MPs visit the occupied West Bank with MAP and Caabu amid growing crisis

Last week Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) and the Council for Arab-British Understanding (Caabu) again visited the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) with a delegation of British MPs. Joining us on the trip were Labour MPs Catherine West (Hornsey and Wood Green) and Richard Burden (Birmingham Northfield) and Scottish National Party MP Brendan O’Hara (Argyll and Bute).

The visit came amid rapid changes to the US government’s position with regards to the Palestinians, which has led to widespread fears about what this may mean for their humanitarian and the right to health of Palestinians. Shortly before the MPs arrived, the Trump administration closed the office of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in Washington DC, and revoked the visas of the family members of Palestinian Ambassador Husam Zomlot. Earlier in the month, the US had announced that it was cutting its $365 million annual contributions to UNRWA – the UN agency charged with supporting protection of Palestinian refugees across the region – as well as $200 million support to NGOs providing critical humanitarian services such as food and medical aid and livelihood support, and $25 million to specialist Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem. Recent statements from US officials have even sought to undermine the very legal status of Palestinians reliant on UNRWA services as refugees.

The delegation’s week began on Monday evening – fresh off the plane – with a meeting at the UNRWA headquarters in Jerusalem with Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl, who told us of the very serious threats to UNRWA’s services caused by their budgetary deficit. Schooling for more than 500,000 Palestinian refugee children across the oPt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria may end unless funds can be secured from international donors, as well as food assistance to more than a million refugees in Gaza.

The group were then hosted by British Consul General Philip Hall to discuss UK policy with regards to the occupied Palestinian territory.  Among its responses to the current crisis, the UK has announced a 60% increase in planned support for UNRWA this year.

The following morning, we were briefed by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) about current humanitarian challenges in the West Bank and Gaza. High among their concerns were continuing restrictions to access in and out of Gaza for people and goods; the dwindling supply of emergency fuel needed to sustain essential Gaza hospital services in the face of a chronic electricity crisis; and the growing restrictions to land and threat of forcible transfer Palestinian communities in Area C – the 60% of the West Bank under full Israeli civil and military control.

In a visit relating to this latter issue, we then travelled to Abu Nuwar, a Palestinian Bedouin community located in the shadow of the sprawling Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim and close to the critically threatened community of Khan al Ahmar, directed by the occupying power to demolish itself by Monday 1 October, in the proposed 'E1' plan area in the Jerusalem periphery. There we met a group of women from the community in a small makeshift community centre they had built in partnership with the men of the village. With a small grant they have started making pizzas and pastries to sell and generate income. Two women have beautician certificates, so they are in the process of creating a salon inside the community centre.

The women told us that they face constant harassment from settlers and frequent demolitions by the Israeli military - including their primary school, which has been demolished and rebuilt three times, most recently in February this year. They described how hard they had fought to keep their school and ensure their children's future through education, but said the community's youngest residents are constantly afraid, with their children and grandchildren suffering bedwetting and night terrors. Right now this fear is acute. When asked about their hopes and expectations for the future, one woman’s answer was simple: “We hope to remain on our land. But we expect that when Khan al Ahmar goes, we will be next.”

This wouldn't be their first such displacement - they are refugees from the Naqab/Negev desert, expelled soon after the creation of the State of Israel. UNRWA cuts will affect people's lives here, too.

We then travelled to Hebron, where resident Hisham described to us the damaging day-to-day impact of the heavy Israeli military presence, there to protect several hundred settlers living in the heart of the city. Hundreds of Palestinian businesses have been shuttered, children face harassment on their way to school each day, and some areas – including Shuhada Street, the city’s main commercial hub – are entirely off-limits to Palestinian residents. Hisham told us of a recent incident where settlers blocked a Palestinian ambulance as it attempted to transport a patient to hospital.

The day ended with a valuable briefing from the West Bank team of Human Rights Watch, followed by the (now former) PLO ambassador to the US Husam Zomlot.

Wednesday morning began at the offices of the Islah Charitable Society, MAP’s partner in the running of a mobile clinic for Bedouin communities in the Jordan valley. We travelled north with the van to the village of Trefaat and spoke to members of the community while the clinic’s staff provided check-ups, and dispensed medicines and health advice to mothers.

Sadly we also witnessed the direct effects of the impoverishment of these communities caused by lack of access to decent shelter, livelihoods, water and nutritious food. One little girl – aged three years and eight months – looked little bigger than a two year old. The doctor told us that she was not getting enough protein in her diet. Among Bedouin communities in the Jordan Valley, 23% of children suffer stunting, meaning that they will never reach their full physical and mental potential.

From Trefaat we travelled north to meet up with the Palestinian Farmers Union and Oxfam. They showed us sprawling illegal Israeli agricultural settlements producing dates, herbs and vegetables with bountiful access to local, Palestinian water sources. Local Palestinian farmers, by contrast, have their access to their own water supplies and land heavily restricted by Israel and consequently struggle to sustain their businesses. In order to make a living, many now work as labourers on settlement plantations, often without basic labour rights and for minimal pay.

In one area near the Jordan border, Sakout, landmines left over from the 1967 war had been cleared from areas farmed by settlers, but not from those close to Palestinian farms.

Unable to take MPs into Gaza, in the afternoon we instead brought Gaza to them. At an office in Ramallah we met with civil society representatives from Gaza – two who now live in the West Bank, and two remotely via Skype. The two in Gaza – from the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights and the Al Mezan Centre for Human Rights – described the very serious deterioration in humanitarian conditions there resulting from more than a decade of unlawful Israeli closure and the Israeli military’s use of force in response to the ‘Great March of Return’ protests since 30 March, as well as the continuing lack of accountability for apparent violations of international law in Gaza. Just the day before, four Palestinians had been killed in Gaza, including a child. Two had been killed in an air strike in the south, and two shot with live ammunition during protests near the Erez crossing in the north. The two in Ramallah told us about the continuing restrictions they face entering Gaza, even to see their families who live there.

In the evening, we were joined by Breaking the Silence co-founder Yehuda Shaul, who described the Israeli military’s tactics and strategy in its 51-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. “There is no moral way of conducting an immoral mission” he told the MPs.

Among the meetings on the final day was a visit to Al Makassed Hospital in East Jerusalem. There, on a tour of the paediatric ward, we met a two-month-old baby from Gaza awaiting a bowel operation. He was accompanied by his grandmother because his mother had been denied a permit by the Israeli authorities to travel with him. As the hospital offers many services simply unavailable elsewhere in the oPt – such as paediatric cardiac surgery and genetic medicine – their caseload from Gaza is heavy, and there were many such children without a parent to support them on the ward.

Al Makassed is one of six Palestinian NGO-run hospitals affected by the US funding cuts. Hospital Director Dr Bassam Abu-Libdeh told us that he feared that they may have to reduce some vital services unless the funding gap is addressed by other international donors. “We are in crisis” he told us. “I don’t know how long we can continue like this.”

MAP is grateful, as always, to all of the organisations and individuals who took the time to meet with us and share their experience and expertise with the MPs. In a context of such serious and growing threats to Palestinians’ rights to health and dignity, informed debate and discussion in British parliament is essential to ensuring that the UK plays a constructive and supportive role consistent with international law. In pursuit of this goal, there is no substitution for seeing the occupation first-hand.