Probably like a lot of people brought up on the Children’s Bible I’ve always been pretty sympathetic to Israel. Growing up in the 1960’s and 70’s there was a lot of support for plucky little Israel fighting off all comers in the 1967 6 days war. And, of course, there remains an understandable sense that all of us in the West need to act in a way that atones for the collective guilt of the horrors of the Holocaust.
So I was very pleased to visit Palestine in February – the Holy Land of so many different faiths. But what I saw I found shocking and eye opening. Yes, I was aware of significant difficulties between Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. I expected tension. And I expected to see injustices on both sides of that tension. I did not expect to be confronted by an army of occupation subjugating the people of the Occupied Territory in quite the way I was.
I fully understand that where there’s such a deep divide, as witnessed in the Occupied West Bank between the Israeli State and the Palestinians, there are several sides to the story. However listening to a range of voices; including young Palestinians struggling to find work, an Israeli MP, the UN Mission, a campaigning journalist, human rights activists, Palestinian political leaders and the UK Consul there was an amazing unanimity of view. Palestine is a land that has lost all hope where people young and old are in despair. As one observer said, ‘We are sipping cappuccino on the edge of volcano’.
One young Israeli explained that the Palestinians suffer three layers of oppression. Firstly the physical layer locks people in, makes movement around the small land of the West Bank difficult and slow, unsettling people’s lives. As the UN said the space for the Palestinians is shrinking. £2 billion has been spent on a wall to separate Israel for the Palestinian West Bank. Donald Trump eat your heart out! He’d probably approve of this ’ethnically sensitive wall’ going outside the boundary to pull in new Israeli settlements within its compass and dodging inside the boundary to leave out Palestinian villages that have been within the boundary for generations. The wall is an ugly, blunt symbol of separation. And if you’re a young Palestinian caught throwing a stone at it you can be snatched off to a military court, detained with punishment for you and your family!
Then there are the obstacles to movement – the around 490 road closures and 60 military checkpoints in a very small area. One day it took us over two and a half hours to travel the 10 miles from Ramallah to East Jerusalem. The young Palestinians living in East Jerusalem and working in Ramallah said this disruption was commonplace, making it very difficult for them to do something as simple as get to and from their job in order to provide for their families.
If this isn’t bad enough there is also the demolitions. The Israeli government allows Israeli settlements to build all over the place in the Occupied West Bank but makes it close to impossible for Palestinians to get planning permission to extend or build new homes in their own land. So – in order to get on with their lives – they build and then get told their building will be demolished. But no-one knows when. That’s why primary children take their favourite toy to school each day so that they don’t lose it when the Israeli bulldozers flatten their home. Or worse still – and it’s hard to believe it could be worse – your son or daughter is caught up in some tension at a checkpoint and is killed by the security forces.
There are nervous young men and women on both sides of this conflict – the Palestinians with stones, scissors and – sometimes – knives. The Israelis with modern machine guns. When we visited Hebron – a divided city - we saw the nervousness of the Israeli young soldiers close up. With Palestinians barred and Israeli settlements placed provocatively in the Old Town it’s sadly not surprising that the day before our visit a young woman was killed by a soldier close to the checkpoint. Our Palestinian hosts said she was on her way to see her grandmother. Doubtless the Israeli soldier would say she attacked them with a knife or pair of scissors. Where the truth lies who knows! But there’s no doubt in my mind that Gadi Eisenkot, Chief of the Israeli Defence Force, is right when he says he doesn’t want soldiers emptying magazines on girls with scissors!
The second layer of oppression is the bureaucracy of permits, travel documents and planning permissions. At first glance this looks reasonable to ensure order and security but it is used to control, disrupt and humiliate. It makes it difficult to visit friends and families. It makes it difficult for the homes to be provided that the Palestinians need. It creates distrust, fear and anger.
The final layer of control is the violence of the army, the border police, the arrests, the killings and the demolitions.
Palestine is a beautiful land full of people who want what we all want for our families and our community, a positive future. But over 20 years since the Oslo accords there seems to be no political will from the Israeli State to progress a 2 state (or even a 1 state) solution. The Israeli Government appear happy to act in contravention of international law and UN resolutions. They understandably resent criticism.
I hope nonetheless that somehow they will find a way of reaching out to the current Palestinian leadership – whose members I found explicit about a desire to progress the 2 state solution – before it is too late. It struck me that the cost of not acting while they can will be massive. If the leaders on both sides miss the opportunity to create a dialogue for peace there will be a very bleak future for everyone who lives in both Israel and Palestine. And it doesn’t have to be that way!