Last month I joined a delegation of MPs and Peers to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories of the West Bank.
The trip was organised by Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East and the Council for Arab-British Understanding. The purpose of the visit was to see firsthand the situation of Palestinians living in the West Bank but also to meet Israelis to see their perspective, meet politicians and leaders from both sides and gain a deeper understanding of the protracted challenges the region faces and how politicians and activists from outside can help to facilitate a peaceful resolution.
But, as someone who has been to Makkah and Madinah and performed the Hajj, the opportunity this visit gave to visit the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock filled me with excitement. It was a privilege to be able to visit them in the company of other parliamentarians and to explain to them the significance of these sites to our faith. For Muslims, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, in the heart of the old city of Jerusalem, is the second house of prayer constructed after the Masjid al-Haram in Makkah. In fact, early Muslim followers of Prophet Muhammad (p) used to pray towards Jerusalem in early days of Prophethood.
Prophet Muhammad (p) was transported to the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem during a night journey. There he led all the prophets in a prayer. The Dome of the Rock is the place where Prophet Muhammad (p) ascended to Heaven. So, to walk in his footsteps and to pray in the Mosque is an experience I will never forget.
The proximity of Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock to the Western Wall, the most holy religious site in Judaism, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site venerated as the Hill of Calvary, where Christians believe Jesus (r) was crucified, means that, even within the walls of this sacred old city, the thought of the ongoing conflict is never far from your mind. It is understandable why this has been one of the most contested religious sites in the world.
However, the main purpose of our visit was not religious observance, but to gain a better understanding of the political and social issues facing Palestinian people. We met Palestinian traders and workers who have to face huge delays at check points along the wall that cuts through Palestinian towns and cities, separating them from each other and from Israel, preventing trade or access routes.
We also met schoolchildren whose lives are segregated from their Israeli neighbours from birth and farmers who have difficulties irrigating and cultivating their land due to the dividing wall as well as senior politicians of the Palestinian Authority and representatives from the Israeli Government.
The Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authorities, Salam Fayyad, has to respond not only to an international conflict, divisions amongst his own community, but also the everyday challenges his people face. Despite the relative boom and economic growth in Israel, conditions within the West Bank and Palestinian Authorities are poor.
Unemployment, particularly amongst young men, is very high, the standard of education low and trade negligible.
The PM explained the efforts and initiatives they were making to try and bring economic prosperity to the Palestinian people, but he couldn’t hide his disappointment with the decision by Britain’s Conservative led-Government not supporting Palestine’s bid for state recognition at the UN.
We also met with the Israeli Prime Minister’s official spokesperson and separately the Deputy Prime Minister in Tel Aviv. The fact that we were late to the meeting with them because we were held at a check point was an apt illustration of the consequences of the wall on law abiding people going about their normal everyday business.
This unforgettable visit to Jerusalem and the West Bank has made my desire to see a lasting peace in the region stronger, but the challenges that must be overcome for that to be achieved all the more stark. While I am optimistic about the future of the Middle East, I do not underestimate the distance we’ve yet to go before we secure a peaceful future for a viable and prosperous Israel and Palestine.
Rt Hon Sadiq Khan MP Shadow Justice Secretary
This article was published in Muslim News