UK MPs witness worsening humanitarian and human rights crisis in the West Bank with MAP and Caabu

In February, the latest delegation of UK parliamentarians – comprising Neil Coyle MP, Jeff Smith MP and Alex Norris MP – visited the West Bank with Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) and the Council for Arab British Understanding (Caabu) to witness the impact of the deteriorating human rights and humanitarian situation on the lives of Palestinian communities.

Coming soon after the announcement of US President Donald Trump’s so-called “peace plan”, the visit provided an opportunity to see how creeping annexation, restrictions on freedom of movement and other policies of Israel’s 53-year military occupation are directly threatening the health and dignity of Palestinians, and to understand how civil society organisations like MAP are working hard to address growing humanitarian needs.

Day 1: Military courts, young detainees and Aida refugee camp

The week began with a visit Ofer prison with Military Court Watch, where the delegates met the families of children and young men facing a court system with a conviction rate of 95%. Palestinian children arrested by the Israeli military live on average just 1.02km from illegal Israeli settlements, and 53% are arrested in distressing night-time raids. One father told the group that he was waiting for the hearing of his son, who is seriously ill with kidney failure requiring dialysis three times a week. Arrested eight days prior, to his knowledge his son had only received one treatment since he was detained, and had been too ill to attend a previously-scheduled hearing.

Later, at the YMCA Centre in Beit Sahour, the group met with four young men who had themselves been through Israel’s military courts system, who shared the profound psychological impact their arrests and detention had had on them and their families. One explained that during his arrest he had been blindfolded with his arms tied behind his back and forced to sit on the floor of a cramped military jeep, another had been forced to sign a confession in Hebrew – a language he didn’t understand. “As Palestinians we live a miracle,” one youth told us. “It is unbelievable that people can live in this situation.” The YMCA provides vital support to young people in their situation, helping them to reintegrate into education and providing vocational support.

“As Palestinians we live a miracle. It is unbelievable that people can live in this situation.”

A visit to Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem followed, where UNRWA staff explained how financial cuts prompted by the US ending its funding to the agency two years ago had forced it to reduce its vital services – including mental health programmes and job creation scheme – to residents in this overcrowded space. Aida is the most teargassed place on earth, with profound effects on the physical and psychological health of the community. Also in Aida camp, representatives for the Lajee centre described the hardships faced by children and youth growing up in this difficult environment.

Day 2: East Jerusalem, Palestine’s main cancer hospital, and Hebron

The following day began with a tour of Issawiya in occupied East Jerusalem with the Jerusalem Legal Aid Center (JLAC). With outwards expansion of the community restricted by the Jerusalem municipal authorities, residents have had to build inwards and upwards, causing Issawiya to become overcrowded. Community members described how marginalisation, regular incursions by Israeli security forces and frequent demolition of homes are affecting their lives. The health and wellbeing of children is particularly endangered: earlier in the month a nine-year-old boy, Malek Issa, had been shot in the face with a sponge-tipped bullet by an Israeli police officer and lost his eye. Incidents of children being injured or killed by Israeli forces are, sadly, a regular occurrence in the occupied Palestinian territory: over the last decade 805 Palestinian children have been killed and more than 24,00 injured.

The delegation had to climb over rubble and scattered personal belongings to speak to Hatem, a man whose house has been repeatedly damaged and demolished by the Israeli authorities. He told the group of his experiences navigating a discriminatory planning regime as he tried to extend his house upwards to meet the needs of his growing family. The latest demolition happened in December 2019, when bulldozers tore the top floor off his home without giving him time to remove all the family’s belongings. During a previous demolition Hatem fell from the roof of his house, and is now in a wheelchair. Hatem, like many other Palestinians in the same situation, has been forced to pay the Israeli authorities for the costs of the destruction of his own home.

“The only weapon we have is our cameras and our education” 

The next visit was to Augusta Victoria Hospital, a charity-run hospital that provides some types of care, particularly cancer treatments like radiotherapy, that are unavailable anywhere else in the occupied Palestinian territory. Being situated in East Jerusalem, however, means that patients must apply to the Israeli authorities for a permit to attend appointments, a process that can be fraught with difficulties and uncertainty, particularly for those seeking to travel from Gaza. In 2019, for example, 35% of permit applications for patients needing to travel to medical appointments outside Gaza were either delayed past the date of appointment, or outright denied. For patients’ companions – including the parents of children with cancer needing to attend treatment at Augusta Victoria’s paediatric oncology department – the rate of permit denials or delays is even higher at 49% last year. As a result, many children are forced to travel with an elderly or distant relative or even, in some cases, a stranger to get to treatments such as surgery or chemotherapy that are stressful and worrying for patients and families.

