My trip to Palestine

Dear all,

Many of you have asked that I write something about my recent trip to Palestine, which was organised by the YPO (Young Presidents’ Association http://www.ypo.org).  For the others, I felt this might be of interest given how little of what is happening in Palestine is getting in the news these days. And if it isn’t of interest, please ignore as you will, and forgive the intrusion!

Patrick and I, and most of the 100 plus participants were deeply shocked by the experience. It is one thing to read about what is going on in Palestine, but it is quite another to actually experience life in the Occupied Territories as it currently unfolds. Despite having visited Jerusalem and Bethlehem in 2000, and despite having written my dissertation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for my MA in Middle Eastern Studies, nothing prepared us for how much the situation on the ground has deteriorated since the Second Intifada in 2000. Furthermore, there seems to be very little in mainstream media that portrays reality on the ground. Little is considered newsworthy in the daily grind of life in the Occupied territories, since there are no more suicide bombings (the last one was 5 years ago, in 2008), and the world is focused on the Arab Spring and Syria. Far from our eyes, far from the eyes of most Israelis, behind an 8 metre wall (the Berlin Wall was “only” 3.6 metres) and countless checkpoints, the Palestinians continue to eke out an existence, cut off from the world, both literally and figuratively.  They live in dire poverty (66% of Palestinians live on less than $2 per day, while Israelis average $60 per day, and yet, Palestinian prices are indexed by force to Israeli ones), often malnourished, with crumbling infrastructure, restricted access to water and resources, vast unemployment, restricted trade, and very limited access to health care. They are cut off from neighbours, their work places, their schools and their places of worship by checkpoints, by the Wall, by Israeli-only roads, and unable to move around freely or travel. To add insult to injury, Palestinians are subject to daily humiliation at checkpoints, and are treated at best as 4th class citizens, at worst as terrorists — many young men are arbitrarily dragged out of their homes in the middle of the night and put in prison, and women and men are routinely attacked by extremist Settlers. Many of us know all this, it is well documented for those who care to look. But we forget it, as it is not in our daily faces. Or we can’t imagine that it is as bad as some information sources claim. Well, having seen it with our own eyes (and only the West Bank, not even Gaza, which is considerably worse), we came back determined to try to raise awareness of the plight of these people, of the injustice, and most importantly, of our complicity in what is undoubtedly Apartheid.  In fact, according to a South African couple who was with us on the trip, what they witnessed was worse than Apartheid.

In this letter I only cover a few key issues and experiences, not the whole situation which would take several books to expose, or our whole experience, which despite being only 5 days long, felt like a lifetime. So here are a few snippets around annotated photographs, below:

Roads, Settlements and Checkpoints:

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In this photograph, Israeli-only roads are overlooked by an Israeli Settlement on a prime hilltop position in Area C (West Bank Palestinian land under Israeli administration). The West Bank is dotted with heavily fortified Israeli settlements, which housed in excess of 328,000 settlers in 2011 (http://www.fmep.org/settlement_info/settlement-info-and-tables/stats-data/settlements-in-the-west-bank-1), and the number has increased since then, as the Israeli government has continued to build settlements despite international condemnation. The settlements are illegal according to International law, though legal according to Israeli law. Note how green the Settlement is: they divert much needed water while the Palestinians suffer dangerous water shortages. Many of the settlers come from abroad (US, Russia, Ukraine, etc..), and are heavily subsidised by the Israeli government — given an income without working, a free home, utilities, etc… It seems inevitable that this is a time bomb waiting to explode.

