“Welcome to Israel” she said with no more sullenness than passport control officers the world over. And that was that, I was through. No “just follow me sir” to a windowless room, no search, no hassle. My colleague Hameed, who was organising our trip, wasn’t so lucky. An hour and a half later he joined our party on the other side of customs. We’re here on a four day trip from the UK parliament: six MPs, three Labour, and three SNP.
This is a report of what we saw and what we heard in discussions with over 20 MPs, NGOs, academics and a few punters too. Things aren’t good. Israel/Palestine is a powder keg waiting to blow. With everyone’s eyes on Syria and Yemen today and Iraq and Iran before that, the problems on the shores of the Med have fallen down the international agenda. And yet whilst solving the Palestinian conflict wouldn’t automatically lead to peace in the wider region, it would sure make other resolutions a damn sight easier.
We need to start where we are and look forward. But first, the briefest look at how we got here. In 1948 the UN, petitioned by the British, proposed the creation of two states in historical Palestine. The partition was carefully constructed to a create a Jewish majority in the proposed state of Israel, and an Arab state in the West Bank (off the river Jordan) and the area around Gaza city on the southern shore of the Med. Ben Gurion’s Zionist forces rejected the UN plan, the British – weary after more than a year of terrorist attacks - walked away, and the war of independence began.
The war saw the removal of three quarters of a million Palestinians from their own homes creating the first wave of Palestinian refugees - most of whom fled to the West Bank and the surrounding countries of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. All wars create refugees of course, the difference here is that to this day none of those displaced in 1948 have been allowed to return. Little wonder the Palestinians refer to the 1948 war as The Catastrophe. By the time Ben Gurion proclaimed an independent state of Israel in May 1948 he had 78% of the areas that had been under the control of the British. Jordan took control of the rest, including East Jerusalem.
By 1967 Israel occupied the rest of the West Bank and Gaza strip with overwhelming force. They’ve been there ever since. During the 70s and 80s, Palestinian resistance to the occupation was led by the Palestine Liberation Organisation; intensifying with the first Intifada (uprising) beginning in 1987. Peace talks between the PLO and the Israeli Government began in 1991 in Madrid and eventually a series of agreements – known as the Oslo Accords – were signed in 1994. Oslo defined a process for bringing a new state of Palestine into existence, starting with the creation of the Palestinian Authority.
The West Bank was divided into three zones. Area A comprised the main town and cities and was placed under the control of the new Palestinian Authority (PA) which assumed both civil and military jurisdiction. Area B was the remaining small towns and villages and here the PA was in charge of civil functions, but the Israeli army remained in charge of security. Area C comprised the rest, mainly rural areas, particularly the fertile lands of the Jordan Valley. Here the Israelis remained in charge of both civil and military affairs.
For a while peace reigned and everyone got stuck in to building the two state solution. Then things changed. Israeli Prime Minister Rabin who had brokered the deal was assassinated by extreme Zionists, Netanyahu came to power and suddenly the transitional arrangements stopped their transition. The Oslo agreement had foreseen the transfer of areas B and C to the Palestinian Authority and the creation of an independent Palestine within five years. But by the turn of the century things were moving backwards with zoning arrangements now being used to enforce the occupation and the Israelis were actively building Jewish settlements throughout the West Bank, looking for all the world like a process of colonisation.
And so, with a few failed initiatives along the way, this is where we are in 2016. Israel has intensified its occupation seeing this not only as a means of keeping the occupied areas under control but of protecting people within Israel itself.
There are three layers to the occupation. The first is the physical. The settlements are the most obvious aspect: huge conurbations of modern houses and apartment blocks cover many hilltops, complete with roads, schools, clinics, leisure facilities and shops. Mortgages and rents are heavily subsidised by the government to encourage people to move, although many are second homes bought by people who know a good deal when the see one. Each settlement has security funded by the Israeli taxpayer and has the army on call if needed.
The other glaring physical presence is the wall; a monstrous feat of engineering which affronts the landscape almost everywhere you travel. Over 700 kilometres long and built from 12 metre high concrete panels bolted together, this provides a physical separation barrier between Israel and the occupied territories and most of it is wrapped around the West Bank. But it’s more than a security fence. The barrier deviates often from the boundaries agreed in Oslo, both to take in new settlements just inside the West Bank, and to divide Palestinian villages from each other. It not only provides security for those on the Israeli side, but is a means of controlling the Palestinians.