Among the patients the MPs met was 3-year-old Jana from Gaza who was diagnosed with bladder cancer in October 2019 and referred to Augusta Victoria for treatment. Her mother did not receive a permit on multiple attempts of applying. It was only after her case was publicised on social media in February that she was finally allowed to travel with her daughter to East Jerusalem.

Following an informative subsequent meeting at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the group travelled south to Hebron.  Two tours introduced the city from two different perspectives. A representative of Breaking the Silence – a former Israeli soldier who now speaks out against the occupation – took the group to Shuhada Street; once the bustling commercial heart of Hebron, it is now a ghost town with hundreds of shops permanently shut due to the harsh Israeli military measures that accompany the presence of illegal settlements inside the city. While settlers move around freely here, Palestinians are barred from even walking down their own street by the separation policy. Local Palestinian activist Hisham Sharabati subsequently showed Hebron from the perspective of its residents, demonstrating how the imposition of movement restrictions, harassment by settlers, and constant presence of soldiers has so severely undermined quality of life in Hebron. On some steps just outside the Bab al Zawiyya checkpoint that divides Palestinian communities within the city, he pointed out a bullet mark in the floor where a child, Mohammed al-Haddad, had been fatally shot through the heart just two weeks prior during protests over US Presedent Trump’s so-called “peace plan”.

The day ended the other side of that same checkpoint, in a neighbourhood called Tel Rumeida, with the Women’s Legal Aid Centre and Oxfam. As an area of the city where a large concentration of Israeli settlers live, the military restricts access to most Palestinians; only those with an assigned number may pass through the checkpoint, except by special arrangement. Over a generous and delicious dinner, the MPs spoke to activist Faiza Abu Shamsiyya and a group of local women who discussed how their lives are impacted by the harsh reality imposed on them.

“I have been speaking out for 35 years and am still yet to hear my echo”

One woman told the group her family had stopped visiting her, not wanting to cross the checkpoint. She suffers continuing harassment from settlers, has been detained by the military when she has tried to protect her son, and struggles to access medicines and healthcare for her asthma. She is weary of telling her story though, and feels things are not changing: “I have been speaking out for 35 years and am still yet to hear my echo” she said.

Others shared similar stories. A teacher at the Palestinian school in Tel Rumeida said that girls are forced to open their bags and empty them at checkpoints, and if they have sanitary pads in them the soldiers sometimes take them out and wave them around, making girls embarrassed to go to school during their periods. Powerlessness and humiliation pervades life for Palestinians in Hebron, at the sharp end of occupation. Parents live in perpetual fear that their children will be harassed, detained, injured or worse by soldiers or settlers. Nevertheless, they continue to speak out and document the abuses they are subjected to: “The only weapon we have is our cameras and our education” said Faiza.

Day 3: The Jordan Valley and MAP’s projects

The final full day began in the Jordan Valley with Palestinian human rights organisation Al Haq; the area of the West Bank that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main opposition in the recent election threaten to illegally annex to Israel. Residents of the Bedouin community of Ras al Awja described how – even before any threatened official annexation which may occur – their lives are already controlled by the Israeli authorities. Lack of adequate access to water, restricted access to grazing land for their livestock, frequent demolitions of homes and other structures have created a coercive environment that has placed many such communities at risk of forcible transfer. The delegates heard how, while Palestinian livelihoods here are so badly hindered by the occupation, many of the agricultural goods produced in surrounding illegal Israeli settlements can be found for sale in UK supermarkets.

“Nobody is standing with us, we are facing this military occupation alone,” a resident of Fasayil community, whose home has been repeatedly demolished by Israel, told the MPs: “If their intention is to remove us from here, where do they expect us to go?”

“If their intention is to remove us from here, where do they expect us to go?”

In Ramallah, the group were hosted by HE Ambassador Ammar Hijazi of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who discussed the steps the PA have taken to try to address violations of international law through multilateral forums such as the UN Human Rights Council and the International Criminal Court. He reminded the delegates that Palestinians had made a “historic compromise” by agreeing to pursue a two state solution in 1988, and encouraged the UK to reject the Trump “peace plan” and help reinstate a multilateral peace process based on international law, human rights, and ending the occupation on the basis of the 1967 borders.

The group’s final visit in the West Bank was to the Palestinian Circus School in Birzeit, a project supported by MAP helping young people in Palestine, including those with disabilities, to promote the rights of people with disabilities to full inclusion and participation in society. The delegation attended a preview performance of the school’s latest show where 10 young Palestinian performers, including five young people with learning disabilities, delighting the audience with a performance set to classical music involving juggling, diablo tricks, human pyramids and other acrobatic feats under the cover of the school’s big top tent.

MAP would like to thank all of the organisations and individuals – too many to name them all here – who so graciously gave up their time to meet the group and talk about their work and lives, and to the MPs for visiting the occupied Palestinian territory at such a critical time. We hope they will be inspired to share the many stories and insights they gained though their work in Parliament.

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