Report from Palestine: “a conflict that does not have a simple solution”

November 13, 2012 at 2:30 pm (Guest post, history, Human rights, israel, liberation, Middle East, palestine, solidarity)

By Tom Cashman

Tom is a long-standing socialist, Labour Party member and Unite activist (on the Unite EC until last year). In September this year he participated in a ‘Labour2Palestine‘ visit to Ramallah, Jerusalem and other parts of what should be the state of Palestine. As someone who does not demonise Israel and has for many years tended to support the two states position, Tom’s pessimistic conclusion must be taken seriously. He starts off with a brief plug for the excellent film Five Broken Cameras:

Saw this film Wednesday night: a good night out in its own right but also a good initial education for those who are not familiar with the Palestine Occupation.
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The film is distributed in Israel (as well as world-wide) and has had good  reviews there.
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Visited Palestine last week and met among others the brothers of the  author/director at the regular Friday riot.
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My main conclusions from the visit:
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Israeli settlements, military exclusion zones and designated national parks have reduced the Palestinian controlled occupied West Bank to a fragmented  archipelago of cantons. rendering a two state solution a much longer term (and  for the Israeli government almost politically impossible) goal. Unless there is  a major turn in US policy to force Israel to abandon its current (de facto)  strategy there will be a one state solution:  Israel with possibly a few reserves for the Palestinians comparable to the situation in the 19th century USA for the native people.
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The treatment of Palestinians by the Israeli army is more or less typical  of occupying armies but few military occupations last this long without a  political “solution” although not always a good one. Without in any way trying  to justify the occupation it is reasonable to say it is much harsher than the  British in Northern Ireland but much softer than the British in Kenya or  Malaya.
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We met with sympathetic Israeli NGOs and one politician from whom I gathered  that Israeli public opinion (among the long term citizens ) on the issue was  quite diverse but that most did not consider “ The Palestinian  question” to be a high political priority Fatah and most of the  Palestinians we spoke to were quite insistent that what they wanted was peace  and the possibility of economic development to give a reasonable level of  prosperity to the proposed new state and that they were not at all interested in punishing the Israelis or taking any action that put their people at further risk. Although this may sound minimal to us, these people want their kids to grow up and have healthy and comfortable lives and they do not see themselves as having a role as undoing all the wrongs of history.
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Many Palestinians see the British as the real villains in the story. The Balfour declaration, the way the mandate was terminated, and Suez were spoken of  in one-to-one conversations, usually as a list before going on to current UK, EU  and US support for the Israeli state. It was reminiscent of the way Irish Catholics who know no other history can give a list of the historic crimes of  England. In formal discussions a politeness to guests made the discussion less  accusatory but the Fatah / PA leadership did say it at our first meeting (and  dinner ) with them.
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The PA would always have had a hard time in attempting to build a state in  the West Bank and Gaza but Israel withholding the tax revenue that they should receive means they can’t pay for the most basic of services.
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For those interested in the details this is what we did:
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We arrived on night of 16th Sept: Two Brummies of Pakistani ethnicity were  delayed about 20 minutes for questioning by immigration but let through. We went  to our hotel in Ramallah without incident
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Monday 17th was Rosh Hashanah so the border crossings were relatively quiet  as we went to Jerusalem a late middle aged Palestinian woman was being refused  access to accompany her nearly totally blind son to a hospital for treatment  because she did not have a permit.
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We met the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and had a  bus tour of East Jerusalem guided by Chaska from the ICAHD, including the Jewish  settlements scattered through the largely Palestinian town. We went to an  Israeli settlement of City proportions with lush gardens and greener grass than the Irish Midlands, then visited the Palestinian town of Anata, barely a village  in UK terms. Many of its houses had been demolished by the Israeli Army (IDF)  usually in the middle of the night. We visited Beit Arabiya (Arabiya’s House)  home of Salim and Arabiya Shawamreh which had been demolished five times and  rebuilt five times, it now serves as a centre for international summer camps of  volunteers organised by ICAHD who assist in rebuilding demolished houses.
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We were later given a brief tour of the old city of Jerusalem guided by  ICAHD director Jeff Halper who gave a good run down of the ancient and modern  history of the city.
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We finished the day with a Dinner and meeting with the Fatah International  relations committee. The Fatah leadership see their future as developing into a European style Social Democratic Party and are a sister party of the British  Labour Party in the Social Democratic International. The party still formally  holds a two states position but it is clear that many of the leadership see that  the Israeli drive for maximum geography with minimum demography is making this  unlikely in the near to middle future. They have a problem with a public  declaration for a one state solution which can be simply put. There are two ways  they see that this can come about quickly: either the surrounding Arab states  invade and drive the Israelis into the sea, creating new anomalies, new refugees  and new hatreds if they win; but in the much more likely event of a defeat have the Israelis move their border east of the Jordan or the Israelis accelerate the undeclared policy of “Judification” of the West Bank until the 1967 ceasefire line becomes the accepted border of Israel. So the current line is  likely to remain as a two state solution as the path to a confederation or singular secular democratic state.
