Last week I had the displeasure of travelling to Jerusalem to look at two divided communities and a failed peace process. Depressing.
Parliamentary trips, especially those with aid agencies and NGO's are far from the palatial misrepresentation the media like to wallow in reporting on. It's all go from 8am till 8pm. No rest, food on the go, a bed not quite on the cheap but nothing to write home about. The upside is the privilege of going to places you wouldn't get and to see and meet people you wouldn't normally be able to. A packed tiring agenda gives a good picture of life on the front line.
I came away realising what I suspected from my previous visit 23 years ago: that the heart of the perennial peace problem is not a division between Palestinian and Israeli but a division between secular Jew and ultra orthodox Jew. The latter now seemingly the inheritant political master of the Israeli state.
Travelling with CAABU – a British organisation seeking Middle East peace – the trip was far from a Palestinian sympathy tour. The itinerary included meetings with the influential Mark Regev, the Prime Minister’s spokesperson and Moshe Ya’alon, Vice Prime Minister of Israel.
Two things were very clear: Israel has achieved an emphatic outright military victory against the Palastians. Secondly that this was and is part of a clear, decades long strategy that is ongoing. One that does not invite peace with Palestinians but seeks victory at their expense. In other words, Israel has its own creeping agenda and it isn’t going to be shifted from it. Victory by stealth one may call it. Playing the long game. They sustain it internationally by running an emphatic diplomatic operation whilst domestically covertly engaging in inhumane oppression. Harsh words indeed.
My previous visits to Isreal was during the first intifada. The place wasn’t at ease then; the post-1967 Israeli settlement was continuing to be divisive and there was a feeling of precaution particularly in Jerusalem. Socialising along the Jaffa Road at night one had to wary. I am not sure that that fear is greater or lesser 23 years on for all the cost of Israel's military policy.
Fear was certainly less apparent in Jerusalem's old city. Back then it was a bustling melting pot of cultures, where community included almost everybody. Not so now.
The hostility back in the 80's seemed concentrated around Mea Sharim where we bedded down at night; an ultra orthodox Jewish area where tolerance was in short supply. They were a minority then but as time has passed their increasing numbers coming from far away states in South America and from the former USSR has inflated their political clout. Some 500,000 settlers now illegally inhabit Palestinian lands in the West Bank according to the UN. Increasingly and more assertively they believe in a divine geographical inheritance, the Kingdom of Israel is 'their land’. That the only law is Judaism, religion cannot be a state, the law of Israel can never supersede religious law and the laws of God.
As Golda Meir said in Le Monde on the 15 October 1971; "This country exists as the fulfillment of a promise made by God Himself. It would be ridiculous to ask it to account for its legitimacy."
I cannot vouch for the accuracy of every day criticism levelled at ultra orthodox Jews from secular Israelis and hasten to add misinformation is a deadly poison. None the less it would be foolish to not at least recognise such grievances whether wholly true or not.
Secular Israelis feel oppressed. That the right wing Israeli government is not listening to this ever decreasing minority in a country dominated by ultra orthodox jewish influx. A section of the community which also has a high birth rate.
The secular critique is one that plays out commonly in the west. Paying taxes, they resent those in this case ultra-orthodox Israelis who feel work is beneath them choosing instead to dedicate their whole life to reading and memorising religious texts whilst living off welfare or what Israel generously has to offer. Refusing national service and their increasing attempts to no less impose religious laws. The latest protests are against women singing in the company of males starting with the mixed gender Israeli Defence Force. In my time in Mea Sharim we were not welcome and on our second visit our entrance to the Youth Hostel was via the back door, the windows having been 'put in'. Since then there has been a serious escalation in religious demands.
Back in 1989 we returned one Saturday to Mea Sharim to witness a riot over a semi naked bikini advert at a bus shelter near that neighbourhood. Nowadays a female in any advert in any part of Jerusalem seems to attract a reactive if not violent response.
Revisiting the area it is clear to see that peace is ever further away as intolerant policies on both sides eat away at the soul of Israel. Violence by Hamas, Hizbollah or Fatah is unacceptable. It cannot be the road to true peace. It may bang heads together via an unacceptable escalation of violence, but at what price?
The repression that is suffered by the Palestinian population is particularly apparent. The Israelis seem efficient at clearing Palestinians from their land and then fencing it off for use only by Jewish Israelis. The fence, barrier or wall, whatever you wish to call it is like the Berlin Wall but bigger, more gratuitous.
