Argus title : Viewing at first hand oppression that is hard to believe
In 1986, not long after the IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, I visited Belfast on a Labour Party delegation. We met with representatives of the unionist and nationalist political parties, but the primary focus was upon understanding the day to day experience of the nationalist community, to learn had given rise to the attack on the Government of the day.
We lived in people’s homes and heard first hand how the British occupation affected their lives. It was a fascinating and life-enhancing experience. We were amazed by the courage and resilience of the people, their political and historical awareness and their friendliness and generosity. It was an experience which shifted perceptions and led delegates, sometimes for the first time, to question the truth of British news coverage of the Troubles in Ireland.
I was reminded of this recently when I met with several people who had just returned from a delegation to the town of Tubas in Palestine. Most had not visited before. They had about them an excitement and intensity that I remember from my own journey home from Belfast. They wanted me to understand that they had seen things that had changed their perception of the world. They had witnessed wonderful and terrible things.
They told me that, despite the poverty and hardship experienced by the Palestinians they met, when they had asked them what they needed, the people had told them “We don’t want gifts or aid, we want you to tell people back in Britain what is happening here”.
The Brighton Tubas Friendship and Solidarity Group, which organized this April’s delegation, was set up in May 2006, with the stated aim “to make links between people in Brighton and Tubas.”
Tubas town is in the northern hills of the Israeli occupied West Bank, in a region reaching from Tubas over to the Jordan Valley. Traditionally most of the people are farmers, who travel from the town to their land in the fertile Jordan Valley. However, 95% of the land and 98% of the water in the Jordan Valley has been taken illegally from the Palestinians since 1967 and is now controlled by the Israeli Army and Israeli settlers.
Palestinians struggling to survive often have no choice but to work in the illegal Israeli settlements. In Palestinian villages the people have lost nearly all their land and many have had their houses demolished. There is very little health care, education is limited, there are no phone lines or public transport, often there is no electricity.
Ann Hallam, one of the delegates, said: “When we were there the Jordan Valley could only be accessed from Tubas via Israeli Army checkpoints, which Palestinians couldn’t go through unless they had a Jordan Valley ID (which were only issued to existing residents) – a situation reminiscent of the apartheid South African pass laws. Israel’s clear intention is total annexation of the entire Valley. It is urgent that people know about this and act to prevent it.”
Charley Goddard (52), a Quaker, had never visited before. He said “The thing that struck me was that the Palestinian people were suffering the most terrible injustice and hardship, but in the face of that they displayed nobility and resilience. I was struck by how enterprising and creative they are, with a remarkably high level of literacy, despite their poverty.”
Ann commented: “In Tubas we were totally overwhelmed by the hospitality of the Palestinians who opened their homes and their lives to us. The word we heard most often was ‘welcome’.
“The women’s group was fantastic – they are very strong, coping with huge difficulties and hardships, but I have never heard so much laughter and good humour, whether we were helping to make soap to send to Brighton in someone’s back yard, or eating one of the delicious meals they produced for us.
“Under all that, though, was always a deep well of sadness – every family was deeply touched by the tragedy of the occupation, and some stories were very difficult to hear, and I will always remember the utter desolation of one woman who had four sons in Israeli jails, one son killed by the Israeli Army and a daughter with three young children recently released after 15 days of interrogation and torture in an Israeli prison.”
Nick Dempsey (38) is a student at Sussex University, originally from Northern Ireland. He said: “I remember how the Troubles were portrayed and how inaccurate that was. I wanted to see for myself. We are all affected by the media. I expected Palestinians to be belligerent or difficult, but living with the people changed my view massively.
“That level of oppression is almost beyond belief, the deliberate attempts by Israel to disrupt the economy and every aspect of Palestinian life, the refusal to hand over the Palestinians’ own tax revenues because the Palestinian people dared to elect a government of which Israel disapproves.”
Charley said how struck he was by the “double standards” of UK reporting. He said “There’s a furore when an Israeli is kidnapped, but how many people know that there are 11,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli gaols. And there are dual standards in the way Palestinians are treated – for example Israelis who have settled illegally on Palestinian land are subject to civil law, but the Palestinians whose land it legally is, are subject to military law, in which they have far less rights. Most prisoners have been arrested under military law.”
Charley added: “Many of the prisoners have been detained without trial under renewable “Administrative Detention” orders and can be held indefinitely. Even if a case does go to trial, court proceedings aren’t open and prisoners have to have an Israeli lawyer. We spoke to one person who’d been locked up for 7 years for throwing stones during the Intifada (uprising)”.
Since the beginning of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories in 1967, over 650,000 Palestinians have been detained by Israel – approximately 20% of the total Palestinian population in the Occupied Territories. Of the 11,000 currently imprisoned, 450 are children.
Several of the delegates took part in demonstrations, which they insist they were peaceful. One was hit by a rubber bullet. Another was nearly hit as he sheltered from the firing in an olive grove.
Pollie Wingfield (18), a student, said:
“I was so shocked by what I saw. I witnessed people being dragged, hit and kicked along the ground. We spoke to a young soldier, who looked about my age. We asked him why they were doing this and he looked embarrassed. He said “I’m just following orders.” “
“She added: “I came on the delegation partly because I am young. I’ve never done anything like this before. I wanted to learn. I saw schools with hardly any equipment in them and met teachers who haven’t been paid for 14 months, because of Israel’s economic boycott.”
“And we saw where the Wall will be built in Tubas. It’s just horrifying.”
The Wall cuts a swathe across Palestinian territory dividing farmers from their land and communities from each other. The Israelis say it is for their protection. The Palestinian say it is part of a systematic Israeli land grab. The United Nations has declared it illegal and instructed Israel to dismantle sections built on West Bank territory. Israel has refused.
The Berlin Wall, which the USA rightly condemned, was 96 miles long (155 kilometers) with an average height of 11.8 feet (3.6 metres). Israel’s wall is expected to reach at least 403 miles in length (650 kilometers) with an average height of 25 feet (8 metres). The USA has neither condemned it nor supported the UN resolution.
Nick said “You can understand the Palestinians’ desperation. They’ve had years of suffering delays and humiliation on the checkpoints and now there’s the wall.
I felt almost overwhelmed by all I had heard. Little of it was new to me. However, hearing it from these people had an intensity and immediacy I had not expected, conveying the desperation of the people they had met. I asked what we in Brighton & Hove could do and whether it might help to fundraise for schools or health equipment.
Charley said “They need these things, but more than that they are desperate to tell their story and to know that the outside world cares about them. It’s not just what they can get from us. We could learn so much from them.”
The Tubas Friendship and Solidarity Group hopes to put groups in the city in touch with others in Tubas. Contact them by Email: email@example.com. or telephone: 07984 438655.
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