Add to this a range of permanent checkpoints and over 700 temporary military checkpoints and the physical presence is awesome. The checkpoints afford a way of re-enforcing authority, a constant reminder of who is in charge. We heard stories from young people about being treated in ways designed to humiliate. One told us how a soldier asked him to hold a piece of card saying “Happy Birthday Uncle” so the soldier could photograph it and send his uncle a novelty birthday greeting from a Palestinian. He refused. He was then made to pose for the snap at gunpoint. Young women told us how soldiers turned up the sensitivity of the scanner so that they were set off by the metal fasteners on their bra straps and they were made to repeatedly go through the same checkpoint.
The second dimension to the occupation is bureaucratic: a vast array of permits controls and licenses are required to build, move, or work within the occupied territories. This is where the zoning agreed in Oslo has now been put to the opposite effect the authors had intended. The only way expanding Palestinian towns and cities can grow is to build in Area C. For that, an Israeli permit is required and only 3% of such applications have been approved. Israeli citizens require no such permits and can build whatever they want in most of the West Bank. The effect is to contain the growing population within the existing urban area leading to overcrowding and exacerbating a range of social problems. As the Mayor of Hebron Daoud Zatari put it “if we cannot expand we will become just like Gaza”.
The crisis in building is worst in East Jerusalem. There, the authorities have found all sorts of ways to deny Palestinian applications to build homes and businesses; from designating green belts to stipulating proximity to Israeli settlements. Hardly any permits are issued and as a result Palestinians have gone ahead and built without them. Now the authorities are issuing demolition orders like there was no tomorrow. There’s no time limit on the demolition orders, they could be executed in days, weeks, years or never. But the bulldozers do come and for many people their day starts by looking out the window to see if today will be the day, in one area we visited the demolitions are so frequent that that children take their favourite toys to school each day in case their home is not there when they return. This is oppression on an industrial scale.
In a particularly cruel twist people are given the choice to demolish their own home or let the authorities do it for them. If the latter, they will be presented with the bill for demolition and clear up and if they cannot or will not pay, fines and prison sentences follow. This bureaucratic matrix of legalised destruction hangs over the local Palestinian population as a shroud of despair. The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions report that since 1967, over 48,000 Palestinian homes and other structures crucial for a family’s livelihood, have been demolished in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It is impossible to know how many homes exactly because the Israeli authorities only report on the demolition of “structures,” which may be homes or may be other structures. When a seven-story apartment building is demolished containing more than 20 housing units, that is considered only one demolition.
It’s hard to travel anywhere in the West Bank and especially difficult if you need to get into Jerusalem. Its only eight miles from Ramallah to Jerusalem – yesterday the journey took us two hours. It would have been longer had we not been able to use the checkpoint designated for non-Palestinians.
In almost every area of municipal administration the occupying authorities have found ways to subjugate and discriminate against the Palestinians. Drive through east Jerusalem and you’ll notice the rubbish piled up and rotting in some areas. This is not because Palestinians wantonly destroy their environment but became the refuse lorries won’t pick up saying it is too dangerous to do so – this in spite of the irony that most of the truck drivers live in the affected area.
Now a new law has been passed threatening funding to schools that do not strictly adhere to the Israeli curriculum, denying Palestinians the right to teach their own history and culture.
Use of water is the most extreme example of inequality. The settler population in the West Bank outside East Jerusalem is now around 370,000 – about 15% of the total population. And yet the settlements consume 92% of the water supply! Sometimes the Palestinian and settler apartment blocks look identical – but there’s one sure way to tell them apart, The roofs of the Palestinian homes are covered in large black plastic water tanks. These thousand litre silos are necessary because the water company turns off the supply in the summer to Palestinian homes and they need to pay a private supplier to fill the roof tank from tankers.
The third layer of control is military and it takes up a lot of time and effort by the fourth most powerful army in the world. The Israeli army is not meant to police the urban areas of the West Bank – that being under the control of the Palestinian police. But in effect they operate everywhere in the West Bank, now going into Zone A without even informing the Palestinian Authority. The effect of this is not only direct oppression but it makes the Palestinian Authority look impotent and leads many in the population to accuse them of propping up the Israeli authorities.
There are two systems of justice in the occupied territories. Israeli civil law extends only to the settlers who are Israeli citizens. The Palestinian population is covered by military law and a system of military courts where the rights of defendants are a lot weaker and the punishments a lot harsher. More than half of all Palestinian males have seen the inside of an Israeli jail. One 20 year old we met in East Jerusalem had been imprisoned 28 times – mostly for organising peaceful protests.
