I spent much of the flight to Israel thinking about what I might see and experience visiting the occupied territories of Palestine. I have read books and watched documentary films and spoken to people who have visited Palestine but nothing could possibly have prepared me for what I witnessed on my four day visit.
I was travelling with five other Newcastle Labour Councillors and several Labour Party members on the visit which we funded ourselves travelling with Labour2Palestine. Labour2Palestine is a not-for-profit company which organises visits to Palestine for Labour Party politicians and members. The purpose was to get a better understanding of life on the ground in Palestine and to learn more about the political situation in the West Bank and Gaza.
Our first full day started with briefings from the British Consulate-General in Jerusalem and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The reality of just how difficult life is for Palestinians living under occupation hits you very quickly at these briefings. Many Palestinians continue to have humanitarian needs that are created by ongoing violations by Israel, of international humanitarian and human rights law, including threats to life, liberty and security, restrictions on access and movement of people and goods to and within the occupied Palestinian territories, and the risk of forced displacement. I recommend you spend some time on the OCHA website ( www.ochaopt.org ) and read the fact sheets and briefings they publish daily.
In the afternoon we drove to Bil’in in Ramallah. Bil’in is a small village of around 1’800 people located 2 miles east of the Green Line which marks the internationally accepted border of Palestine and Israel. Over recent years Bil’in has become the centre of popular non-violent resistance to Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine and to the building of the separation wall which surrounds much of the West Bank. In 2004 the International Court of Justice declared the section of the wall surrounding Bil’in to be in violation of international law.
The wall separates Bil’in from the illegal Israeli settlement of Mattityahu East which is a suburb of Modi'in Illit. Under international law these settlements are illegal, built on land which belongs to Palestine. When we think about illegal Israeli settlements the word ‘settlement’ conjures up an image of a few temporary buildings. Nothing could be further from reality. Modi'in Illit is the largest Israili settlement in the West Bank with a population of more than 54,000 in fact the Modi'in Illit settlement is so big that it’s been designated with city status!
Every week the residents of Bil’in organise a peaceful protest close to the separation wall. Our group went to observe the protest and experienced first hand the disproportionate retaliation of the Israeli Defence Force to peaceful non-violent protest. We stood 50 meters or so from the centre of the protest but were not spared the IDF’s heavy handed response. From atop the wall IDF soldiers fired tear gas at our group. Most of us were caught in the centre of a ring of smouldering gas grenades and when the tear gas hits you, it hits you hard. Your eyes sting and burn and stream excessive tears. Your skin itches and your nose runs like a river and after a minute or so your can barely catch your breath and the disorientation makes it difficult to stay on your feet. It’s horrible and at the Bil’in protests its use is completely senseless, unprovoked and disproportionate. Watch the documentary ‘5 Broken Cameras’ on the Bil’in demonstrations and you’ll get some sense of how awful the situation is there.
On Saturday we had a tour of Greater Jerusalem with the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions (ICAHD). Palestinians cannot move freely around their internationally recognised territory and they cannot plan their communities with 94% of Palestinian permit applications denied. The State of Israel uses planning policy to divide and harass Palestinian communities demolishing Palestinian homes and doing so without notice or consideration for the families whose lives are shattered. It is beyond cruel and is carried out without moral justification.
During the tour we visited several demolished Palestinian homes each with their own tragic tale of a family destroyed and a community fractured. At one point we passed a UN office complex. It sat atop a hill and from their vantage point you would get a view of illegally built Israeli settlements.
Illegal Israeli settlements built right under the nose of the United Nations. It’s difficult to quite understand how the international community continues to permit these acts of state terrorism.
On Sunday we travelled to Hebron for a tour of the Old City and to meet with Governor of the Hebron governorate and the Mayor of the Hebron municipality. Both the Governor and the Mayor talked about the harsh restrictions imposed on Palestinians living in Hebron and we saw this for ourselves during our tour which took in Shuhada Street. Shuhada Street was once a thriving market street but in 2000 the street was closed off completely to Palestinians. Our group could walk up and down the street unhindered but we took no pleasure in the experience of walking past abandoned shops with imposing Israeli Defence Force guards watching our every move.
On Sunday afternoon we visited Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Nativity. Afterwards we travelled to the Aida refugee camp which is home to over 4,700 Palestinian refugees living in fewer than 300 housing units. Sitting at the entrance of the camp is the Key of Return. The key symbolises the refugees’ right of return and acts as a powerful reminder to anyone visiting the camp that their right of return cannot be bought or sold or lost through negotiation.
The Aida camp is a desperate place surrounded by the ever present Israeli separation wall which cuts off the camp for two factories which had previously provided much needed employment. More than 60% of the inhabitants of the camp are under the age of 24 and 40% of them of under the age of 14. They were born into this desperate place with little prospect of a fair chance at a decent life and little hope of escaping a descending spiral of despair. The separation wall imposes itself well beyond the Israeli border with Palestine and serves to constantly remind the inhabitants of Aida camp that that they are an occupied people. You have to see this place to believe how awful the conditions in which these people are forced to live.
Our final day before flying back to England was packed with meetings and a visit to another refugee camp just as awful as the first. We ended the day and our visit to Palestine meeting Meir Margalit a former Jersusalem City Councillor and a founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. Dr Margalit is a powerful voice in favour of the two-state-solution in Israeli politics. He is very clear in his view that Palestinians are an oppressed people and he works tirelessly towards this goal of peace between Israel and Palestine.
There is no question that Israel has the right to exist and the right to defend itself and its borders against mortal peril. Suggesting otherwise would be wrong in fact and morality. But what gives Israel the right to oppress and occupy Palestine? What gives Israel the right to build a separation wall and settlements inside Palestine in contravention of international law?
Through the actions of the Israeli government and the inaction of the international community the people of Palestine are relegated to second class status. While the world looks on the people of Palestine are denied their basic right of self-determination.