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Palestine - the urgent struggle for justice

29 April 2013

The denial of the basic rights of the Palestinian people – kept under military occupation for decades – has been described as a sore on the conscience of the world. Earlier this year, TSSA and Unite sent a joint delegation to Palestine – to observe, to offer solidarity and to develop ways in which people in Britain can help them achieve the freedom they have long sought.


There are freedoms many of us take for granted – to travel to nearby towns and cities, for our homes to be a place of safety or to be able to elect the government that controls our freedoms. Yet in Palestine, multiple generations have now grown up under Israeli
domination, with almost every aspect of their lives restricted by military occupation, sieges, land seizures and discrimination.

65 years ago Israel came into being, with many Palestinians fleeing or being pushed from their homes into neighbouring countries and the areas which became known as the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Some Palestinians stayed and were eventually granted Israeli citizenship. Many who’d fled found themselves under Israeli military occupation after the 1967 Six Day War, in which Israel took control of the West Bank and Gaza.

For almost half a century now, the world has tolerated this situation, with the Palestinians being told for the last twenty years that they would ‘soon’ be granted an independent state of their own. In reality, as members of the delegation saw, the growth of Israeli settlements across much of the West Bank makes the chance of achieving a ‘two state solution’ harder by the day.

Assistant general secretary Frank Ward takes up the story. ‘We all knew we’d be asked questions when we flew into Tel Aviv, however we hadn’t realised that the security services would be using profiling to identify whether we posed a ‘risk’ before we arrived. One of the Unite delegates was detained for over two hours and was repeatedly questioned before being allowed in.’

The group first travelled around the ancient centre of Jerusalem and the eastern side of the city – occupied and annexed by Israel in 1967 – but which most of the world considers to be where a Palestinian capital should emerge. In a meeting with the PLO’s Negotiation Affairs Department, the delegation learnt that the number of Israeli settlers in East Jerusalem had almost tripled in the last twenty years, with settlements being strategically sited to cut off Jerusalem from Bethlehem and the rest of the West Bank.


Jacqui Hall told TSSA Journal, ‘Given this was our first full day, what really struck me was both the sheer beauty of the country, but also the enormous number of illegal settlements built in the Palestinian territories that everybody internationally is turning a blind eye to.’

Returning to the Jerusalem’s Old City, the delegation visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Jesus is said to have been buried and the Western Wall, the site holy to Judaism as the remains of the biblical Temple. ‘It was humbling to see people of different religions and none at all paying respects, but the whole experience was really overwhelmed by the security arrangements which ensured everywhere was surrounded by armed troops.’

Frank told TSSA Journal, ‘We also met with the United Nations Office for the Co-Ordination of Humanitarian Affairs who old us about the situation in Gaza.’ Whilst Israel withdrew its settlers several years ago, it continues to control Gaza’s airspace, its access to the sea, defines land near the Palestinian side of the border as ‘off limits’ and has imposed a near total closure of its border for several years.

The Gaza Strip is just 25 miles long by 5 miles wide, yet home to 1.7 million Palestinians. Commenting on the siege it has been placed under, even David Cameron has said ‘Gaza cannot and must not be allowed to remain a prison camp’. Since 2007 over 2,500 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza whilst 58 Israelis have also died.


Hebron – a city being strangled

The next day, the delegation visited Hebron, in the south of the West Bank. The city is home to 250,000 Palestinians and about 800 Israeli settlers who live right in the heart of the city in an area controlled by the Israeli military.

‘We walked through the shopping area of the city and saw many of the 500 or so Palestinian-owned businesses that have been closed by military order because they were near where settlers live. Many more have moved away because of the rubbish and excrement being thrown down into the street from the buildings above which have been taken over by settlers’ said Frank. Palestinians have placed cages over the street to try and provide some protection from their neighbours.

Jacqui added, ‘The occupation has really pulled Hebron apart, but it is amazing to see the sheer determination of the Palestinians not to be brow beaten and the dogged way they go about their daily business despite all the hurdles put in their way.’


A railway built to colonise

Whereas we often talk about railways cementing links between places, this presumes they do so on the basis of equality. The flip side of this is the reshaping of areas by rail and other infrastructure as part of a plan to secure ownership of them.

TSSA members observed the operation of the Jerusalem Light Railway, which is just such a project. Specifically condemned by the UN Human Rights Council, the 9 mile line runs from West Jerusalem (in Israel) to illegal settlements in the north east of the city.

TSSA’s 2011 conference agreed to boycott the French multinational Veolia, which, due to international pressure, has been trying (unsuccessfully) to extricate itself from the operation of the line. Not only has the line’s placement been condemned, but the recruitment for ticket inspectors stated the requirement for Hebrew ‘at a mother tongue level’ and ‘full army service/civic service’, clearly discriminating against the recruitment from Palestinians whose communities the line runs through.


