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13th November 2003

 

Impressions and Observations on a Visit to Palestine

Dear Friends, Supporters and Donors!

I still hope to write a full report on the study tour in Palestine from which have just returned but I have several pressing problems including a need to prepare some detailed proposals for a series of seminars on (perhaps) "Quakers and the 21st Century", so this must be rather hurried.

Not only do I want to write about it but I owe a report to those who gave me toys, books, clothes and £370 to donate to groups out there.

Also I do not have my notes and handouts, as we had to ensure we were 'clean' as we left the country. All luggage is liable to be searched and many of us were interrogated. I have never had my luggage checked so carefully. This is mainly a genuine security matter but also to ensure one is not taking out documents that might besmirch Israel's good name. If one were to be found a supporter of the Palestinians one might be blacklisted. So we had all posted packages to our UK addresses, and mine has not arrived yet.

Now for some over all impressions.

That Israel and Palestine are (or would be were it not for the occupation) fascinating countries to visit as a tourist.

That Palestinian people are warm, very friendly, generous, wise, and most of all very brave. That is to say, those who remain. Over half have emigrated unable to withstand the pressures. Those we met, whether bus driver, hotel receptionist, or the many who addressed us formally (see below) are polite, intelligent, pragmatic, and surprisingly sympathetic to Israel's needs. I observed only one incidence of boorish, yobbish behaviour by a Palestinian.

That there is a small number of exceptionally brave Jewish Israelis in the peace and justice movement. In particular a young man a 'refusenik' who told us of his experience including several imprisonments refusing to be conscripted into the army.

That most Israelis are amazingly ill-informed of their own country's history or about what is going on in the territories their army occupies. Many are scared even to go to the Damascus Gate of Old Jerusalem. (Those who I saw strolling around in their orthodox Jewish clothes and hair style attracted no undue attention.)

That while most of the several hundred Jewish "Settlements" in occupied Palestine are small (with only a dozen or a few hundred families, and an army post, behind a huge fence), many are huge new towns stretching as far as one can see from a hilltop vantage point. They are built on high ground, often the tops of the rocky hills have been blasted flat with dynamite, and the sides of the hills or mountains terraced by huge bulldozers.) The architectural style is almost always the same, the buildings fortress-like, made of white stone, giving an awesome, messianic impression. The new towns are linear, built in an east-west direction so as to split up the Palestinian West Bank which is initially longer in the north south axis. This has left the Palestinians in cantons or bantustans so that even if they were to get independence their country would be economically non-viable. These new urban monstrosities were described to us by a Jewish commentator as "facts on the ground", it being almost inconceivable that the thousands of Jewish families could ever be made to abandon them. Most of these families are not political or religious but simply lower paid workers induced there by massive subsidies.

(For readers who know little of the background I have written some very basic information, see file SimpleBackground.rtf)

Continuing with my impressions:

Having visited Cairo and Alexandria in 2000 and the West Bank recently it would seem to me that despite the occupation the WB is less poverty stricken than Egypt. One sees fewer obviously poor people, the public facilities are better, the shops fuller and more varied. However the contrast between the third-world Palestinian areas and the first-world Jewish towns is very striking. The German quarter of Jerusalem reminded me of a modern Dutch town. The home of a Jewish moderate was like that of a middle class American.

What sticks in the mind most are the checkpoints and roadblocks. First one encounters a long, very slow-moving traffic queue. Eventually you near the scene of great concrete blocks, and mounds of rubble over which people, women with babies, men with barrows, are scrabbling, a tower draped in camouflage netting, young sloppy indolent soldiers casually and with terrible superficially slowness checking vehicles. Lots of guns and often from the bus one can see a tank in readiness behind a high fence. There is a lot of bustle around the mass of buses and taxis, hooting for custom or to extricated themselves from the jam. Food stalls, various other sellers. People mostly women trudging on the rough ground, carrying voluminous shopping bags. The bus stops at a respectful distance until waved on by a lazy barely deceptable hand movement. A young soldier with a big machine gun talks in Hebrew with our driver then comes onto our bus to check all our passports and visas. Bulging equipment attached to his waist thumps along the seats. Actually once close up they are often revealed to be intelligent young people, their boredom relieved momentarily on finding we were British. It would be hard to remain dour when confronted by our ebullient, winsome group leader, with her cheerful "Shalom!".

The vehicle then proceeds slowly around the concrete blocks. We look out onto the long lines of pedestrians, waiting for their passes to be checked, then winding their way through a labyrinth of concrete. Frequently one sees a person drawn aside and vehicles turned back. Then after a couple of hundred yards of bumpy track another similar scene of buses, taxis, sellers, bustle and noise, where the pedestrians get transport to continue their journey. It is not possible for Palestinians to go by in a vehicle. We as tourists, and Jews, get through swiftly. Several times we were permitted to jump the queue.

