PALESTINE VISIT.

Article for Bristol & Frenchay area Quaker meeting Newsletter.

I recently joined a 10-day intensive study tour, mainly in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, run by a small independent campaigning organisation. We were a mixed group, some Jewish, two Americans, mostly British. Several like me were members of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. Only one was clearly 'anti-Semitic' (though the term is deplored since Arabs are Semites), and I with many Jews in my family was anxious to remain aware of the views of both sides. We stayed at the Guest House of Jerusalem Anglican Cathedral, and at the only international standard hotel still open in Bethlehem. Our schedule included over 20 presentations and visits to organisations - too many to list here but including Christian, Jewish, and Muslim groups, peace and justice activists, refuseniks, town mayors, cultural groups, village leaders, a university, a refugee camp, a rehabilitation centre, a kindergarten, and some long journeys, including a trip for swimming in the Dead Sea. We were not able to visit Gaza or Jerico due to hostilities. A man who travelled with us was injured by shrapnel while accompanying an ambulance (which was being refused permission to go to the hospital). We had been asked to collect money, toys, art and craft materials and medical supplies and these we distributed to our hosts.

I expect most readers are familiar with the situation in Palestine. Despite assurances given during peace talks, and despite international law and UN resolutions to the contrary, the Israeli Government, under the influence of Zionist extremists, continues to take over swathes of land in the Palestinian West Bank, building a massive infrastructure of settlements, roads, and fences. The land they take includes that where water is most available. The walls they construct are built close to Palestinian towns, constraining their growth. These walls and the heavily fenced roads cut farmers off from their land and isolate villages from each other and nearby towns. So far they have total control of 78% of what was originally Palestine, and occupy most of the remainder. (That which they do not occupy they move into in force at will.) Meanwhile their occupying troops humiliate and harass Palestinians making life so unbearable that many have and continue to leave as refugees. It is ethnic cleansing on a grand scale though more subtle than as was seen in Kosovo.

On our first day we were shown the 'settlements' near Jerusalem. We were amazed by the size of them - great cities stretching further than they eye could see though we were on high ground. These are linear cities built on an east-west axis so as to divide the West Bank into sectors, bantustans or cantons. Also on the first day we were shown the new wall which Israeli public relations staff call a 'separation fence'. It is not a fence but a very high concrete wall. All buildings within 150 yards are to be demolished. The section we saw cuts the road from Jerusalem to Bethany and goes straight down the middle of a shopping street. We watched women, school children, business men clambering over the temporary wall hurriedly constructed of smaller concrete blocks but soon to be replaced by the impregnable version, necessitating a detour of several miles. It is clear that the prime purpose of the wall is not security. If it were it would have been built along the recognised border and would be fairly straight. As it is it twists and curves cutting deep into Palestine in order to take land and wells and to constrain Palestinian towns. It is nearly three times as long as it need be, and is very expensive.

Whenever we travelled we were frequently stopped at checkpoints and roadblocks. Armed troops (deliberately being as slow as possible) boarded the bus and checked everyone's passport. At most checkpoints long queues of traffic wait for hours, though Israelis (and we, as tourists) are allowed to jump the queue. Checkpoints are opened and closed seemingly arbitrarily. At most of them Palestinians, particularly men, are not allowed through, or if so must walk, getting off one bus, queue without shelter until cleared, walk a few hundred yards then get onto another bus. The checkpoints themselves consist of mounds of earth and rubble, plus razor wire, and women often with children and shopping have to clamber over, while boys try to push barrows over the steep mounds. When it rains the conditions are far worse. The claim that this is for security is obviously false as they can walk by hill paths or drive to another checkpoint. Clearly the objective is simply to harass the populace.

We did not see any fighting but had many bullet holes in walls, etc. shown to us, and were often told of brutality, for instance a student at Bethlehem University told us of how she was ill treated when she protested when a male colleague was dragged off the bus and beaten up. The reception manager at our hotel had not been able to visit his home town for four years, though it is only 50 miles away, in the same country. The sight of the Palestinian Authority headquarters, a huge pile of rubble, shocked us. But the many signs of international co-operation - new clinics, kindergartens, museums, were encouraging.

Another thing which surprised us was the ignorance of a moderate Jew who had kindly agreed to address us. Though a politically aware liberal she had several misconceptions such as that the Arabs were not driven from their homes in 1948, that the wall would stop terrorism, and that Premier Sharon is very fair minded. She could not understand the Arabs' desire to return to their villages - "Do I demand to have my grandfather's house in Prague?".

I had several additional interactions with Palestinians. I had brought my optical prescription, and shoes that needed mending, and bought a pair of trousers which then needed alteration. All these transactions resulted in interesting conversations and cups of coffee. Also on our day off I slipped away and went on the Arab buses, via the checkpoint, from Jerusalem to Ramallah to visit the Quaker school there. I was too late for Meeting but luckily they were just setting off on an anti-wall march which I joined.

One of our number was a Methodist minister and she led us in some very appropriate prayers, particularly in the Chapel in the Garden of Gethsemene. In Bethlehem we were lucky in that while visiting the Church of the Nativity a procession of singing monks went before us into the grotto.

I found that the Palestinian people we met, mayors, a Bishop, activists, hotel staff, farmers (we helped with the olive harvest) very warm and friendly. The many 'intellectuals' we met were surprisingly pragmatic and sensitive to Israeli fears and needs. I found I liked the land more than I had expected and wish to return in less troubled times to explore in greater depth.

There are more details on my web log, http://sp37.port5.com.

I am willing to give short talks on these experiences to Quaker and other meetings.

Stephen Petter, Bedminster Quake Meeting, Bristol