The Israeli-only roads, which Palestinians are not allowed to use, are well maintained and numerous, while the Palestinian roads are crumbling and over-used, because the Israelis do not let the Palestinians improve their roads or build new ones without permission, and it is almost impossible to get permission. As a result, to get from one Palestinian village to the other can take several hours longer than necessary, which is compounded by the fact that Palestinian towns and villages are separated by many Israeli checkpoints, and Palestinians suffer the daily humiliation and inconvenience of having to present ID, have bag searches, body searches, etc… just to go from the stores, workplaces and schools to their homes, or from one village to the next. Sometimes they are refused permission to go past the checkpoints and are made to wait for hours on foot or in their cars, or turned back, with no explanation. We were allowed on these roads only because our group had hired Israeli coaches.

One of the many checkpoints around Palestinian villages and towns. This one is close to Nablus:

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A check point around Hebron:

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The Wall:

Voted illegal by the International Court of Justice in the Hague in 2004, it continues to be built. With its watch-towers, and soaring 8 metres overhead (over twice the height of the Berlin Wall), it annexes large swathes of Palestinian land (it is deliberately NOT build along 1967 borders, but rather cuts into internationally recognized Palestinian land), and cuts Palestinians off from their neighbours, their farmland, their schools, their places of worship. It must be seen to be believed.

Patrick and Isshaq, one of our first Horizon Foundation students, in front of the wall in Bethlehem:

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The only upside to the wall is some thought-provoking wall art:

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We visited a potential Horizon scholar’s family in East Jerusalem, who showed us how a few yards from his home, the wall towered between him and his neighbours. To get to his neighbours before the wall was a 1 minute walk. Now it takes 1 hour to drive! They are a Palestinian Christian family, and to get to church now takes an hour’s drive as well. Note how the wall snakes indiscriminately through this East Jerusalem neighbourhood.

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Their 4 lovely, bright children had no hope for the future, despite stellar education at Bir Zeit University. There was a sense of hopelessness and despair, but also of quiet resignation in these young people. Indeed, 44% of young Palestinians are unemployed, despite over half of them having University degrees. (http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/03/palestinian-youth-unemloyment.html#ixzz2TpErMHWN)

The daughter of another family we spoke to in Bethlehem had to stop her studies in engineering at Hebron University because it was too dangerous, difficult and time consuming for her to make the daily trek from Bethlehem to Hebron due to the checkpoints, Settlers, etc… even though Bethlehem is only 37km from Hebron.  

 Hebron:

Hebron is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world and is economically the most important city in Palestine. It is also the second holiest city in Palestine with its Tomb of the Patriarchs.

Once a vibrant trade centre, the Old City of Hebron now lies derelict due to the Occupation and the influx of extremist Settlers.

Palestinian girl in the old city of Hebron:

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Hebron olive trees, which are around 1000 years old, burned by Israeli Settlers:

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Israeli flag on a plot of land and home inhabited by Settlers, among the Palestinian homes. There was also a 24 hour security guard to protect the Settlers, even though their presence is illegal, and even though it is the Settlers who usually attack the Palestinians rather than the other way around. This situation is replicated all over — when Settlers expropriate and inhabit Palestinian homes they fly their flags and have 24/7 Israeli soldier presence, usually government funded.

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Passing a checkpoint to enter what used to be a busy commercial street for Palestinians, but now is reserved for Israeli Settlers to the right on this picture. Palestinians are allowed access to the left to get to their homes, but only on foot, not with cars, and only after going through several check points. It means that they have to carry groceries etc. by hand, through invasive checkpoints where everything is searched, and are not able to drive heavy goods to or from their homes. Here we are entering to the left, towards the Palestinian side to get to a Palestinian home for lunch, and waiting in line to show our papers to the Israeli soldier in the purple beret:

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Checkpoint at the other end of the same street, through which Palestinian residents must pass daily, several times, to get to work, school, and stores. There is an airport security in the booth, where bags are checked, belts and shoes must be removed, etc.. And this is simply to get from one Palestinian street to the other!