Often the roadblocks are closed, apparently arbitrarily. One day the main one from Jerusalem into Bethlehem was closed to non-Jews for a Jewish festival in which many wished to visit Rachel's Tomb, which is just inside the new boundary of the town. At the university we were told it takes some students four hours daily to make a journey which should take one.

Once or twice we travelled on Jewish roads. Astonishingly, there are two road systems. The old ill-maintained ones with their roadblocks and a new network of motorways, smooth, straight, and almost free of traffic because only tourists and Jews may use them. They are strongly fenced so that they form barriers cutting Palestinian villages off from one another, and denying farmers access to their land, unless willing to travel many miles. A Jewish guide, sympathetic to the Arabs, told us her conscience forbids her to use these roads unless on business such as now with us.

On one occasion I slipped away from my party to visit Ramallah, and used the buses or rather Ford mini-buses, making friends with my Arab fellow travellers as we took the two-stage journey each way.

That was supposed to be general impressions. (I also wrote a "Simple Background" for those of my readers who do not understand some of the basics.)

Now I shall write about some more specific events and people.

Our study tour was for 10 days during which we had an intensive series of visits to places and were addressed by many speakers who also took questions. We travelled around in a private bus and stayed in good quality accommodation - theReligious Guest House in East Jerusalem and a hotel in Bethlehem. We were a party of about 20, two Americans, the others British. We had heard about the tour from various sources, not through general advertising. Most of us were sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, for instance I had attended a few meetings run by the Bristol branch of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC). Though the tour organiser is not a charity I got the strong impression it was run more in order to support Palestinians than for profit. In order to protect the organiser who hopes to continue this work I have to omit some key facts.

In my youth I was strongly pro-Israeli, reading of the brave members of kibbutzim, striving co-operatively to make the desert bloom, hindered only by physical hardship and crazy people who shot at them for no good reason. Later I heard of the suffering in the refugee camps, mainly from two women I met only in order to fix their computer, who were running nursery schools in Gaza. Active as a Quaker I often thought of doing service abroad, but hoped God would not lead me to the Middle East which I thought (until this trip) to be unpleasant. Hot, dry, tough, riddled with crime, culturally uninteresting. Such is prejudice!

For some years, since reading a book by the Rev. Elias Chacour about how his family were expelled from their village in 1948, and poetry by the Quaker Grace Blindell, my attitude towards Palestinians changed as I began to realise the enormity of the injustice perpetrated against them, and the pain they were suffering. A few years ago I was on the Exec of a Quaker committee whose area of concern included the Middle East. We had members in Ramallah, where there is a Quaker School. We sent our Exec Secretary out there in c 1999 and he returned very concerned by the dire effects of the Israeli incursions in their Occupied Territories, particularly how new roads were cutting off villages and towns from each other.

Shortly after moving to Bristol I attended a public meeting addressed by two Israeli 'refuseniks'. Their personal courage made a deep impression, and I started attending the Bristol PSC. After a while I began to consider going to the Middle East. I took advice mainly and decided to go on this fact finding study tour rather than initially as an activist.

Two of my four sisters married Jews, as did the son a of a third, so I have many contacts with them. Only a year ago I attended a grand Bat-Mitsvar and was treated wonderfully by the extended family. But I found it hard to mention my concerns and at a recent party several of us agreed that when the subject arises a sort of wall emerges between Jews and non-Jews, making discussion impossible.

The study tour was more expensive than I could properly afford but once I had said I would go I felt I could not draw back. Shortly before departure I became very apprehensive, fearing I would break down emotionally, and/or be unable to control my anger. I had a bike accident after which I was extremely abusive to the motorist, whose mistake that injured me is quite common. I was horrified by my reaction. On the last Sunday before I left our Meeting House had been damaged by vandals and I compared how upset some members were with the feelings of Palestinians whose homes are demolished by Israelis in collective punishment. This also upset me to the point where I was unable to speak. That night I had a powerful dream, that I was being taken to witness an execution, as happens in the USA.

During the study tour we met and were addressed by: a Bishop, three Jewish peace and justice activists, a 'moderate' politically aware Jew, senior staff of a University, two town mayors, a 19 year old refusnik, the director of a cultural society (whose production recently toured Europe to great acclaim), the director of a Christian Ecumenical organisation, a Christian peace team, and others. We also had many personal conversations with these people, their colleagues, and others who we met.