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Labour2Palestine agreed to sponsor and support a Fatah-nominated student in the UK who would work as an intern/research assistant for a Labour  MP.
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Tuesday 18th (still a public holiday) back to Jerusalem. Morning meeting at  UN Office for the Co-Ordination of Humanitarian Affairs with Chris Dolphin Who  briefly stated that the UN supported the Oslo Agreement and that he was unable  to act outside of that position but that he personally saw that the Settling of  the West Bank and annexation of East Jerusalem coupled with the Israeli refusal  to allow a corridor for communication between the West Bank and Gaza had  effectively put an end to the Oslo process. He gave us a briefing on Gaza which  we could not visit emphasising that although Gaza is formally under the  government of the Palestinian authority, neither the Israeli State nor Hamas  have any intention of having that become a reality. Since the Egyptian  revolution Gaza’s economy has had a boost because the tunnels have increased in  number and capacity. Some are big enough to drive a truck through and most even  the small ones have electricity, piped water and drainage. These don’t just  allow the import of personal goods: petrol, cement, steel, arms and all  necessary industrial materials are being imported. This has led to the  development of a new Hamas-dependent bourgeois caste displacing the old  bourgeois caste based on partnerships with Israeli capitalists. Even with the  growth of the tunnel based industries the main sources of income in Gaza are the  wages paid by the UN for school staff, Hospital staff etc and the wages paid to  civil servants and functionaries who are now controlled by Hamas or who no  longer have a job at all by the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. Israel no  longer shows any interest in Gaza, the settlements have been abandoned, and they  would probably be quite happy to hand it back to Egypt. Thus they would get rid  of a major problem and sabotage a potential Palestinian state while claiming  that all they are doing is returning to the pre-1967 borders as all sorts of  people are demanding.
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Later in the same day we visited the British Consul in Jerusalem Sir Vincent Fean (he reports directly to the FO not the Ambassador as other consuls do. He is in effect the Ambassador to Palestine). His analysis was more or less  the same as that of the UN. Both were personally very pessimistic about the  current situation and clearly frustrated by the attitude of the Israeli state,  but both were very clear that they don’t make policy they only execute it. The consul did also say clearly that neither the Consulate in Jerusalem nor the  Embassy in Tel Aviv ever knowingly buy goods from the settlements.
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Between the two meetings we toured the village of Al Walaja which is being  encircled and split by the wall. As it was still incomplete we could walk around  both sides of the wall there were a few strange decisions such as the wall going  through the middle of a Salesian Convent separating the Men’s House from the  women’s. This was at the request of the order as the monks had a vineyard so  needed to be able to supply wine to the Israeli market and the main income for  the nuns was running a school for the village. However the main impression was  of farmers separated from their fields and therefore their incomes and of  neighbours and even extended families finding themselves in different countries  with a closed border.
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Wednesday, 19th, Briefing from Gerard Horton, International Advocacy  Officer for Defence of Children International, on the abusive treatment of  children in the Israeli Military courts and prison system. 6 of the group went  to visit the Ofer Military court to witness trials of children.
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The rest of us went with senior PA leaders to visit the Yasser Arafat’s  tomb, a massive edifice with museum and Mosque attached, worthy of a Pharaoh.
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We were then guided around Amari, refugee camp in Ramallah by Ahmed  Tomaleih. The camp is mainly populated by the descendants of refugees from 1948  and 1951. The original tents went long ago and were replaced by small square  single story breeze block “houses” over the years as families grew extra rooms  and floors were added so the camp unless you know what it is just looks like a  poor neighbourhood in the city. It has it’s own schools and health care system  provided by UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Association) the body  responsible for caring for refugees world-wide. The camp committee run a women’s  centre, a centre for the disabled including mental disability and “learning  difficulties” and deal with internal problems. They have set up a sports &  social club in an impressive building which we were told was largely funded by  French NGOs, they said that a few of them had visited France there was a young  lad with us in the French national football shirt and that they had many  visitors from Europe mainly from France and Barcelona but none from England.  When I pointed to the big red flag on the wall with a yellow Liver Bird in the middle sharing pride of place with the French National flag next to The portrait  of Yasser Arafat and suggested that they may have had visitors from Liverpool  they said yes, we have friends from Liverpool visit us but nobody from England.  They told us that the club sports teams were good that they played football, and  many other games but football and fencing were the ones were they were  strongest. In fact their football team is and has for a number of years been the  top of the Palestinian league.
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Last season they won the domestic treble: league, President’s Cup and the  Yasser Arafat Memorial Trophy. They are in the Asian equivalent of the Champions  League and are doing quite well but don’t put a bet on them reaching the final.  We visited the memorial (Museum and cultural centres) to Mahmoud Darwish, the great Palestinian Poet (and Communist) who during his lifetime was translated  into many languages and received all sorts of international awards.