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My father who kept beeping and had to keep taking items off – this time his shoes:

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This used to be a thriving commercial street in Hebron, however all the shops have been welded shut by the Israeli army, and the inventory rots behind these doors, with no access for previous Palestinian owners. Furthermore, Palestinians are no longer allowed to drive or walk on this street, and we were flanked by reinforcements of Israeli soldiers possibly to protect us from the Settlers (who regularly harass and attack Palestinians. One settler came up to us and yelled that Palestine had never existed, it was all Judea), or to make sure that the Palestinians we were friendly with did not walk on the same street. As it was, they walked in the gardens bordering the street, to the right:

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Israeli version of history:

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Israeli Settlers and tourists wielding their flags among our group as we walk through Hebron:

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Tensions ran high during our walk down the street, with seemingly endless reinforcements by Police and the IDF:

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Watch tower on the Settler side of the street:

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Settler versions of history:

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Checkpoint to enter the local market!

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A stall in Hebron market, once past the checkpoint. The sellers really struggle to eke out a living, given that tourism and free movement have been completely strangled by the Israelis:

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Water:

Water is a huge issue as there is not enough of it, and the Israelis control all water supplies despite the majority of water aquifers being on Palestinian land.

The mayor of Bethlehem, Dr. Vera Baboun told us how, despite water reserves being extremely high under Bethlehem, the water must still be purchased from the Israelis. When she asked the Israelis for 2.500 extra cubic metres as the 14,000 allotted was too little for a tourist town such as Bethlehem, the Israelis replied that they would only do this if she agreed to allow Settlement sewage water onto their lands. She refused, and didn’t get the 2500 extra cubic metres of water she needs.

This is anecdotal evidence of a systematic approach: According to Tufts’s Annette Huber-Lee, though the Israeli-Palestinian Joint-Water Committee is responsible for water allocation in the West Bank, in practice, Israel controls most of the water and severely restricts Palestinian access. She said that 80 percent of water in the Mountain Aquifer, one of the most important sources of water for both Israelis and Palestinians, goes to Israel, while only 20 percent goes to Palestine (even though there is parity in numbers of Palestinians and Israelis). “I’ve never seen a more intense system of water control anywhere,” she said. “Palestinians pay 10 times more for water than Israelis.” http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2013/5/3/israel-palestine-water-distribution/

Prisons:

Estimations vary, however at a minimum there are currently just under 5000 Palestinians in Israeli jails according to B’Tselem, the Israeli Human Rights organisation. Isshaq’s twin brother and father (pictured below) were in jail for several years, for no reason.

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What I found out recently which amazed me is that Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails are expected to pay approximately $20 per day for their food. This is usually subsidised in large part by the Palestinian Authority. So the Palestinian Authority has to pay the Israeli authorities for extra- judicially arresting and imprisoning Palestinian citizens… Kafkaesque…

Jerusalem:

Palestinians from the West Bank need a permit to go to East Jerusalem, even though East Jerusalem is internationally recognised as Palestinian. It is almost impossible for a Palestinian under the age of 45 to get a permit. Isshaq, one of our students (above), who now lives in Bethlehem has applied 10 times for a permit to East Jerusalem, and has been turned down every time. He has now been told to stop applying, as it is too much paper work. And yet Bethlehem is only 9.6km from East Jerusalem, and is home to one of the holiest sites in Islam, the Al Aqsa Mosque.

For the rare few who do manage to get permits to East Jerusalem, or for the few who work in East Jerusalem and live in the West Bank, it takes from 3 to 5 hours at rush hour to go the few kilometres to East Jerusalem due to the main checkpoint, Rachel’s Tomb. This means passing the checkpoint at 5am in order to reach work by 9 or 10. Palestinians have to queue in a series of Kafkaesque gates, tunnels, turn-styles, checkpoints, and airport type security requiring the removal of shoes, belts,  extensive bag checks, fingerprinting, etc… (see pictures below)

No Palestinian can take their car into East Jerusalem unless they have Israeli license plates and a valid visitor permit. This means that they have to walk or take a taxi to the checkpoint, disembark, go through the check point, and take an Israeli taxi on the other side. This process is expensive, time consuming and cumbersome to say the least.

