In January 2014 I made my first ever visit to Palestine but I knew it would not be my last. Sitting inside a Bedouin tent with a few women friends, holding a baby recently born to one of the Bedouin women and eating freshly cooked flat-bread whilst the men sat respectfully outside in the shadow of the huge illegal and obscenely wealthy Israeli settlement at Ma'ale Adumim. I realised there was a story to be told about occupied Palestine from a female perspective. This gut feeling was reinforced a few days later whilst watching an all-female cast from Bethlehem's Al Harah Theatre perform a play about gender sensibilities and inter-generational tensions in Palestinian society. At the time I was campaigning to win a seat in the 2014 European elections. At every hustings someone had asked the question 'What do you think of the two-state solution?' To be frank, I did not know what I thought and decided it best to find out by making the journey with people who knew more than I did.
That trip with Labour2Palestine (L2P) was a huge eye opener and something about the spirit of the womenfolk caught my attention. I vowed that if I was elected I would return to the West Bank with a women-only delegation. Last month saw that dream realised in partnership with L2P. The organisation has now taken well over 100 Labour members and many more supporters, including elected members (councillors, MPs, MEPS, police and crime commissioners) to the Occupied Territories. Regional alumni support groups have grown up, for example in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and a scholarship established for young Palestinians seeking to engage with the world of international politics. There is also a programme of talks, film screenings, workshops and other events in the UK that help to keep the alumni abreast of developments as well as drawing in new participants.
But back to the West Bank, which is where I went in early November in the company of a dozen women from all walks of life and from all over the UK, including trade union organisers, local authority employees, academics, researchers, a journalist, a novelist, a bank clerk, seasoned activists and 3 parliamentary assistants from the European Parliament, including members of my own staff. Between us we represented 5 decades of womanhood and a few different ethnicities. The novelist Qaisra Shazrah is a member of Manchester's vibrant Pakistani community, whilst the bank clerk was of mixed British-Arabic parentage. She and I had met through the Red Spokes sponsored summer Big Ride in aid of medical equipment for Gaza, although I cannot claim to have cycled the 700 kilometres. Some women on the delegation arrived a few days earlier and/or stayed longer to pursue other interests whilst I myself only managed to be there for 3 days due to heavy work commitments.
This article has therefore been collated using material written by several of the delegates. I hope it gives a useful insight into the political and daily lives of women on both sides of the conflict and how their experiences connect with women on the left of the political spectrum in the UK.
Geo-politics in a Divided Community
In order to understand anything about Palestine it is important to get to grips with the messy geo-politics that has resulted in cities being partitioned and the appropriation of land for illegal settlements and other purposes. The separation wall is well known, partly due to the attention of international figures such as Banksy, but there is so much more going on to disenfranchise the Palestinians than simply a wall. One of the first things that L2P delegates undergo is a tour with guides from NGOs such as ICAHD - Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.
ICAHD is a non-violent, direct-action group originally established to oppose and resist Israeli demolition of Palestinian houses in the Occupied Territories. They provide knowledgable guides for informational tours of greater Jerusalem in order to show concrete examples of how urban planning is used as a political tool to dilute the unity of Palestinian territory thereby allowing an Israeli presence across Greater Jerusalem, setting the scene for inequality, resentment and heightened tension.
The tour takes in the Eastern part of the city, where the majority of Palestinian Jerusalemites live. It is easy to see examples of Israeli settlements in the heart of this Palestinian neighbourhood, including the empty and heavily guarded house of Ariel Sharon that has an archway festooned with the Star of David, stretching provocatively across the Palestinian market below. The settlements generally consist of gated communities who do not interact with the local indigenous community. Israeli settlers benefit from enhanced public services and well-maintained infrastructures whilst their Palestinian neighbours struggle to keep the lights on and suffer from an intermittent and inadequate water supply. ICAHD monitor information on the ongoing issue of demolitions of Palestinian houses, and consequent confiscation of lands, ordered by the Israeli authorities.
ICAHD's work demonstrates how long term urban development plans such as ‘Jerusalem 2020’ and 'Greater Jerusalem' allow systemic segregation, blocking any possibility for Palestinians to extend their habitations whilst allowing the development of Israeli settlements in occupied territories. This strategy is, in the main, political, preventing the possibility of East Jerusalem ever becoming the capital of an independent Palestinian state and therefore jeopardising the two-state solution.
Further evidence of how Israeli activity undermines the viability of a two-state solution was provided by Ray Dolphin, UN-OCHA, whose sophisticated charts demonstrate layers and layers of Israeli 'land grabs' for the building of illegal settlements, roads, nature reserves, military purposes and even the wall itself which often runs inside the Green Line, originally drawn up in 1949. Most Palestinians cannot use the roads that connect settlements and instead have to endure long queues and dehumanising treatment at checkpoints. Ray's maps clearly show the extent to which the appropriation of land is cutting off Palestinian communities from each other. For many in the villages it is the loss of historic olive groves that is most serious as lives become economically unsustainable. Access to the Dead Sea is also extremely limited and the fertile Jordan Valley - a veritable bread basket for the local population - looks increasingly threatened by Israeli expansion. Palestinian access to water for any purpose is extremely limited with aquifers put into use for the greening of illegal settlements, despite the fact that they run under Palestinian land.
