in Area A of the West Bank, while the surrounding area is designated Area C under full Israeli military control. Four road blocks encircle the enclave, restricting the movements of Jericho’s Palestinian population.
I’m sure our young man would never have heard of Dr Nabil Sha’ath who met with us on our final day. The former Palestinian Foreign Minister and Fatah elder statesman regaled us with a master class in the current political situation in an urbane, witty, intelligent, perceptive and inspiring manner. We explored with him the potential for co-operation between Labour and Fatah, our sister party in the Socialist International. We listened to his powerful exposition of the strategy to continue to pursue a two state solution and seek recognition as a ‘NonMemberState’ at the UN. He explained that the important word here is ‘State’ and that such recognition would open doors to membership of other important UN institutions.
I doubt if the young Israeli soldier on our checkpoint was familiar with Palestine’s national poet Mahmood Darwish whose memorial in Ramallah, overlooking Jerusalem, I had visited earlier in the week. Attempts to have his work included in the Israeli school curriculum have been made but without success so far. If he had been taught about him in school, he might have read his words:
“A woman soldier shouted, is that you again? Didn’t I kill you?
I said, you killed me …and I forgot, like you, to die”
Back in the UK it is so important that we don’t forget anything. We should take every opportunity to raise awareness of Palestine throughout the Labour and Trade Union movement. Back from our Labour2Palestine tour, we have a mission to take Palestine2Labour.