Taxis waiting on the Bethlehem side of the checkpoint:

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Patrick entering Rachels’ Tomb Checkpoint, not at rush hour, so it was quiet:

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The long gated passageway which serves to coral Palestinians as they queue for the various security checks:

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One of many turn-styles:

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And another:

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Fingerprint and passport inspection, after the airport style bag, shoe, belt etc. security check:

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On our trip to Jerusalem and our visit to the Al-Aqsa mosque our disbelief grew. A group of Palestinian women were demonstrating outside the heavily soldiered gates of the Al-Aqsa mosque, because they had not been allowed to enter their religious schools for a week. No explanation was given as to why. Israeli security guards control all access to the Al-Aqsa mosque, and yet, on the day we visited, a group of Israeli Settlers had somehow managed to get in to taunt the praying Palestinians. This prompted the Israeli security guards to shut down the Al-Aqsa mosque completely, leaving Palestinians bereft of their holiest place to pray. That same day, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem was arrested and taken from his home, for no reason. There is a feeling that the Israelis are tightening the screws on the Palestinians as much as possible, and being gratuitously provocative, possibly to prompt another Intifada, which would allow them to grab more land and repress the Palestinians even further.

During our visit through the streets of the old city of East Jerusalem, which is Palestinian territory, we found the constant presence of IDF guards, Israeli flags hung on every possible building, endless school trips of Israeli children wielding Israeli flags:

Israeli flags on many buildings in East Jerusalem:

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Israeli soldiers in the Arab market of East Jerusalem:

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Israeli school children in East Jerusalem wielding flags:

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Another group of Israeli school children in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in East Jerusalem:

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We also visited homes in East Jerusalem, which had been expropriated by Israeli settlers, who were living among the Palestinians, protected by 24-hour government funded Security guards and cameras. In many cases, Palestinians are evicted from their homes in order to make way for the Settlers. According to the Israeli Peace organisation “Peace Now”, this is part of a deliberate governmental strategy to gain total control over East Jerusalem. http://peacenow.org.il/eng/content/government’s-plans-deepen-hold-over-jerusalem

A Palestinian woman in front of her home in East Jerusalem. The house above, and the door to the right, are inhabited by Israeli Settlers, with 24/7 security guards and cameras on the neighbouring rooftops.

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As we walked through the streets of East Jerusalem, at one point we were pelted from the rooftops by Settler children with bits of wood. Tensions are rife in the city, and it feels like a powder keg…

Despite paying the same taxes as the Israelis, even the best Palestinian neighbourhoods have no garbage collection, and are not allowed to organise their own garbage collection. They also have lesser access to health care, education and employment.

Another Intifada?

There is a strong sense that the Israelis are doing everything they can to make life for the Palestinians unbearable so that they will leave. One can really feel what Ilan Pappe calls “genocide in slow motion” – a steady strangulation of Palestinian livelihood. Daily life for Palestinians is like wading through treacle, and that’s on a good day. There is also a strong sense that the Israelis are trying to provoke another Intifada through many provocative actions such as the arrest of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem the day we were there, for no reason, and closure of the Al-Aqsa Mosque etc….

And yet there is an equally strong sense on the Palestinian side that they do not want another Intifada – they know they would be the losers, and it would be an excuse for the Israelis to grab more land and clamp down even further. In the many conversations we had with Palestinians it was clear that the vast majority want equality, dignity, freedom, and better living conditions. They don’t even seem to care anymore about having a State, they just want basic human rights, a decent life, and to be treated with humanity. Most of them have embraced the idea of a One State Solution, as the facts on the ground built by the Israelis (settlements everywhere, expropriation of the best land, demolition of Palestinian homes, etc… ) have all but killed their dream of having a State of their own. However when you speak to many Israelis about it, they can’t countenance the idea, as it is antithetical to the idea of a purely Jewish State.

