At a recent Trades Council meeting we had a talk from a member who had been on a sponsored visit to Palestine. He showed us slides of the village of Aboud, which is where he stayed. Aboud is cut off from the hills and fields around it by the “Separation Wall”, which means that children can no longer play in those places because they are out of bounds. Our member described what life was like for the members of the village.
Equal numbers of Muslims and Christians live in the village and the two groups share important religious ceremonies, alternating between the church and the mosque. It is quite different at the check points where Christians and Muslims are separated and made to stand on opposite sides of the road. People have to cross through the checkpoints to see other family members, go to school, go to work or visit hospital. It is the decision of the border guards as to which people are allowed to pass through. People have been known to die at checkpoints due to being detained by the guards, this includes women in labour who have not been allowed to pass through to the hospital.
During his visit he met a lady who was 103. She spoke of the Nakba (disaster) and how the Palestinians were rounded up and randomly shot at by soldiers who would then leave only to return for more random shooting in the evening.
PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka has just returned from a similar visit to Palestine. He was part of a delegation that was hosted by the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU). He gave daily updates on the PCS website and I have summarised some of his thoughts below.
On arrival the taxi driver (Noor), who drove them from the airport pointed out a deserted village that was the site of a massacre in 1948, this is referred to by the Palestinians as the Nakba. The village had originally been home to Noor’s family and many had died.
When Mark saw the separation wall that snaked through Palestine he was shocked.
In Jerusalem Mark was able to see first hand how divisions are being imposed on a mixed, multicultural setting to the detriment of the Palestinians. The system of checkpoints and permits clearly shows the imposed division. Palestinians whose families have lived in the area for centuries are unable to enter Jerusalem.
This checkpoint system means they have to start queuing at 2 or 3 in the morning to be able to work in town and Mark saw how the nation is being suffocated culturally and socially.
Even the school’s windows were boarded up as protection from Israeli bullets. This meant the classrooms, with 45 children, were suffocating hot in summer.
The Palestinian people are being all being slowly suffocated – culturally and socially, as well as economically.
They were living in unimaginably oppressive circumstances, yet were only asking for tolerance and peace, not retribution.
Yet this is contrary to the image we often see in the media of fundamentalists or terrorists.
When taken to the once bustling city of Hebron which is now boarded up he was again shocked. The few Palestinians that remain have to have wire mesh nailed round their windows as protection from settlers who hold anti-Arab demonstrations and hurl objects at the houses. In another part of the town, wire and tarpaulins were stretched over the street to prevent the settlers from the flats above throwing rocks and boiling water onto the people below.
Mark was able to meet up with Fathi Nasser of the PGFTU who spoke at the PCS Annual Delegates Conference. On three occasions Fathi has been jailed for his trade union activities and whilst in prison he became a head teacher for the children, explaining the Palestinian situation. Whilst imprisoned the children are tortured and ill treated by the Israeli authorities.
That evening we had a meal with Gerard, a lawyer working for an organisation called Defence for Children International, who had worked on a report about Palestinian child prisoners which documented “systematic ill-treatment and torture of Palestinian children by Israeli authorities.”
He told us of the appalling abuse experienced by the children and the injustice built into the legal system.
Groups of children would be randomly rounded up by the army after a stone throwing incident in a village and placed in detention.
They were then faced with the choice of pleading not guilty and becoming incarcerated for two or more years or pleading guilty and getting away with three months in a harsh Israeli jail. Confessions were obtained by means that can only be described as torture.
Whilst visiting Ramallah the delegation witnessed a group of women and children trying to cross through the high narrow turnstyles. There was a lot of shouting and crying whilst the Israeli soldiers hurried them along and sent them on their way with a round unpleasant clapping.
Even trying to get home was not simple with such tight security in place at the airport. One member of the delegation was subjected to a thorough search because he had a Palestinian diary in his luggage.
The airport also has a system of stickers for the luggage. Jews get a 1 or a 2, EU passport holders get a 3 and Arabs get a 6. Anyone with 6 label has to have both a luggage search and a personal search conducted.
Many have made the comparison with South African Apartheid.
Such racially based policies, and the way in which they systematically discriminate against the Palestinian people, have led many people to make a comparison with South African apartheid.
We had seen much on our visit which backed up such a suggestion. Witnessing the systems of checkpoints and restrictions on movements directed at Palestinians, legal systems which directly discriminated against them, the confiscation of land and the creation of ghettos, the violence of the state and the settlers against the Palestinians as a people, and the whole policy of ’separation’ operated by the Israeli government had given us a shocking and draining experience.
You can read all of Mark’s reflections here.
There is also an excellent article in the June edition of National Geographic. It covers similar ground but speaks about it from a religious perspective and is well worth a read if you can get hold of a copy.