A manager at our hotel described the 10 days of total curfew and the following 30 days when they were allowed out only for an hour or two per day, according to arbitrary announcements. He had not been able to visit his home town less than 100 miles away for four years. The hotel owner told us how another hotel he owned had been commandeered by the army, partially destroyed by fire started when the soldiers were having a party, and how despite initial assurances the army refused any compensation. We were often shown places where farmers' land had been fenced off denying them access.

In several places we were shown quite recent gunshot damage. Often a settlement is on a hill across a valley from a Palestinian building, and settlers take pot shots.

In places a settlement is not out in the countryside but within a city. We were told that fanatic Zionists will break into a house and occupy it. The owner returns and cannot get in. He goes to court and gets an finding in his favour. The settlers leave but register the property as being under dispute, so the police will not let the owner return. Nor can it be sold.

However occupation is obtained, once in it is almost impossible to dislodge settlers, since court findings are often ignored by settlers and by the army, on the spurious but all-embracing grounds of 'security'. Within the Old City in Jerusalem settlers are buying property outside of the traditional Jewish Quarter. In Hebron they have taken over or built several properties and now have a private road serving them. Palestinians whose homes front onto this road are obliged to use a back entrance. We saw a family apparently returning from a shopping trip clambering over rooftops in order to return home. These town settlements are in strategic locations e.g. at each end of the market street.

Several students and one of the staff at Bethlehem University told us of their many trials and tribulations, including the inordinate and unpredictable time it takes to come in and out each day due to road blocks. Two young women described witnessing soldiers beating up a male colleague, and how she was manhandled when she tried to intervene. She used her mobile to call for help but staff from the University were prevented from getting to her.

We saw many places such as schools, Palestinian Authority buildings, and hotels bomb damaged. The PA headquarters is mainly a massive pile of rubble. In several places we inspected the new Wall. In the outskirts of Jerusalem, on the main road to Bethany, we saw where it goes down the middle of a shopping street. Now vehicles have to go miles in small streets to continue their journey. Local people, kids returning from school, women with shopping, business men with brief cases, scramble over blocks to cross the wall. Now it is temporary, only about six feet high and constructed crudely but soon it is to be replaced with 8 metre high concrete blocks. We saw great wide swathes across the town- and country-scape where the wall is being constructed. It is said that all buildings within 150 metres of it were to be demolished. We were shown maps of the Wall and could see that it is placed very close to Palestinian towns and villages, and often extended to fully surround them. This leaves much of the countryside on the 'other' side i.e. inaccessible to Palestinians, but available for the expansion of nearby Israeli settlements. (Any settlement in occupied territory is illegal under international law.) It was pointed out to us that this will severely restrict normal urban growth. Fore instance Bethlehem, which is one of Palestine's main cities, is completely fenced in. There are no parks and young people denied access via the roadblocks, have no access to any countryside. It might be called the Strangulation Wall.

The Israelis claim the Wall (which they call a Separation Fence) is to separate the communities for their mutual safety. If this were true it would be fairly straight and placed along the accepted border between Israel and Palestine. Think of the Berlin Wall, or Hadrian's.) Instead it is twice as long as it might be as it twists and curls deep into the Palestinian areas, grabbing another 10% of Palestinian land in the West Bank. Maybe it should be called the Land-Grab Wall.

Most of us were amazed at the size of some of the settlements. We hit a terminology problem here as some people reserve the term 'settlement' for the many relatively small ones occupied by religiously fanatic Jewish Zionists. The huge ones sometimes are called neighbourhoods and most of their inhabitants are working class people attracted by generous subsidies. We were told a flat there costs $40,000 but is worth four to eight times as much. Landscaping and general publicity are designed to give a sense of safety and permanence. Though they are illegal and it is said in international negotiations that they must be demolished, the inhabitants are ignorant or mis-informed. On the other hand, since there are so many of them, it is perhaps unthinkable that they should be evicted. Thus Sharon creates what were described as 'facts'. Non-negotiables.

These large settlements are built on east-west axes, splitting the West Bank (whose existing communications, were it not for road blocks, are north-south) into enclaves described as Bantustans or cantonments. East-west highways are also being constructed. This was described to us by a Jewish American expert as all being part of Sharon's great plan which was leaked some years ago. The idea is that by the time a two-state solution might be reached, Palestine would consist of about 15 separated cantons.

Opinion: As a cynical display of good will highways might be built linking the cantons, which would indeed greatly relieve Palestinians who are currently prisoners in their towns. It occurs to me that the Israelis' apparently senseless provocation of the Arabs is to buy time while these developments are made. The present intifada was started by Sharon visiting a mosque knowing it would incense the Muslims, and was fanned when the latters' stone throwing was countered by deadly gun-fire.

