I recently travelled to Palestine with a group of Labour Party members and Councillors. The trip was facilitated by Labour 2 Palestine, a not for profit organisation highly experienced at organising such visits.
Even though I considered myself to be reasonably well informed I was ill prepared for the realities facing ordinary Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank. We take everyday freedoms such as the right to travel, to visit our own property, access to water and power supplies, to a fair justice system and the rule of law for granted and it is a shock to experience circumstances where these rights are denied to an entire population.
At the demonstration in Bil’in our delegation was deliberately targeted with tear gas rounds even though we were at least 200 yards away from the protesters. The rounds whizzed through the air to land on the hillside behind us trapping us in drifts of gas which blinded us and left us fighting for breath as we retreated up the road. It was a scary and unexpected experience. The use of violence by the Israeli Defence Force is a regular occurrence at the weekly demonstration and two protesters have been killed in recent years. One was hit in the chest by a tear gas round and the other died as a result of inhaling gas and skunk-water. The villagers protest because the Israelis have built an 8m high wall separating them from their farm land. Without access they can’t cultivate the land, but if they don’t the Israeli Government will classify the land as abandoned and confiscate it.
We received a briefing from the UN Office of Humanitarian Affairs explaining the extent to which the West Bank has been taken over by Israeli settlements. It was hard not to draw the conclusion that the continued occupation is more about the acquisition of land, water and other valuable economic resources than security.
We learned that 40% of Palestinian men in the occupied territories have been imprisoned at some time in their lives. Palestinian children are tried in Military Courts which enjoy a 100% conviction rate and they are routinely sentenced to six months detention for throwing stones. There is little sense of fairness or justice.
As a result of the 1948 conflict Israel retained the area that had been allocated to it by the UN and took control of almost 60% of the area allocated for a proposed Palestinian state. Around 700,000 Palestinians were displaced or expelled to become refugees and they have not been allowed to return to their property or land in Israel. We visited the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem and the Al Amari refugee camp in Ramallah. They are grim places, particularly since the UN staff that supply health and sanitation services are currently on strike and funding is being cut. The people are trapped in poverty and have lost everything. It seems barely conceivable that the situation has persisted for over 60 years and is no nearer any form of resolution.
We met members of the Free Marwan Barghouti campaign who are pressing for the release of the Palestinian leader who has been in prison since 2002 accused of overseeing suicide bombings as part of the 2ed Intifada. He is seen by many as someone who could unite all Palestinian factions, command widespread support and contribute to the peace process. The people we met cited the role of released prisoners in many conflicts including the North of Ireland and South Africa and Barghouti has been called the Palestinian Mandela by the western media.
Within Israel itself 20% of the population is Palestinian, they have the right to vote but legally are second class citizens in their own country. At the Knesset we met an aide to a Palestinian politician who had been an amateur boxer in his youth representing Israel 48 times in international competitions. The irony of wearing the national vest of a country which effectively disowned and disenfranchised him was something he is keenly aware of.
The left wing Israeli politicians we met expressed the view that there was a form of cognitive dissonance amongst the Israeli people in that they wanted peace and an end to the occupation but continually voted for right wing parties that would not deliver those outcomes. We met a Labour Party member of the Knesset who was pretty horrified when one of our group mentioned the word apartheid. She said that Israelis would not accept such a comparison. The problem is that if something looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it’s hard not to call it a duck.
We met a lot of people, both Israeli and Palestinian, from a broad range of organisations and received detailed factual briefings. We heard personal stories and anecdotes and met people who had been recently released from detention and others who were striving to achieve a peaceful and just solution to the issues. However there seems to be little cause for optimism. Whist the international community is content to turn a blind eye and Israel continues to be bolstered by $4 billion of aid from the US each year there are few drivers for positive change. Countries like the UK really need to consider boycotting goods produced by Israeli settlers, disinvestment campaigns against firms supporting the occupation and other sanctions.
My abiding memories of the trip will not be of the tear gas but the quiet dignity, strength of spirit and fortitude with which the people of the West Bank conduct themselves. Witnessing their struggle to live normal lives in the face of oppression and injustice was both an inspiring and humbling experience.
Labour Party member.