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Both halves of the delegation came together to finish the day with Kifah  Radaidah, who is responsible for Fatah’s dealings with the LP and her daughter  Ilia who organised a panel of NGOs to meet us. Including Wisam Ahmad from Al Haq  and Salma Duabis from the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling. Both  Wisam and Salma were highly critical of aspects of the PA administration in the  West Bank, Salma was particularly critical about the lack of protection and  support for victims of domestic violence. Fatah representatives acknowledged  that the situation was unacceptable but said without more funding they did not  have the resources to deal with it. I have no doubt that this is a serious  problem and equally I have some sympathy with the PA position on resources. Most  State employees in the West Bank are working for half pay pending the release of  the tax arrears by the Israeli state. But on women from an outsider’s position  it was noticeable that far more women in the West Bank went bare headed and bare  armed than in most middle East countries and probably than in some parts of  Bradford. Although there were no wild hen parties or drinking contests it is  fair to say that there were quite a few Ramallah women drinking in bars with  their male friends while watching football on the telly. Obviously Ramallah is  no more typical of Palestine than Dublin is of Ireland but like Dublin it is a  relaxed secular city, and like Ireland the further you go into the rural corners  the more religiously strict is the atmosphere and the worse the treatment of  women.
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Thursday 23rd. Accompanied by Nadia and Hamdi from Fatah we were driven on the Palestinian roads to Bethlehem to visit the Aida refugee camp. Like Amari  this camp dates from 1948 so most of the “refugees” are children and  grandchildren of the displaced and the camp itself can only be distinguished  from other parts of the city by the UN signs on the schools and the UN vans  cruising the streets when strangers (like us) walk in. This is the camp that  Pope Benedict visited in 2009. The Arena built for his speech next to the  dividing wall was not used as Israel threatened to revoke the Pope’s visa if the  event wasn’t rearranged. In the event the address took place just across the  road with the wall still visible in the background and the Pope used part of his address to condemn its construction.
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Next we went to Hebron were we had a police escort to the governor’s  Mansion were we were addressed by the deputy governor and then met the governor  and the Mayor. We had a guided tour of the boys and girls secondary schools set  up by the Young Persons Muslim Association although the sponsor of the school is a religious organisation, the director of the society made it very plain that the  school is governed by the law of the Palestinian Authority and it has to be run  as a secular institution.
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We visited the tombs of the Patriarchs and toured the old market which is  situated in the old medieval narrow streets overlooked by Israeli settlements.  The settlers used to throw rubbish and rocks down into the market but the market  traders put up a wire mesh roof to protect them and their customers from the  missiles while retaining light and air. The settlers then started throwing  excrement and bleach instead.
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The Israeli settlement in Hebron is in the centre of the town it has 400  settlers who are defended by 1,300 IDF troops. Around the settlement is a cordon  sanitaire from which all non Israelis are excluded. This area includes what was  the main shopping street in the city. Hebron is the biggest city in the West  Bank, it was and still is, to some extent a major industrial centre as well as a  place of pilgrimage for all three Abrahamic religions.
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We visited Mrs Hana Abu Haikal a Palestinian woman who lives with her  children on Sheheda Street the edge of the Sterile Area is the wall of her front  garden so she is not allowed out of her front gate. The back gate leads on to a  steep hill on waste ground with a not very stable path to the flat area  below. Mrs Haikal has been constantly harassed by the settlers and the IDF. She  worries about her children when they are out. She is also in poor health and has  severe water retention that makes it impossible for her to use the back entrance  unaided and painful to use it with assistance.
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Friday 24th: we met Meir Margalit a Meretz Party councillor and one of the  founders of ICAHD He recognised that many left organisations criticised or even  condemned him for taking part in the council but he insisted that in the role he  has been given as responsible for East Jerusalem (because nobody else wanted  it) although he has not been able to influence the policies he has been able to  mitigate the damage in some cases by tipping off residents facing eviction or  demolition early and assisting them in getting lawyers. Meir finds the  abstentionist policy of the East Jerusalem Palestinians self-defeating; legal Palestinian residents are 48% of the population and the left-wing Israelis who vote Meretz are a further 10% so in a list system it should be possible to construct  a coalition to control the council. I’m not a great supporter of abstention but  I do not see the possibility of creating a stable coalition on a single issue, nor do I believe that anybody could deliver the entire Palestinian vote.
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Later we went to Bil’in for the Friday demonstration. The wall, as in many  places, splits the village from the land people earn their living on in order to  provide a cordon sanitaire around an Israeli settlement which is under  construction. Since the start of the project demonstrations have been organised  by the inhabitants. Retaliatory measures like curfews and random arrests have only provided more targets for local direct action.
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It was all very reminiscent of the guided tours of the Bogside that British  lefties used to get in the 70s. Complete with a souvenir sniff of tear gas. But  it is a longstanding protest at a real and brutal continuing injustice which  needs international support.
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Saturday: we had another run around Jerusalem.
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The sad conclusion I drew is that the freelance colonists in the settlements and the expansionist Israeli state have made a Palestinian state alongside Israel a near-impossible dream. The current (lack of) press coverage  of Abbas and Netanyahu at the UN shows a world that is indifferent to a conflict that does not have a simple solution.