Putting in 600 check points in The West Bank and ensuring the whole checkpoint process is degrading and time consuming isn't building peace. Neither is building 50 foot concrete walls around Palestinian communities so children can’t go to school and adults can’t get to hospital. Passes to cross the barrier taking 3 months to acquire and the gates on the date of any appointment randomly closed ‘for security purposes’. Imagine if you had a serious illness? The Israelis have fenced ‘in’ the 6 major Palestinian hospitals within greater Jerusalem, which effectively deny West Bank residents access to proper medical care for those outside the barrier.
It's law 'down the barrel of a gun' and Mark Regev and Mosse Ya'alon weren't in denial mode; the Israelis treat the West Bank like the Wild West. Like Native Americans starved and shifted on to reservations, their fertile land acquired through force or occasionally 'dollars'.
Ariel Sharon, Israeli Foreign Minister, addressing a meeting of the Tsomet Party, Agence France Presse, Nov. 15, 1998. "Everybody has to move, run and grab as many (Palestinian) hilltops as they can to enlarge the (Jewish) settlements because everything we take now will stay ours...Everything we don't grab will go to them."
The State of Israel killed 180 Palestinians in 2011, including 21 children. These shocking figures were given in a report issued by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation entitled, "A People under Occupation". The year also saw 3,300 Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem detained by the Israeli occupation authorities. Middle East Monitor - 29 Dec 2011
It’s remarkable to experience the barrier. A security measure the Israelis say has prevented extremist terrorists accessing the Israeli side and murdering and maiming indiscriminately. That is true.
The Israelis though cannot accept the concept that it is their war of humiliation against Palestinians that has turned headbangers into terrorists. Headbangers are in every western nation. It's how you deal with them by and large that determines their actions. In the simplest of senses, someone ought to tell the Israelis the 'fair' is missing from the 'firm but... '.
Israel's blind excuse is a year zero concept. 'Yesterday someone decided to...(fill in the news story) so we went in even harder... '. They call it 'price tagging'. Whatever any Palestinian headbanger does, other innocent Palestinians must pay at least an equal price.
This concept of retribution, of collective punishment is a great injustice. It also conveniently ignores Israeli violent oppression that proceeded such fateful violence. The years (decades in fact) of forced evictions, demolitions, theft of land and lack of basic human rights such as the right to a fair trial and justice.
The reality is the barrier is Israel's answer to an Israeli problem. If they are to secure the peace they must address their causal actions for failure to do so will require of them a forever increasing military solution in order to cap fermenting Palestinian resentment.
In parts the barrier – Berlin Wall but bigger and more offensive – leaves villagers trapped on the wrong side, divorced from their land, their communities and their relatives. In parts you feel for the victims. In extreme cases the Israelis have built 20 foot fences around Arab properties who are 'trapped' on the wrong side of the barrier with one way tunnel's to Arab side, all encased with concrete, razor wire, steel gates, CCTV and accessible only by buzzer from the watching Israeli Defence Force.
The security barrier comes with complimentary watch towers, razor wire, and a tear gas-firing military. It strangely maximises farm land on the Israeli side, running tight to the Palestinian urban areas such as Bethlehem. This Israelis insist it isn't land grab.
This barrier is for security purposes only of course, of that we are constantly reminded. Our visit was enlightened one afternoon by a comprehensive guided tour by minibus with the architect and designer of the barrier. Synthetic sympathy for two divided communities stood shallow in the face of a 'Jews this side, terrorists that side' narrative.
These points were made to Mark Regev and Moshe Ya’alon but this key concept, the importance of compromise was lost perhaps decades ago in the hegemony of ancestry.
Of course they were quick to offer Israel's generous position; that they would engage in talks and it would at least on the surface it would seem reasonable that the Palestinians accept this generosity. The Israeli's however have preconditions. They refuse to begin with a map. To begin talks by observing the 70 or so UN resolutions they have violated. That the talks must not begin with the most contentious of issues, the land they have effectively stolen.
As a cynical viewer I might suggest that having witnessed Israel’s steady annexation of Palestinian land, there may be something in the suggestion that Israel always finds a way of ensuring talks do not progress. That the strategy for 40 years has been annexation by stealth coupled with international paralysis.
