I was struck once again by the timing of the Israeli government’s missile attacks on Gaza just a few months before a general election as they had in 2008. The Israelis justified these attacks as a response to Hamas, the ruling party in Gaza, firing missiles into Israeli settlement areas in occupied Palestinian territory.
Although each side claimed their right to defend themselves and assert their sovereignty (or in the Palestinian’s case at the time, their right to sovereignty) it is ordinary people who bore the brunt of these attacks, and as the figures show, predominantly Palestinians. Children and women, young and old, disabled and sick were all casualties in these attacks, terrorising and radicalising on both sides.
So when I was invited to Gaza and Israel for a four day visit with the All Party British-Palestinian Group shortly after the ceasefire last December, I saw an opportunity to find out for myself what was happening on the ground; to see how ordinary people were faring and to question Palestinian and Israeli politicians.
Just because this conflict is happening thousands of miles away doesn’t mean it hasn’t got the potential to affect us here in Oldham. I have grave concerns about the fragility of peace not just between Israelis and Palestinians but in the Middle East as a whole and consequently the world. Our all-party visit was important to show that the international community is concerned about what is going on and wants to see as well as to hear the testimony of both sides.
The trip didn’t begin well. Before we set off our group was disappointed to learn that Israel, who has control of all international borders, were to prevent us from entering Gaza with no explanation. Instead our visit would focus on the West Bank. And then, after an overnight flight from London I arrived at 5.30am on a cold but sunny December day in Jerusalem to discover that a book I’d been reading on Islam, and which I’d put in my suitcase, had been confiscated by El Al security services. I was not best pleased to say the least.
A quick shower and change and my first day began with a briefing by the United Nations office for humanitarian affairs. Following this we were taken on a whirlwind tour to different sites in the West Bank to show us the extent and the effects of the Israeli settlements.
When you hear on the news about these settlements you imagine a few houses being built here and there. This couldn’t be further from the truth. These are developments of towns and villages surrounded by huge concrete walls in many places over 20 feet high. The only way to get into and out of these settlements is through border-style check points and if you’re not an Israeli citizen you have to have a special permit. As these settlements cut through the heart of the West Bank carving up Palestinian communities, the Israelis have come up with a novel solution to connect Palestinian areas without having to go through the settlements – Palestinian-only underpasses!
The parallels with apartheid-South Africa are stark and it seems doubly strange when you consider that the West Bank and Gaza are supposedly under Palestinian control according to the Oslo accord.
Over the next couple of days I saw how the subtleties of control and repression operate. In Biddu, Palestinian farmers are prevented from tending their land and, with unemployment at over 70%, from making a living as the Israelis now deem this land as within a settlement area. They can only access their land with settler permission and often this is given after harvest time.
In the Jordan valley UK & EU-funded Palestinian primary schools are under demolition orders as they are told they have failed to follow ‘proper’ planning regulations by the ever-expanding local or regional settler councils. In Hebron, Palestinians are only allowed to walk on designated footpaths.
And we also saw evidence of the not-so-subtle approaches: Bedouin tribes forcibly moved from areas close to vital water supplies; the 144% increase in violence by Israeli settlers against Palestinians, including children; the Israeli justice system that operates military law for Palestinian children, but not for Israeli children.
In the short time I was there I know I could only get a snap-shot of the issues and how this was affecting people. Yes there was some anger but most of this came from politicians and officials from both sides of the divide, there is much at stake after all; most worrying was the entrenchment, intransigence and frankly a lack of vision or leadership.
I appreciate the complex and tragic histories of the peoples of Israel and Palestine but this does not excuse or justify the Israeli annexation of the West Bank by illegal Israeli settlements and the casual racism that underpins this; or the Palestinians denying Israel’s right to exist or firing of missiles into these settlements.
Most of my hope for the future comes from ordinary people, Palestinian and Israeli. In spite of the frustrations, indignity and injustice ordinary Palestinians face on a daily basis most of them just want a peaceful future with their families, something we can all identify with.
What I witnessed is out of sight from most Israelis; but some Israelis who have seen what their governments – past and present- are doing in their name are doing their best to the raise awareness of their fellow countrymen and women. They need our support.
Before the UN agreed to recognise Palestine as a non-member state Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: ’Sixty four years is a long time to be denied your own state. It is time for the Palestinians to have the recognition they deserve.’
Palestine winning this recognition does at least seem like progress. We need to do more to ensure the next phase of progress doesn’t take as long.
This article is also available on the Oldham Chronicle website.