I spent the short Whitsun recess with the humanitarian aid group Medical Aid for Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank seeing at first hand the plight of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.
The interminable conflict in the Holy Land is a regular subject of correspondence from constituents and I thought it was about time I saw for myself. I have always tried to steer a balanced path on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and have been critical of atrocities on both sides. Certainly there are longstanding issues well above my paygrade but it is incumbent on MPs to be better informed on a subject that regularly comes up at Westminster. We met a number of aid organisations including those who had come fresh from the latest flare up in Gaza where the shooting of 72 Palestinians by Israeli forces had rightly received widespread condemnation.
Gaza has been called the world’s largest open-air jail. Energy is available only a few hours a day, youth unemployment is said to be the highest in the world and drinking water is predicted to run out by 2020. GDP per head is calculated at just over £1,050 compared with Israel at 37,000 US dollars. The counter argument from Israel is, of course, that Gaza is run by the militant organisation Hamas, which regularly fires rockets into Israel amongst other violent acts.
In the West Bank things are better and cities like Nablus and Ramallah appear to be thriving but that masks the reality of a population where armed Israeli troops are never far away and martial law prevails. We sat in on a military court were youths are routinely jailed for six months for throwing rocks at settler buses and it has been estimated that since the occupation started, after the Sis Days Wat, in 1967, 85 per cent of the entire male population of the Palestinian Territories has been incarcerated in Israeli jails at some stage.
Shockingly we visited a UN-run school in a cramped refugee camp in Bethlehem and saw footage of tear gas fired into the school yard and an adjoining Astroturf football pitch which has to be covered in netting as the tear gas burns the surface. One enterprising pupil sold us jewellery made out of tear gas canisters collected in the school premises. Probably the most chilling form of recycling I have come across! We visited Bedouin villages in remote parts of the South Hebron Hills which are due to be demolished to make way for Israeli settlers though international law forbids it.
Despite a wash-up meeting at the Israeli Foreign Ministry we came away thoroughly depressed that peace seems as far away as ever. I am keen to discuss my visit further with constituents who have an interest in Israel and Palestine from whichever perspective and will be organising an informal meeting soon. Please let me know if you are interested in coming along.
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