To my Zionist friends who I know will be upset by this, I am sorry if you are upset. But just as I would have done everything in my power to help the Jews against the Nazis, so too I cannot remain silent in the face of such blatant injustice and human rights violations. The Israelis deserve better, as do the Palestinians. My heroes are Israelis and Jews – those who bravely speak out against the situation – Ilan Pappe, Avi Shlaim, Norman Finkelstein, Anna Baltzer, John Mearsheimer, the list is long. But I also find the steadfastness, strength, grace and resolve of the Palestinians in the face of their daily hardships, heroic, and some of their politicians and activists such as Dr. Vera Baboun, Dr. Mustapha Barghouti, Salam Fayyad, incredibly articulate and inspirational. And there are many people on both sides – the Israeli Peace Movements, and the peaceful activists in Palestine who could really make things shift if they were empowered and not squashed by the Israeli authorities and by the deafness of the International community.

I would urge anyone who is incredulous, who disputes the term “Apartheid”, or who manages to justify and rationalise this Occupation, to go to the West Bank, and see with your own eyes what is happening.  This might be difficult, as the latest news (from Haaretz’s Amira Hass, 19th of May http://www.haaretz.com/news/national/israel-effectively-barring-tourists-from-west-bank-by-neglecting-to-explain-mandatory-permit.premium-1.524784) is that tourists need a military permit to visit the West Bank, and Israelis and Jews are heavily discouraged from visiting Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. This is clearly because any person, of any ethnicity or religion, with a modicum of a moral compass would be revolted by what they saw.

Israel benefits from the status quo, from the endless rounds of peace talks going nowhere. While the Europeans and the US bang on about the Peace Process, Israel continues to build settlements, roads, checkpoints, and the Palestinians’ lives and livelihood continue to deteriorate. Since there are no consequences to Israel’s constant mockery of international law and human rights, they are emboldened by the passivity and permissiveness of the International community.

If you are so inclined, I would urge the following actions:

  • BDS movement (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions). Boycott all Israeli products, divest from any Israeli holdings, and encourage sanctions where possible. This is what really tipped the balance to end Apartheid in South Africa. Encourage others to do so as well. http://www.bdsmovement.net. Stephen Hawking has just come under vitriolic attacks and accusations of anti-Semitism from Zionists around the world for his recent boycott of an academic conference in Israel.
  • Lobby your representatives — write to your representatives in government, especially those in the US and the UK, asking for action on behalf of the Palestinians (e.g.: settlement freeze; implementation of international law; respect for human rights according to international law, etc…)
  • Seek out alternative sources of information, such as the well respected electronic intifada (http://electronicintifada.net), the Palestinian Chronicle (http://palestinechronicle.com), or Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) has a good newsletter called Monitor (http://www.map-uk.org). John Whitbeck (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_V._Whitbeck) compiles fantastic articles from various sources which he sends to his mailing list. If you would like to be on his mailing list let me know.
  • Donate to charities helping Palestinians (e.g.: MAP (Medical Aid for Palestinians, etc…)
  • Write letters to your papers when you detect pro-Israeli bias or a lack of accurate reporting about the plight of the Palestinians.

I am sure many of you do a lot already, but we all need to do as much as we can, and encourage others to do so as well. This is a historic injustice, and many of our countries’ governments are not only complicit, but also deeply enabling of this injustice. This situation is detrimental to the Palestinians, of course, but deeply so too to the Israelis, the Jews – to all of us.

“It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope; and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression.” (Bob Kennedy)

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” (Edmund Burke)

9 thoughts on “My trip to Palestine

  1. You are right, the news media is not giving us this info. I am shocked!

    Thank you for this info.

  2. Thank you so much for your blog entry. As you said, it is so important for all of us (I am an American living in Palestine), to speak out against what we see, because the media is not doing it, and because if we don’t, who will?

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