UK MPs witness West Bank life on MAP-Caabu delegation

Last month, Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) and Caabu once again took a cross-party group of MPs on a visit to the West Bank, to witness how Israel’s 51-year occupation impacts the lives and wellbeing of the Palestinians who live there. This group comprised Tim Loughton MP (East Worthing and Shoreham, Conservative), Christine Jardine MP (Edinburgh West, Liberal Democrat) and Faisal Rashid (Warrington South, Labour).

Rohan Talbot, MAP’s Advocacy and Campaigns Manager, reports on what the MPs witnessed on their visit:

As our visit came soon after the much publicised (and condemned) opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem, our first tour was with lawyer Daniel Seidemann, who gave an overview of the political implications of this move, as well as of the rapid development of Israeli sentiments and increasing marginalisation of Palestinian communities in East Jerusalem. His warning about the future of the city was stark: “The great destabiliser is hopelessness” he told us, adding that Jerusalem is now “knee deep in it.”

From there, we joined Palestinian human rights organisation Al Haq for a briefing about violations of international law in the occupied West Bank and for a visit to an industrial settlement (Nitzane Shalom) near the northern Palestinian town Tulkarem. There, our noses and mouths covered with protective face masks, Al Haq’s field researchers told us about the serious threats health caused by toxic contamination of air, water and soil from the settlement’s factories which produce chemicals and pesticides. When the wind is blowing towards Tel Aviv, they told us, the factories cease operating.

The following day began with a visit to the Israeli military courts at Ofer prison with Military Court Watch. We met parents there for the hearings of their children detained by the Israeli military, and heard about the impact of this process on their psychological wellbeing.

One women from a village north of Ramallah told us about her son – 15 when he was arrested but who turned 16 in jail – sentenced to five months in prison and a NIS 3,000 fine on the accusation of throwing stones. Her husband was sick, meaning that the family had no major source of income, and if they were unable to pay the fine her son would be forced to stay in detention for longer. She was worried that her son would have to repeat a year to make up for schooling lost while in prison but further that he had said he would prefer to drop out than suffer what he perceived as a humiliation.

A visit to the UNRWA school at Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem followed. Staff told us about the threats to their vital services caused by US funding cuts, as well as the impact of teargas exposure on the health of residents. UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl remarked in November that Palestinians living in Aida camp are “exposed to more tear gas than any other population surveyed globally”. This was easy to imagine with the netting over a nearby football pitch littered with tear gas canisters.

We travelled south to Hebron, where Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence showed MPs how the illegal presence of some 650 settlers – protected by a large deployment of soldiers – has divided the city and left parts of it a ghost town, with severe restrictions to Palestinians’ freedom of movement and the shuttering of countless Palestinian businesses along the former commercial heart of the city, Shuhada Street.

Our day finished with an iftar meal kindly hosted by the community of Khirbet al Markez, in the South Hebron Hills. A water tank had recently been demolished there and solar panels confiscated by  the occupying Israeli authorities. Community leaders described to us the constant challenges, uncertainty and harassment which has blighted their lives during Israel’s 51-year occupation.

Our final day included a visit to the Makassed Hospital in East Jerusalem to hear of the impact of repeated raids by Israeli security forces on the provision of their vital services. Hospital staff introduced us to children from Gaza receiving treatment for genetic disorders which is unavailable at home. Many of these children were accompanied only by their grandmothers, with their parents refused permits by the Israeli authorities to travel with them.

Following that, we travelled to Khan al Ahmar, a Bedouin community under imminent threat of demolition and forcible transfer, recently green-lighted by a ruling of the Israeli High Court of Justice. Staff of the MAP-supported mobile clinic, which was there providing its regular primary health services to the community, described the many challenges to the health and wellbeing of the community. You can read more about the visit to Khan al Ahmar here. The ever-present threat of displacement was also a major theme for our discussion with residents of Qalandia village, who told us about the constant insecurity and fear they felt after demolition orders had been levied against their apartment building. One MP remarked that the complications facing Palestinians seeking to build and stay in their homes in some areas of the West Bank is less akin to moving the goalposts, and more “demolishing the goalposts”.

Though delegations of MPs have not been allowed to enter Gaza through the Erez crossing since 2009, many of those who spoke to us discussed the very serious humanitarian crisis there and the impacts of Israel’s violent response to the “Great Return March” demonstrations. Our other briefings across the week included meetings with Palestinian and Israeli human rights organisations, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

We are grateful to the Palestinian Minister of Education, Dr Sabri Saidam, for taking time out of his busy schedule to brief the MPs on the development of the Palestinian education system – a system which has resulted in an impressively-high literacy rate of 96.3%, despite the constraints of perpetual military occupation.

We are similarly thankful to all who took time to speak to us throughout the week, giving a flavour of what life is like under occupation, and helping to better inform UK parliamentary debate on issues relating to the health and dignity of Palestinians.

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