There is widespread concern at how the military court system works. Gerald Horton is a softly spoken Australian barrister who runs an EU supported group called Military Court Watch. He has spent the last three years monitoring the situation and documented hundreds of cases of children processed through the military courts. The pattern is clear. Arrests in the middle if the night, handcuffed with plastic cables ties, hooded and thrown on the floor of a military vehicle. Then suspects are questioned without parents or lawyers and kept in detention. After two or three days they are taken to court and for the first time see the lawyer who has been appointed for them. At this stage they will be offered the chance to plead guilty and get a sentence of two or three months. It they wish to plead not guilty they will be told that they will be held on remand until a date for a trial can be set, but this will be at least six to nine months away. Not surprisingly most plead guilty; the courts have a conviction rate of over 99%.
Life in the occupied territories is a sequence of daily subjugation and humiliation. There’s a constant reminder of who’s in charge. In the face of this it’s quite amazing that there’s not more violent resistance: most people bear the experience with a patience and grace I doubt I’d be able to muster myself. The backdrop is increasingly one of despair and hopelessness expressed by pretty much all the Palestinians we met. This is compounded by the lack of anything happening that might lead to change. As Nabil Shahh, one on the many senior PLO representatives we met said “for the first time there is no horizon”.
This is the context in which the resistance is rising. The Palestinian politicians we met candidly admit that not only are they not organising what some are calling the Third Intifada but they are powerless to control it. Since last October there has been a significant increase in both nonviolent and violent protests. This has been met with disproportionate force; much of it focused around checkpoints. Two days before we visited Hebron two girls were killed at the checkpoint which separates the settler enclave from the rest of the old town. One of them was 19 year old Kilzar Oweiwy, on her way to visit her grandmother. The Israeli army say she was approaching a soldier with a knife. I spoke with her friend, a young man who works in the nearby gift shop. In impeccable English honed through a passion for watching Hollywood movies online he told “no way would she carry a knife, she wouldn’t even think of such a thing”.
Around 120 Palestinians have now been shot dead for allegedly attacking soldiers with knives. Their families claim most of those shot were innocent. Problems are compounded by the fact that the army confiscates the bodies and no investigation, forensic or otherwise, is allowed. This is not to suggest that there are not knife attacks by Palestinians on Israelis both military and civilian: there are, and there have been innocents killed and injured in such attacks. But many are now asking what orders the army are operating under and whether these are in fact extra-judicial killings. Daniel Seidemann, a distinguished Israeli political journalist and commentator we met put it succinctly “We’ve got to get beyond emptying a magazine into a young girl brandishing a pair of scissors.”
Perhaps the most brutal aspect of the military judicial system is the reintroduction of collective punishment. This is illegal under international law and was abandoned until 2014. Ironically the law dates from the period of the British mandate and was first used against Zionist terrorists in the late 40s. We visited a family in the Qulandia refugee camp in Ramallah, a sprawling rundown housing scheme. They had been served with a demolition order because their son – without their knowledge – had been involved in a knife attack. The son had been killed and now the family were to be evicted and made homeless as punishment. A few streets later we came across something even worse – a demolition order served on the ground floor flat which had meant the full evacuation of a block of 14 flats as they would come tumbling down too when the Caterpillars moved in.
And as with the demolitions due to lack of permits, these punishment demolitions also come with a bill for the work. Failure to pay means criminal charges, fines and detention. It’s a new variation on having to buy the bullets for your own firing squad. This is meant to convince all the other families to make sure their kids aren’t getting involved in the violence, but from what we could see the effect was to push resentment of the occupation forces off the Richter scale.
Israel sees itself as a country and a people under attack. Security dominates all aspects of public policy. The narrative is of innocents under attack from extremists. But the simplest truth is that this is a situation of Israel’s making: everything goes back to the occupation. End that and all else falls into place. Allow the creation of a viable Palestinian state on the West Bank and the source of the anger goes away and the prospect of having a neighbour that you can build social, economic and trading links with begins to emerge. That would be the greatest guarantor of Israel’s security.
There are many Israeli and Jewish voices arguing against the occupation, we met a number of them (see, for example, Breaking the Silence and B'Tselem) they are in the minority and they appealed to us for help. My belief is that Israel will need to be persuaded to end the occupation. That is why international pressure to end the occupation through targeted campaigns to boycott and divest in those associated with the occupation are so important.
It will require international pressure to get peace talks stared again. There may well be a new political initiative later in the year. If only the UK could be part of it rather than glibly following Netanyahu’s every twist and turn.
Four weeks ago I was worried about writing this column on the eve of the last major parliamentary debate on Brexit. Anything could have happened, rendering my speculation obsolete by the time you read it. I shouldn’t have fretted. Anything could have happened but nothing did.
Here I am again. Groundhog day. It’s Tuesday. There’s a big debate tomorrow.
Tuesday. Another day spent discussing Brexit. Another day of my life I’m not getting back.
We are no further forward. As the clock ticks down to exit it’s only fair to ask: What the hell is Theresa May playing at?