The call to boycott Israel

Underlining why this is not a conflict between religions or ethnic groups, the delegation then met some of the many Israeli Jews struggling for an end to the occupation and for a just solution. TSSA’s reps discussed the situation with ‘Boycott from Within’ – Israeli supporters of the Palestinian-initiated call for an international campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel, similar to those applied against apartheid South Africa.

The delegation later met the Palestinian BDS National Committee, which represents a coalition of hundreds of grass-roots groups. ‘The meeting with the BNC was in many ways the most productive of the week as it involved a round table discussion with representatives of the various organisations genuinely engaged in an attempt to offer a peaceful solution that will ultimately force Israel to comply with international law and recognise Palestinian rights’ says Frank.

The TUC has called for members to boycott firms and organisations complicit with Israel's illegal occupation, settlements and wall and for the UK government to ban the entry of all goods produced in illegal settlements. Evidence has repeatedly shown many settlement- produced goods are falsely labeled ‘Made in Israel’, so often such a distinction can be hard to make. Most supermarkets now don’t stock settlement goods, with the Co-Op refusing to trade with companies which base any of their operations in settlements. The BNC and many campaigners say that as the problem lies with Israel’s national government and not just the settlers, pressure for a just solution should be built through
a comprehensive boycott of all Israeli products.

Participant Al Stoten agrees: ‘When you see the suffering of the Palestinian people first-hand, it is obvious that the world needs to wake up and pay attention. Make no mistake, apartheid is most definitely with our brothers and sisters in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. I would call on anyone with half an ounce of moral fibre to fully support the BDS movement in boycotting all products and companies that are profiting from the illegal violation of Palestinian freedom.‘

The struggle of Palestinian workers

The delegation met with Shaher Saed, the General Secretary, PGFTU. Frank says, ‘He told us that the occupation severely limits the economy, meaning most Palestinians have to decide between working in Israel, living in poverty or emigrating. Unemployment and poverty are rife and workers are treated very badly at checkpoints with permits being arbitrarily destroyed.’

The group also met with the Arab Workers Union in Nazareth (northern Israel), who focus on the rights of the fifth of Israeli workers who are Palestinian citizens of the state. They said that as well as having to deal with the impact of globalisation and the normal attacks by government and employers, by far their greatest challenge was dealing with racism against the Palestinian minority within Israel. In one survey 81 per cent said they would not employ Palestinian workers.


Mass resistance met with military response

Later in the week TSSA’s group visited the small village of Nabi Salih, home to around 600 Palestinians. Each Friday, for over three years now, the villagers have taken part in a demonstration to protest against the confiscation of their lands and the takeover of their spring by the nearby Israeli settlement. This involves a short march from the Mosque towards the spring until they are blocked by the Israeli army.

Frank reports, ‘The first thing we noticed when we arrived mid-morning was the smell of tear gas from the previous Friday. We watched as the Israeli Army attempted to disperse the villagers by using tear gas, rubber bullets, sound grenades and a vehicle spraying foul smelling skunk water hundreds of feet. Some of the Palestinian youths respond by hurling stones in a ritual reminiscent of a modern day David v Goliath – with a slightly different outcome.’

‘The visit to Nabi Salih will live long in the memory of the delegation, not simply because we were tear gassed and shot at, but also because of the strength and dignity of a villager we met. She had lost 16 members of her family to the Palestinian struggle, but when asked if she hated Israelis, she explained to us that there was a time in her life when she may well have hated her oppressors, however she had come to know and respect many Israelis in recent years who had shown solidarity with the Palestinian struggle and now considered them to be friends. What she now hated were the ideas that caused people to be oppressed.’


Taking action for Palestinian human rights

London Underground rep Doug Blundell recalls a quote from Nelson Mandela: ‘We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians’ and adds, ‘I kept on thinking about this quote during our visit and it was all too visible: the checkpoints which stopped Palestinians for hours, the mesh the Palestinians had to put up to stop the settlers’ waste dropping on them, the theft of land and homes; it is all reminiscent of the South African apartheid regime. And the world at large does nothing. Let’s be amongst the people who are trying to bring about a just peace.’

Britain and many other countries allowed the injustices of South African apartheid to continue for decades until mass popular pressure pushed them into action. Many Palestinians feel abandoned by governments who claim to defend universal human rights, but do little to bring about a solution which can deliver justice for the Palestinians and a lasting peace for Israelis. We need to be part of building that pressure on our own government.

TSSA encourages members and branches to join the Palestine Solidarity Campaign or to sign up to hear about all the latest campaigns at www.palestine or by calling 020 7700 6192.

PSC and their dozens of local branches arrange meetings, film showings, local and national demonstrations as well as campaigns to lobby Parliament and support the boycott of Israeli goods.

PSC can link TSSA branches with local campaigners for joint actions in support of Palestinian human rights, provide expert speakers and provide details of other ways to get involved.

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