I went from 17-21 May to Palestine with CAABU. The last time I had been to Israel and the West Bank had been in the early 80’s. It came as a real shock to see how much the area had changed. This is the blog from my fact-finding trip.
Met up the rest of the delegation at 6.45 at Café Nero. Not at my best this early in the morning. Andy says he is very happy I am coming on this trip as I am so much more kidnappable than him. Fail to see the funny side. Have to admit to myself that I am feeling a bit apprehensive about the whole trip and double checked that Gaza is quite a way from the West Bank where we are going.
We arrive quite safely in East Jerusalem, having been met by someone from the Israeli Foreign Office. They doubtless eased our passage through immigration, making my recent stamp from last year's trip to Syria a non-issue. In fact throughout our time in Israel and the Occupied Territories, we travelled with no visa or any written permission from the Israelis. As we left the airport we were quite ignorant of just how privileged our position was.
There is a great road from Tel Aviv to East Jerusalem which has high walls on either sides of it for long periods. We learnt later that this road is out of bounds for those with West Bank plates.
Coming into Jerusalem, I didn't recognise the place. There has been the most phenomenal amount of building in the past 20 years. Its about three times bigger. From my hotel window I had a view of what was unmistakably an Anglican Church spire. It was Ascension Day and we had some free time so I went to visit it. However the entrance I tried was the wrong one and I didn't discover what the church was, or how to get in until the next day.
Briefing from the British Consulate
That night a couple of people from the British Consulate came to brief us about the current situation: Victoria Billing and Ross Allen.
We were told that there are no negotiations going on between the Israelis and the Palestinians at the moment on how to establish two states and there is almost complete stalemate.
- Jerusalem - Israel had the night before been celebrating the "unification" of Jerusalem. No one from the International community attended as they do not recognise the legality of Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem. In fact the British position is that they have never recognised the sovereignty of either Israel or Jordon over Jerusalem. It is supposed to be an international city administered by the UN.
- The West Bank and settlements - Building in the occupied West Bank carries on apace. The reason I didn't recognise Jerusalem was because of the massive increase in settlements (building of homes by the Israelis in the territory occupied by the Israeli military). The bulk of these have gone up over the past 20 years and Jerusalem has been transformed. Greater Jerusalem now stretches eastwards for miles into the West Bank and south almost to Bethlehem. These settlements are illegal under international law and are not recognised by the international community. Currently 450,000 Israelis live in illegal settlements. Additionally, there are also about 100 "outposts" which are settlements not recognised even by Israelis.
- The Barrier - The British Consulate were the first to tell us something we were to hear many times, "no one objects to the Israeli's building a security barrier". The UN told us that. We were even told that the PLO had said in negotiations with Israel "build a wall 8 miles high, just build it on your land and not mine". The problem is that it is being built on the West Bank. If the barrier had been built on the Green Line it would have been 320 km long. It is 730 km long.
- The Government of National Unity - Following the election of the Hamas government last summer, the Israelis, who are charged with collecting VAT on imports and exports coming in and out of the West Bank, withheld taxes and the International community withheld aid. The Consulate were at pains to point out that by far the most important of those two sources of revenue was the taxes. Since the establishment of the Government of National Unity, the situation had eased and some revenue had got through to the Palestinian Authority.
- Gaza - We were also briefed about what they understood was happening in Gaza and what they knew of Alan Johnstone. No one can get in or out of Gaza and it was definitely not safe for westerners to visit. The Strip had suffered a collapse of the economy, essential services and of law and order. Poverty levels in Gaza are 88% and 50% of the population are dependent on food aid.
We went to bed wiser but depressed.