Further background information relating to the heavy-handed harassment activities of the IDF was provided by volunteer lawyers from the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid & Counselling and Military Court Watch. This served to highlight for us the culture of fear and intimidation that has grown up, especially amongst Palestinian children and young people. It is a fact that most Palestinian men will have been detained at some point in their lives, and so the womenfolk have to be particularly resourceful and resilient.
The Particular Situation of the Bedouin in Occupied Palestine
The Bedouin have even fewer rights and less political acumen to protect their traditional lifestyles. It is therefore hugely important that their situation is monitored by human rights organisations. One of the most active and vocal presences in this respect is Angela Godfrey-Goldstein an Israeli who works closely with the Jahalin organisation. Together with documentary filmmakers she has brought the plight of the Bedouin to wider public attention and will be visiting Europe in Spring with some Bedouin women in order to share their experiences and pile on the political pressure. But hearing about it or watching films is no substitute for a hands-on visit to challenge one's romantic notions about indigenous nomads. Angela's Bedouin friends are desperately poor. Deprived of access to their traditional pastures they are dumped onto waste ground and rubbish tips. Their animal shelters are systematically destroyed and basic services are denied so that their material and cultural survival is seriously threatened. However, despite their desperate situation, one is warmly welcomed into the makeshift camps and given refreshment. It is a humbling and unforgettable experience.
Life in a Refugee Camp
No less moving was a group visit to Al Amari, a big refugee camp on the outskirts of Ramallah. Most of the delegation were expecting to see makeshift tents, feeding stations and scores of aid workers but Palestinian refugee camps have been there so long they are more akin to poorly maintained inner city social housing projects where families live in indecent proximity in high-rise concrete blocks. However despite the grim circumstances with uncollected rubbish strewing the streets, Palestinian community spirit is alive and well inside the camps. We visited a centre for disabled people which provides creative therapeutic arts activities as well as day trips and other diversionary activities. Women were very present, both in leadership roles, teaching arts and crafts, etc., but also as learners and social entrepreneurs, making and selling traditional crafts. The centre hopes to establish a language learning facility and many of our delegation were interested in returning to volunteer as TEFL teachers in the holidays.
Also in Al Amari we visited the UNRWA Girls’ School where smiling children ran about noisily in the sunshine, playing games or else gathered together in groups gossiping, as teenage girls do. They clamoured around us posing for photos in their smart school uniforms with their hair neatly tied back, and once again we had to pinch ourselves to remember that we were in a refugee camp and that these children were probably 3rd generation refugees, born in the camp and dispossessed of their rightful family homes. We eventually managed to navigate the crowds of curious girls to sit in relative peace in a classroom and talk with the Head Teacher, Arwa Said Salem. She talked about the challenges of trying to provide a balanced and quality education for young Palestinians in an increasingly fragile situation. Under the protection of the UN there are rules and regulations designed to limit political influence in camp schools but Arwa told us that teachers cannot but help come to education with their own ideas about social justice and the classroom displayed evidence of teaching about human rights.
Arwa was then directly asked if, as a Muslim Palestinian woman she felt oppressed by a patriarchal culture. This strong, intelligent, highly educated woman looked at us with incredulity and laughed. "I do what I like," she said. "No-one tells me what to wear or how I should behave. I am my own person."
Meeting Women Politicians & Political Activists
A real focal point of any L2P trip is the opportunity to meet with elected politicians and activists, not just with Palestinians but also with Israeli MPs (MKs) and councillors. During my first visit in 2014 I was able to ask Hilik Bar, MK and Secretary General of the Israeli Labor Party, who would own the aquifers and water sources if his vision for a peaceful two-state solution became a reality. Having told me that airspace would continue to be under Israeli control I was not surprised that Palestinian access to water would also be denied from an administrative perspective.
As part of our women's trip L2P brokered meetings in the Knesset with two women MKs, Michal Biran (Labor) and Tamar Zanderberg (Meretz). Biran, professed a strong commitment to feminism and social democracy but she seemed unaware of the women's movement outside of her own narrow Zionist confines. Zanderberg was much more to our liking with her commitment to social justice, environmental issues, land rights, true equality and a genuine desire for intercultural, inter-faith and political dialogue. She acknowledged that Meretz members are small in number and unlikely to grow their influence in the near future, but her incredible commitment to maintaining a political stance aligned to ethical principles was inspiring for all of us. "You have to continue fighting for what you believe in, or else you die trying," she said. Later we had dinner with senior women officials in Fatah, Labour's Palestinian sister party where the same 'never give up' mantra repeated itself, and again the next morning when we met Fadwa Barghouthi, wife of Marwan Barghouthi, Palestine's most celebrated political prisoner, often likened to Nelson Mandela. Fadwa is a lawyer by practice so she knows what she is up against. Her long campaign for the release of her husband is not personal but political and includes a demand for the release of all Palestinian political prisoners.