3 Comments

  1. SteveH said,

    A rather even handed article, contrast this with your Syria articles, where everything is black and white. It is as if you are a bunch of imperialist apologists or something. Perish the idea!

    There is one solution that springs to mind, the one state solution. All socialists should argue for this, with full acceptance the specifics need working on, negotiating.

    There is no doubt though that to take on Israel you are really taking on the USA, so it is difficult. But socialists should be used to that!

  2. Ben said,

    “…Without in any way trying to justify the occupation it is reasonable to say it is much harsher than the British in Northern Ireland but much softer than the British in Kenya or Malaya….”

    Tom Cashman should be justifying the occupation. It is as justified as the occupation of Germany and Japan by the Allies at the end of WW2. The fact that it is so long-lasting is a consequence of Arab policies, not Israeli ones. After the Six Day war the Israeli Government offered the Arabs withdrawal in return for peace. Their reply was “No peace with Israel, no negotiations with Israel, no recognition of Israel”.

    Tom Cashman should also be justifying the security fence. It has staunched the flow of Jewish blood, and since its construction a few years ago the number of Jews murdered by Palestinian terrorists has been drastically reduced. After 1967 and until 2000 when the PLO reneged on its commitment to cease terrorism Israel had a policy of allowing free movement for everyone, and tens of thousands Arab residents of the West Bank and Gaza entered Israel daily. Far from being harsh, the occupation was benign, and the living, health and education standards of the Arab population increased dramatically during that time.

    Tom Cashman should be condemning the economic boycott of West Bank and East Jerusalem Jewish residents and the campaign of vilification against them. It is outrageous that British diplomats are boasting of boycotting these Jews, especially as the ancient Jewish communities of these areas were killed or driven out by British-officered Arab armies in 1948 in an ugly crime of ethnic cleansing.

  3. Abtalyon said,

    Tom Cashman’s conclusions were to be expected. After all, he met only pro-Palestinians, including anti-Zionist Israelis like Jeff Halper and even Zionist Meir Margalit and the UK consular staff in Jerusalem. He did not meet nor was guided by a single pro-Israeli, nor did he see Israel- or even West Jerusalem, for that matter. Conclusions based solely on evidence from one side completely negates their credibility. A pity, because honest appraisal of the situation by people with no axe to grind is usually beneficial.

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