RICHARD BURGON MP reports on a trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank, where he met families surrounded by soldiers and ‘settlers’
AS AN MP, discussion of Palestine and Israel is never far away from you — in the news, in Parliament and in correspondence from members of the public. It was a privilege to visit Jerusalem and the illegally occupied territories of Palestine in the West Bank with a group of Labour MPs during the recent break in parliamentary business, in order to see for ourselves the situation on the ground.
During the visit we saw with our own eyes the reality of Israeli “settlements” and “outposts,” Palestinian communities suffering under occupation, Bedouin communities whose way of life is threatened by Israel’s government, the valuable work of Medical Aid For Palestinians and other aid agencies, and the reality of Israel’s military courts. We also met politicians from both the Israeli Knesset and the Palestinian Authority.
Our visit was informative. It was also depressing and yet somehow also uplifting. It was certainly truly unforgettable.
The Israeli settlements we saw and the impact they are having was truly frightening. They appear as wealthy gated communities. And the number of them, the size of them, and their sinister strategic locations physically block off the possibility of a two-state solution.
We also visited Palestinian communities such as the village of Susya, which has been demolished on numerous occasions by the Israeli government and is overlooked by an Israeli “outpost.”
We journeyed to the remote village of Jimba in the South Hebron Hills in occupied Palestine. There we saw a Palestinian home that had been demolished by Israel’s government. Following the demolition, the Palestinian family who lived there are now living in a cave. We met them. We saw damage to facilities funded by Britain’s Department for International Development.
In our journey between Susya and Jimba we were confronted by unnerving Israeli “settlers” and trailed by machine gun-wielding Israel soldiers. It appears the Israeli government really does feel there are no consequences to its behaviour.
Our visit to the Palestinian village of Bet Ijza was also unforgettable. We visited the home of a Palestinian family whose house is now surrounded by the Israeli settlement of Givon Hadasha. The settlers have fenced the family in.
An armed sentry gate had also been placed at the end of the drive but had later been removed after a successful legal case pursued with the support of the Palestinian Authority.
Walking up the drive to the house, between the high fences erected by the settlers, felt like walking into a prison.
After being fenced in by Israeli “settlers,” the family attached a green screen on “their” side of the fence in order to shield them from abuse and harassment from the “settlers” trying to get them to leave their home. We were told that among the “settlers” in this illegal settlement are senior members of Israel’s army and navy.
In Jerusalem we had an excellent meeting and wonderful evening with the Jabal Al-Baba Bedouin community. In 1948 Israeli military forces violently expelled them from their lands in the Negev desert. In 1952 they resettled on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Their home is now under threat of demolition by Israel’s government. Indeed, only days after our departure, we received messages that the bulldozers had arrived on their doorstep.
In the Old City of Jerusalem, we visited the home of a Palestinian family that has lived there since 1953. Israeli settlers are trying to force them out of their home. The “settlers” that moved in next door blocked in the entrance to the Palestinian family’s house by building a wall. In the children’s bedroom, we saw where the settlers drilled through the wall — in five different places.
?In East Jerusalem we saw a Palestinian community that had become a ghost town, with deserted homes all around, as a result of Israel’s government building its wall, cutting the community off from work, neighbours, family and friends.
We had the opportunity of accompanying a Medical Aid for Palestinians mobile clinic on its visit to a Bedouin community, again overlooked by an Israeli settlement. The work that organisation does under incredibly difficult circumstances, and subject to all the pressures that Israel’s occupation brings, is vitally important. Supporting them is something very practical that can be done by people in Britain who care about the plight of the Palestinian people.
We visited one of the Israeli state’s military courts — situated in “Area C” of illegally occupied Palestine. In this military court, Palestinian children of 12 and older are sentenced for throwing stones. Sentences of six months for throwing stones at Israeli military vehicles are standard fare in these courts — but we heard of sentences of up to 20 years being given out.
Charge sheets are given to Arabic-speaking Palestinian children in Hebrew, a language that the vast majority cannot read or speak. We attended a number of court hearings — which the judge instructed us we could not report on — and prior to that we waited with the families of the child defendants in a crowded outdoor waiting area surrounded by high fences and entered and exited by way of a football stadium-style turnstile. Many parents we met saw a custodial sentence as inevitable but cherished being able to see their children — even in the dock — for a few fleeting minutes.
During the week, we met politicians from the Knesset and the Palestinian Authority, including the Prime Minister of the PA, Rami Hamdallah. He, unlike Israel’s government, appeared genuinely committed to practically pursuing a two-state solution. The conclusion I came to is that the Israeli government’s continued expansion of illegal settlements is an intentional barrier in the way of that solution.
Our visit to occupied Palestine was one that I would recommend to all Members of Parliament — particularly to those who still feel that justifying the occupation is the right thing to do. I would like to think that any such MP seeing first-hand how things really are would think again.