After meeting Fadwa in her Ramallah campaign office we travelled out along dusty, poorly-maintained roads to the village of Nabi Saleh where we crowded into the front room of Manal Tamimi's house. Manal is a tireless activist in her village, leading non-violent protests against the regular harassment meted out by the IDF. She showed us documentary footage of the IDF using tear gas which resulted in the fatal injuries suffered by 27 year old Mustafa Tamimi. It reminded me of a similar situation in Bi'lin where the film '5 Broken Cameras' was made. Some members of our delegation found Manal's activism too extreme as children and young people were regularly exposed to a greater onslaught of tear gas and increased harassment. But one has to ask oneself, as she does, 'What choice have you got when there is very little left to lose?'
On the final day of the trip the delegates had a meeting with Vera Baboun, Mayor of Bethlehem, who explained the problems she faces as Civic Leader of her City. Bethlehem is 80% occupied by Israel; the city has the highest unemployment in the West Bank. Vera explained that the separation wall restricts the movement of people, ideas and goods. Young people feel there is no future so she has embarked on a strategy to stop the flow of emigration by creating job opportunities for young people. She also hopes to regain international support lost while Hamas were in power.
She described daily life for citizens in Bethlehem and explained that for centuries after Christ there were many Christians living in the City. However that number has dwindled as life has become increasingly difficult. Despite the problems, both Arabs and Christians are very clear that their City must remain accessible for everyone. In this respect she is a keen supporter of Leila Sansour's film 'Open Bethlehem'. Vera has never been to Jerusalem to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, located on the supposed resting place for Christ prior to his ascension. Even she, the Mayor of Bethlehem, would need special permission to travel there. It is ironic that this woman who has welcomed the Pope to Bethlehem and was allowed to visit him in Rome, has not so far been allowed to travel freely to visit the other significant Christian landmark in her own country.
Vera and her administration are currently trying to secure and improve the city's water supply. It is costing millions of Israeli Shekels. The detailed engineering plans are ready and the construction materials are in place. Unfortunately the Israeli authorities are dragging their heels and blocking progress. This is both tragic and normal. Daily life for Palestinians is like this. A series of often impossible hurdles to overcome. It takes tenacity and infinite patience to negotiate in the face of such military bureaucracy.
Violence is part of daily life for Palestinians. Recently there has been a great deal of violence and the fear of a third Intifada hangs over everyone. “What am I to do?" asked Vera. "Do we cancel the plans to celebrate Christmas here or do we go ahead with the Christmas trees and the choirs planned for Christmas eve? We are the cradle of peace and the birthplace of Christ. We send out the message of peace to mankind and yet we ourselves have to carry this burden of fear and oppression”.
Since our visit the troubles in the Middle East have grown worse fuelled by extreme religious beliefs that also found an outlet in Paris with the cold blooded murder of young people enjoying a Friday night. Fear stalks the streets of Brussels where I work. The problems that Palestinians face are the problems that are being faced daily by millions of people in the Middle East and increasingly elsewhere. At the heart of this is fear and hatred in equal measure. The rule of international law has been broken many times. There is a lack of humanity, no recognition of human rights, and no commitment to social justice.
It would pay us all to remember this little town of Bethlehem, the cradle of peace and ask ourselves how we resolve these issues? It will not be with bombs and bullets. The world is a dangerous place just now. Peace will only come with dialogue, with acceptance of differences, it will require forgiveness and reconciliation. It will require people to say 'No' to extreme points of view. It will require democracy. It will in the end also require those who have committed crimes against humanity to be brought to justice. We must hope that peace wins.
The Parents Circle Families Forum - Israeli Palestinian Reconciliation
Our delegation had the opportunity to meet Robi Damelin, who lost her son to the bitter conflict in 2002. Robi works with other bereaved families on a wide variety of social projects, many of which use the creative arts as a powerful means of collective expression. The PCFF leads by example, demonstrating that there is an alternative to the endless spiral of violence and revenge fuelled by suspicion in a divided community. Robi was previously a successful business woman and she brings her entrepreneurial spirit into her campaigning. She shared her exciting ideas for an empathetic women's fashion/campaign project with us as she hopes to launch this next year in the European Parliament and in Member States. The idea is to generate funds and empathy through standing in somebody else's shoes. I hope all the women reading this will support the campaign.
No L2P trip is complete without a visit to pay one's respect at the mausoleum in Ramallah where Yasser Arafat is buried. It was Arafat's wish to be laid to rest in (East) Jerusalem, which many agree should be the capital of an independent Palestinian state but such a move still feels a long way off. What makes the current situation of increased violence and tension so sad is that no-one gains. Walking through Jerusalem we had already noticed how eerily quiet and empty the streets were. When conflict escalates tourists take their business elsewhere and the economy suffers. It would be to everyone's advantage for a sustainable and peaceful agreement, although many of us grow increasingly concerned that a two-state solution may not be viable any more.
Julie Ward and friends travelled with Labour2Palestine