A group from Newcastle including the Police Commissioner, Labour Councillors, members and friends travelled to Newcastle with Labour2Palestine. Everyone paid for themselves, keen to find out about the conflict up close and personal. Here Cllr Linda Hobson recounts her experiences. This blog was first published on Unison Active – thanks for permission to reblog>
I was one of six Labour Newcastle City Councillors who visited Palestine with a not for profit organisation called ‘Labour2Palestine’. Their mission is to “increase understanding about Palestine in the Labour Party by organising visits.”
As well as being a Labour Councillor I am also a member and activist in UNISON, the public sector trade union and as such I have attended many talks and discussion on the situation within Palestine. I have met women from a Qalqilya, a village in the West Bank and heard from them how dire the situation is for Palestinian’s in Gaza and the West Bank.
I decided to take this trip and see first-hand the situation. I thought I was prepared and quite well informed before I went but no amount of talks, discussions; books or films could have prepared me for what I was about to witness and experience.
We met many people whilst we were there from representatives from the UN to politicians and members of Non-Government Organisations but what had the greatest impression on me was the Palestinian’s living day to day with the consequences of oppression due to the illegal occupation of Palestinian land. It’s not just the Palestinians saying its illegal, its illegal under UN law too.
We visited the Palestinian village of Bil‘in which is just west of Ramallah where we were staying. The villagers of Bil‘in have been protesting against the theft of their land by the Israeli’s for the past nine years. Well over 50% of their land, land used for farming and home to century old olive trees, has been stolen to make way for illegal Israeli settlements as well as the infamous separation wall which is guarded by the well-armed Israeli Defence Force.
Whilst villagers in Bil‘in watch their land being destroyed and their way of life under threat they are over shadowed by Modi‘in Illit. This is the largest illegal Israeli settlement in the West Bank, and whilst the term ‘settlement’ may conjure up a small idyllic village, the truth is that Modi‘in illit has a population of over 54,000 and has been granted city status.
Every week after Friday prayers the villagers congregate at the separation wall which is built well within the internationally recognises Palestinian border to protest peacefully against the annexation of their land and have vowed to continue until they get justice. We decided to observe the protest last Friday, 17th January 2014. We followed the villagers, many of them children to the separation wall. We stayed well back from the protest, which consisted of shouting at the wall and waving flags. Suddenly, I heard something like a firework rocket taking off and then an explosion, then another and another. It took a while to comprehend what was happening. The air filled with smoke as more explosions were heard. The area had an overwhelming pungent smell which tasted bitter on your tongue.
All at once I realised what was happening the IDF were firing tear gas rockets at us, the observers. There was no escape, we were surrounded. At first your eyes sting, they then close and the burning starts. Tears flow and you are blinded. Then your lungs start to burn feeling like they are going to explode. You quickly become disorientated and all you can think of is to keep breathing. All this time we were attempting to head back to our bus to escape the gas the IDF kept firing their rockets. I have never been so frightened in all my life, I saw my councillor colleagues throwing up by the side of the road from the effects of the gas.
It is hard to contemplate that this is acceptable behaviour by the Israeli’s or that the International community do not act even though armed repression during the demonstrations in Bil’in, prohibited by all international courts and bodies, is a violation of human rights, and is also prohibited by the Fourth Geneva Convention.
We spoke to villagers after the protest and they told us that the situation had gotten worse recently. The IDF carry out frequent night raids in the town followed by an increasing number of arrests of inhabitants and of activists. The aim of the oppression especially the systematic arrests of members of the Bil’in committee in charge of organising the non-violent resistance actions is to discourage Bil’in residents and reduce their resistance to the occupation. However, these are determined people who have right on their side and we have to support their cause. To understand the situation watch 5 Broken Cameras a documentary film co-directed by Palestinian Emad Burnat and Israeli Guy Davidi. We were fortunate enough to meet Emand Burnat.
We also visited the village of Hebron in the Southern West Bank of Palestine. We spoke to the Mayor and the Governor as well as local people. It is fair to say that the Israeli’s are sucking out the life blood of this town. Our guide in Hebron walked us to Shuhada Street passed row after row of empty shops, traders forced to close their businesses. I notices a yellow line in the middle of the road, our guide informed us that any Palestinian found on the wrong side of that line would be arrested by the IDF.
Our guide who was Palestinian was not allowed to walk down Shuhada Street as it had been ‘sterilised’ of Palestinians. Walking down one Market Street we asked one stall holder why there was netting above the street. He replied that Israeli settlers have taken over the properties above and constantly threw rubbish down onto the traders. We could see the rubbish which included nappies.
The Palestinians have no recourse to proper justice. The rest of our visit included visiting Jerusalem and seeing how the Israeli’s manipulate planning laws in favour of the illegal settlements and against the Palestinians. Palestinians came and spoke to us and showed us photographs of the IDF aggressively forcing them out of their properties, these people becoming displaced with nowhere to go. We saw Palestinian houses demolished under some ridiculous pretence.
We visited the Bedouin village of Az-Zayyem in Jerusalem and travelled the Palestinian route rather than using the ‘sterile’ Israeli roads. The village of Az-Zayyem has been demolished by the Israelis and the villagers are living in make shift shelters. They have no access to fresh water, sanitation or electricity but are overshadowed by the Israeli police station which has its security lights blinding for 24 hours a day. All they asked of us was help to rebuild their village, however, under the Israelis, if they do rebuild they will be penalised financially as well as enduring the demolition of their village again.
We visited refugee camps where conditions were horrendous and those living there were constantly living in fear and intimidation from the IDF who would regularly enter the camp firing tear gas amongst the refugees, people who have the keys to their homes, and homes that have been illegally taken from them. People who are land owners, again who have illegally had their land stolen from them. People now reduced to living in these inhumane conditions, people who feel that the rest of the world have turned their backs on them.
The Palestinians showed us great welcome and hospitality and asked only in return that we let people know what’s happening there. Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank have their human rights violated on a constant basis. They are being denied basic rights to water, electricity, education, health and sanitation. Every Friday I will show solidarity with the people of Bil‘in and wider Palestinians. It’s a small gesture but what I have seen I cannot forget.
I have returned home now and have a greater appreciation of my freedoms. My freedom of movement, my freedom of speech, my freedom of thought even. My tears may have dried but my anger and frustration remain and will drive me to do what I can to bring freedom and justice to Palestinians. Whatever the political situation is you cannot ignore the humanitarian need. Whether it be the Berlin Wall or South African Apartheid, it was the mass movement of people that overcame and the Palestinians need that solidarity now.