What were your overall impressions of the situation in the West Bank?
The two big things that struck me the most were the economic disparity and levels of poverty in the West Bank as well as the geographical size and number of the illegal Israeli settlements, which are having a devastating impact on Palestinian life. I was always aware of the desperate humanitarian situation and the levels of poverty in Gaza but I had assumed there was good economic progress in the West Bank and that it was thriving and moving ahead. But in reality it was far worse than I had anticipated.
Clearly in Ramallah you can see the evidence of growth with new buildings going up and even the Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad spoke about 8% economic growth (in Ramallah). But when you look outside of Ramallah and at the map of the West Bank, the extent of poverty together with the illegal settlements and associated infrastructure, the Wall and checkpoints, is pretty shocking.
Did you see the Wall?
The site of the Wall, which is built on and encroaching Palestinian land, gave me chills. It is having dire and pretty graphic human consequences for Palestinians. Some of communities we visited near Bethlehem are literally imprisoned by it. One family home we visited was no more than a yard from the Wall. When the children looked out of the window – all that can be see is the Wall.
The permit system for Palestinians, which further restricts their movements, is crippling family life by keeping families apart. One woman I met was married a Palestinian with an Jerusalem ID and she cannot go back to the West Bank and visit her family as she would not be allowed to return as she does not have Jerusalem ID. She is living with her husband and she cannot go anywhere. Some have not been able to visit families for years.
Its only when you visit the region that you see the extent of the failure to allow Palestinians to live anything approaching an acceptable life. What we take for granted – simply living a normal life – many Palestinians do not have.
What made the biggest impact on you?
Like many people, even those quite well informed about the region, it was only by going there I got a better understanding of the whole geography of the place and witness the systematic and deliberate planning being done by Israel in terms of the settlements, the roads, checkpoints, road blocks and the wall. These things are not accident – they are planned and causing great disruption to the lives of Palestinians.
To try and go about your daily life through checkpoints where you have no control how long it may take you and even if you make it through is unacceptable. Some days it may take you 30 mins to get to work through a checkpoint, others it can take 3-4 hours when soldiers decide to hold you up and other days you may not get across at all. How do you plan your life on that basis? People may lose their jobs; they cannot get to hospital appointments on time or at all. Seeing the day-to-day grind of life was very eye opening. This kind of behaviour is not in the interests of Israel and we must act as the international community to resolve the situation.
We followed and re-tweeted some of the updates made on twitter made by Graham of CAABU and Ben Bradshaw MP during the visit. There was a notable incident with settlers in Hebron, can you tell us what happened?
The delegation visited the centre of Hebron and outskirts. It is a very large market town with quite a few Israeli settlements – in the centre as well as up on hills. The settler’s houses on the hills are very nice and large and towards the bottom, is farmland, which is owned by Palestinians, which they try and farm. They are often prevented from farming by settlers and told us about their Olive groves being set on fire and Wells being poisoned.
We also went and talked with settlers. Only one man spoke to us. He had a US accent and I believe he was actually from Jerusalem and was a settler activist. He said it was their land which was given to them by Israel. He basically presented it as a small dispute, when it actually raised wider issues such as legitimacy.
In Hebron I was really surprised to see the Israeli settlement in the city and area was clearly Arab. At the checkpoint on the way up the hill, we met an elderly man with his donkey and he spoke about how his land and home had been taken from him. He asked us to tell the world that this has happened to him. As we went up the hill – you can see the Palestinian homes after the checkpoint, which are not allowed to have visitors. The whole area seemed really like the edge of a real conflict.
We told the solider we were going to visit the Tomb up the hill and he allowed us to all pass but stopped our Palestinian guide. I decided to let the others carry on and stay with guide. As we were waiting around, out of nowhere, a settler woman came out screaming at us. She was shouting get off my land, you have no right to be here, you filthy Arabs. Then literally, about 20 other settlers (including wee children) also surrounded me and just kept relentlessly shouting in my face. They knew I was an MP from the UK Parliament and at one stage I actually thought it was going to get completely out of hand. I was really taken back an actually quite frightened. The Israeli soldiers did not intervene and just watched.
The settlers were beyond approach and any sort of reasoning. I was so relived the others came back from down the Hill. Then we were just at the bottom of the hill talking, several wee settler kids threw stones at us. It took one of soldier to tell them to stop.
Having seen the situation in the ground in the West Bank – how optimistic are you about a just two state solution being achievable?
When I went I always thought the high level politics and two state solution was viable. Having seen the situation on the ground and the very many violations taking place, unless things change there are huge questions marks over how optimistic one can actually be about a viable two state solution being achieved. The expanding settlements, the Wall, checkpoints, and settler road network is making a viable resolution more and more difficult. Unless the international community uphold international law and UN resolutions and bring to a halt all the violations, the situation will only get worse.
With the reality on the ground and the Palestine papers – there are also real questions over the peace process and negotiations. On the ground it is difficult to see Israel’s commitment to achieving peace given the restrictions to hinder the growth of the Palestinian economy.
What is your abiding memory of the visit?
The striking contrasts were striking of the place. When I was in the settlement in Hebron talking to group, ahead of us I could see a young lad, maybe 17, quite well built, in civilian clothes, with an M16 across his arms. And in the corner of my eye I could see the checkpoint where a lad of similar age, Palestinian, skinny, getting searched by Israel soldiers, having to lift his top – that contrast said a lot.
We really need to do more as the international community to sort this situation out. The contrast and unfairness of the whole situation is really unacceptable and it cannot go on like this.
I hope to get an opportunity to raise the issues with the Foreign Secretary. I will also be meeting with the Labour shadow Middle East Minister to let him know about the visit and the issues we came across. And of course I will continue to campaign for a fair and just settlement for the Palestinians.
Labour MP Ben Bradshaw was also part of the delegation. You can read his impressions of the trip by clicking here.
To visit the CAABU website click here.