The Israelis spread a general fear amongst their citizens and tourists that it is not safe to leave Israeli territory. I have mentioned how one told us they were advised not to go into the Muslim section of Old Jerusalem, though the one or two Orthodox Jews I saw there seemed to attract no attention. (Except that an American hippie Jew said in a loud voice as one passed "They're making the word 'Jew' stink throughout the world".)

People are also advised not to go into the West Bank except in exclusive buses, protected by troops. Thus the tourist trade upon which cities like Bethlehem rely has been destroyed. We were the only group staying in Bethlehem. There were no more than 5 other guests at our hotel, which is the only one of international standard still open. We were not able to get into Jericho.

At road blocks we had to have our 'story' ready in case of interrogation. We were on a pilgrimage and visiting holy sites. We were staying in Jerusalem. Not that we were visiting Palestinian, Christian and Jewish peace and justice groups.

One of our hosts was a very pleasant Jewish woman who gave us tea English style and gorgeous Jewish cakes. She was a left wing liberal. Her husband sat to one side - a marked contrast to Muslim situations where the men tend to do the speechmaking and the women stay in the sidelines. We had been asked to be very polite and restrained. However some of the things this person told us made our jaws drop. She believed that the reason Arabs left their villages in 1948 we that 'Arab Leaders' told them to. She said that now that he was in power Sharon had become very reasonable. She believed that the only reason that a recent poll of European opinion found Israel to be the country which most threatens peace was because Europeans are not well informed. She could not understand why the Arabs claimed a right of return. "I donít claim a right to return to my grandparents' home in Prague".

This last comment resonated for me with something one of the Mayors had said. (I was often struck by the educated wisdom of many of the Palestinians. We were told they have the second highest percentage of college graduates in the world.) He drew our attention to the different mind-sets of Arabs and Jews. The latter had no real attachment to land, in the sense that Arabs do. For them their land, their ancient olive trees, their villages, assume a kind of sacred importance. For Jews they represent only wealth, possession. Of course this theory does not explain Jews' longing for their homeland throughout the Diaspora. Maybe the latter replaces the Arab-like attitude.

During each visit our group leader passed round an envelope, into which we put donations from money we had collected prior to coming. I had £370 to distribute. I kept a record but as mentioned above I do not have my documentation here. I think a record was kept of the total amount we distributed. Unfortunately the last collection was for the refuseniks' legal aid fund but many of us had run out by then. I gave them 'my' last £10.

We had also brought gifts - toys, art and craft materials, children's books, vitamins and other medicines, clothes and so on. I had some pretty children's designer-dresses, and a sackful of soft toys.

I took my toys to Wadi Fakeem, a village that is being squeezed into extinction by the border on one side and a rapidly expanding settlement encroaching on its olive groves on the other. Often its only access lane is blocked. The settlement's sewage works overflow is directed onto the farmers' vegetable fields.

It is a unique village in that it is the only one to which residents were allowed to return (as many were promised) after the expulsions in 1948. Because of its unique position it receives a lot of international aid - a new kindergarten, new clinic, an community centre.

Being a bit of a cheapo I had saved up getting new glasses until I went to Palestine. They were done to an excellent standard in Bethlehem. Similarly I came with a hole in my good shoes and had them repaired for £10 instead of the £25 it would cost in Britain. These and other interactions resulted in pleasant conversations with local traders and middle class residents.

We did indeed visit some holy sites, such as the Church of the Nativity, which I did not find tacky as some commentators have said. Maybe it was because we were the only tourists. In the old days one had to queue for a long time. We also had prayers in the Chapel of the Garden of Gethsemene. (One of our number was a Methodist Minister.) We visited the splendid church of the Assumption in Hebron. Superb architecture - it was paid for by a Jewish philanthropist.

The current situation is that the people on both sides are very of weary of war. The economies of both countries have been seriously affected. (There was a general strike in Israel while we were there.) Israel has been voted the country which most endangers peace. Palestinians are desperate - there is a steady trickle of families leaving the country, mainly to Sweden and Canada.

On my return I found two letters from my M.P. to whom I had written some weeks ago. She enclosed a copy of a letter from Baroness Symons, Minister of State at the Foreign Office. Both expressed views similar to mine, and with more emphasis than is often the case in such letters, which are usually rather bland. My M.P. also sent me a report of a Parliamentary Delegation which went to Israel/Palestine last July and which reached much the same conclusions. I felt that they missed some points, such as that the Wall is more for land-grabbing than security, and wrote to them, receiving a swift positive response. I have or shall put all this onto my blog (http://sp37.info)

The above has taken me several hours and I must needs turn to other urgent work. I am sorry it has been a bit hurried. "If I'd had longer I'd have made it shorter".

Anyone detecting any errors or wishing to comment is invited to do so. E-mail me

Stephen Petter

13/11/03