On 12 June 2013 in Parliament Labour MP Jim McGovern raised his Parliamentary researcher’s visit to Palestine. He said
“A member of my staff, Lee Butcher, recently visited Palestine. He was shocked and stunned to see how Palestinians are treated by the Israelis, for example having no water for weeks on end. What can the Government do to help those Palestinians who are suffering such pain?
The Minister of State, Department for International Development, Alan Duncan, replied: We put as much pressure and argument as we can to improve the condition of Palestinians in Area C, and we very much hope that such issues will be addressed in the peace process, which we wish every success, as it continues over the next few weeks. Read the debate>
That member of staff was Lee Butcher and here is a blog about his visit first published in Labour-Uncut
‘Why seeing is believing on life for the Palestinians’
A delegation of Labour party members returned last week from a five day tour of the Palestinian West Bank. The campaign group Labour2Palestine have now sent 100 party members to the troubled country to see for themselves the on-going hardships faced daily by the Palestinians.
It is a fair question to ask why party members should choose to do so, and why it is important for the Labour party to have informed members that can speak knowledgeably from firsthand experience on this subject.
The party’s attitude to this ever recurring topic has been largely unchanged since a weary Labour government in 1947 left the country to their own devices with more than a sigh of relief. Since then the left of Nye Bevan has moved from enthusiastic support for Israel to a commitment to Palestinian solidarity, and the right of Bevin and Attlee has moved from Arab sympathy to enthusiastic Israeli support. Entrenched ideology runs deep within our party on this matter.
The 5 days I experienced in Palestine demonstrated to me that the realities of hardship and persecution faced by the Palestinians ought not to be abstracted as we done over our history. The realities cannot be fully realised in the briefing papers of international bodies, government departments or spun by campaign groups. They have to be witnessed to be understood.
Military occupation is a sensory experience; twenty foot high walls, observation tours, ever present armed soldiers, the intimidation of questioning by a teenager holding a gun, cages that serve as “checkpoints”, the acrid smell of Israeli tear gas that pours over unarmed protestors; all of this I and my fellow Labour party members witnessed in the West Bank.
Emotion is difficult to escape when you visit refugee camps, established in 1948, where the residents tell you of having access to water once a month from a single communal pump as very young children play in the streets festooned with uncollected rubbish. Where a young man tells you of the night when armed soldiers, arriving at 2am, seized him and his younger brother (only 15 years old) after which they faced military interrogation for days, without access to lawyers or their parents, eventually being convicted of throwing stones by a military court and spending four years in jail as a result.
Hearing the testimony from World Council of Churches volunteers of intimidation and violence meted out to Palestinian school children in Hebron by Israeli settlers, their only crime trying to reach their primary school which was inconveniently located in the segregated, and military guarded, Israeli zone of the city.
Why are these experiences important for Labour party members? In the muddle of internal bickering and positioning, gossip and polling data that occupies much of our time in party politics they can take us back to what it means to be a labour party and why political freedom, justice and fairness ought to be struggled for. The Palestinians may be strangers hundreds of miles from our home, but they can remind us of what we are here for.
A Labour party with members that can speak from firsthand experience of the on-going humanitarian and political tragedy in Palestine could be of inestimable advantage. As we look toward government that experience and knowledge ought to be put to use by our leadership to formulate a foreign policy that puts freedom, justice and fairness to the fore, and puts behind us the regrettable actions for which we are now unfortunately remembered.
In order to do so one day Britain will need to brave departing ways on some issues with our American cousins, and to lead the way in Europe toward a bolder continental approach to the world. I can think of no better issue to start with than Palestine, and I would encourage party members to take up Labour2Palestine’s offer to go and have a look for themselves.
Lee Butcher is a researcher for a Labour MP