Last week I joined a delegation of Labour MPs to the Occupied Territories. We met key Palestinian leaders, including Prime Minister Fayed, Saeb Erekat the chief negotiator with the Israeli Government , the head of external affairs of Fatah and the Governor of Hebron. We also met the chief spokesman for the Israeli PM, Mark Regev, and officials from the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry.
Away from the political meetings we were able to see at first hand the impact of the increasingly intense illegal occupation of the West Bank. We saw the Military Courts at which children are tried, usually for minor acts of rebellion against the spread of settlements. The military occupation acts without any of the protections for minors – proper and early legal representation, the right to be supported by a suitable adult; the use of extreme measures of restraint – and the courts seemed to operate with scant regard to proper use of evidence. (Should children from an illegal settlement be charged with an offence they are tried under the entirely separate system of Israeli justice) In Beit Ummar we met a family whose sons have faced repeated detention and saw at firsthand how an illegal occupation had denied them access to the village lands. We heard how they could only work their remaining fields without fear of attacks by settlers if they were accompanied by international rights campaigners. In Hebron, thousands of Israeli troops are protecting a few hundred settlers who are taking over Palestinian homes in the old city and wrecking its economy.
Most moving was our visit to a couple of tiny Bedouin settlements – families who had successively been forced out of the Negev desert after 1948 and then other parts of the West Bank after 1967. Denied access to water and grazing, these traditional pastoral families are reduced to buying water and fodder for their animals. Any attempt to improve their lives – including with aid money from Europe – is vigorously suppressed. The Israeli occupation is currently moving to close their only school and was due to demolish eight new dwellings the day after we visited.
Compared with a visit 6 years ago, it was striking how the entire occupation is implemented through a superficial artifice of law and regulation; all illegal of course, but making providing a convenient excuse for denying Palestinian rights; no permissions to build (‘don’t you have planning laws?’ the Government said to us), turning grazing rights into nature reserves that only Israelis can enter (‘don’t you have nature reserves?’).
At the same time, the ‘security’ wall is becoming more and more clearly a new border, isolating Jerusalem from the West Bank and making deep incursions into the 1967 borders. Security has improved, though owing much to the efforts of the Palestinian Authority. But significant sections of the wall have not yet been constructed, suggesting that the security value of the wall is much less than the Israeli Government has claimed.
For 20 years, most people have looked to a two state solution; independent, secure and viable Israeli and Palestinian states. That remains the rhetorical aim. But fewer and fewer people believe it is likely to come about. The major internal reason is the spread of the occupations. It’s worth remembering how tiny the place is. The settlers are become more entrenched, dominating the 60% of the West Bank under total Israeli control. The key development area which will separate the north and south of the West Bank is between Jerusalem and Jericho and complete the total fragmentation of areas of any Palestinian authority. That’s the same distance as from Southampton to Winchester.
Yet it’s hard to see how this can last forever. The Palestinian population is growing faster than Israel’s though increasingly restricted to tiny areas. What there is of the Palestinian economy is sustained almost entirely by international aid flows. The international community is, in effect, paying the humanitarian costs of the occupation, and the willingness of European taxpayers can’t be open ended. The Arab Spring may give rise to elected governments in the region that are required be more active in pressing for change than the autocratic regimes they replaced. If Barak Obama is re-elected perhaps the US will become more engaged again.
But the longer a settlement is delayed, the more difficult a solution will become.
Our visit was funded by the Council for Arab-British Understanding.
Rt Hon John Denham MP