Internationalists should be concerned listening to Israeli leaders such as Ariel Sharon; "It is the duty of Israeli leaders to explain to public opinion, clearly and courageously, a certain number of facts that are forgotten with time. The first of these is that there is no Zionism, colonialization, or Jewish State without the eviction of the Arabs and the expropriation of their lands." Ariel Sharon, Israeli Foreign Minister, addressing a meeting of militants from the extreme right-wing Tsomet Party, Agence France Presse, November 15, 1998.
The PLO report "A People under Occupation" noted that in 2011 alone the government of Israel approved the construction of another 26,837 settlement units across the Occupied Palestinian Territories, including 1,664 housing units in and around Occupied Jerusalem; almost 4,000 acres of land belonging to Palestinians have been confiscated by Israel; 495 houses have been demolished; and 18,764 olive and fruit trees have been uprooted. Middle East Monitor - 29 Dec 2011
For the average Palestinian living in the West Bank life consists of farm land they can no longer access, visible now only through the barrier. Schools formerly within minutes walk, now hours away through long queues at the main barrier entry points. Hospitals that are now inaccessible. Wagons of fresh fruit delayed long enough to perish. Queues at barrier crossings that can take up to 6 hours. Cars which can now no longer be taken across the barrier so Palestinians must only take public transport in Israel. Israeli military able to humiliate Palestinians indiscriminately, able to treat them as almost sub human.
Shockingly, and I am not the only person for whom this is their first historical reference point, the parallel with Nazi Germany and the beginnings of the Warsaw ghetto come to mind.
The settlements themselves are Wild West towns built on high defendable hilltops. They look like Spanish development complexes but this belies the fact that these new residents are the hard liners.
For them this farm land forms the Kingdom of Israel and theirs by inheritance and birthright. It exists to be fought over. 500,000 Jews now live in these settlements on Palestinian lands. Accompanying this settlement expansion we witnessed Israel building two roads: a shiny new one which only Jewish people can travel on and an older one which is for the Palestinians. It is also strange to see communities encircled by the wall and the only way they are allowed out is through a tunnel, not on Jewish roads they once cohabited.
One is left after all this asking where is the concessionary Israel? When Netanyahu states that "Israel should have exploited the repression of the demonstrations in China, when world attention focused on that country, to carry out mass expulsions among the Arabs of the territories." where is road to peace? Benyamin Netanyahu, then Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister, former Prime Minister of Israel, speaking to students at Bar Ilan University, from the Israeli journal Hotam, November 24, 1989.
Before departing, the group took in a visit to the military courts where the conviction rate is a staggering 99.74%. Access for those just there to witness the proceedings is degrading and takes place only after several searches and gates. There was no notice of which person charged was appearing in which court or what time.
This is a court system where bail is rarely offered, where proceedings are in Hebrew, where the attitude to justice is casual and it can take several months before a first court appearance. Where critics point to further and longer detainment because prosecution witnesses ‘are unavailable’.
It's hard to see it any other way when Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says; "Israel may have the right to put others on trial, but certainly no one has the right to put the Jewish people and the State of Israel on trial." -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, 25 March, 2001 quoted in BBC News Online
Most terrifyingly is a legal system where children are sent to prison as part of this collective or ‘price tag’ justice. It would appear if the military are not able to find the child throwing stones then another child is detained and charged. Rock throwing by the way carries a 6-8 month sentence.
On the day we were there we met one mother – an English teacher – whose son who broke down in floods in tears at the sight of her 14 year old son in leg irons having spent 3 months in prison already awaiting trial. She was allowed to see the last 5 minutes of her son’s court appearance for stone throwing. He received 5 months imprisonment. On Sunday, 18 December 2011, 55 children were released from the Israeli military detention system as part of a prisoner swap agreement. According to the latest figures, 106 children still remain detained.
The next man up was accused of speeding, but there was no evidence on offer. He had been in prison 3 months before he finally came to court to plead his innocence. The third man had been denied bail too, charged with assaulting a soldier during a demo. NGOs have begun offering video camcorders for this very reason. The accused’s innocence apparently caught on camera but ignored by the military judge. How can this be. A tape which shows a man innocent and yet he is detained in custody?
These Palestinians were broken and defeated.
It is not difficult to come to the conclusion that the real divisions preventing a peace settlement are the civilised secular Israelis and the ultra orthodox jews; between liberal Tel Aviv and the hardline settlers illegally occupying the West Bank. A division that getting wider.