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Rail Union Delegation to Palestine

22 September 2015

TSSA President Mick Carney reports back from the union's recent fact-finding delegation to Palestine.

It was agreed by the TSSA executive in March 2015 to send delegates to a joint rail union delegation to Palestine which was being set up by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. It was generally felt Israel would only address the appalling conditions meted out to the Palestinian people if they were put under international pressure to do so. It is quite clear that they have no intention of listening to the Palestinian people themselves, a flavour of which we got on the last day when we met Ms Haneen Zoabi, an amazing Palestinian politician serving in the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament. This pressure must be first brought to bear on the British Government, by both the unions and the sheer weight of public opinion. This is, so far, the highest level delegation that the PSC had taken to Palestine from one industry.

Delegation Members

The following were chosen to attend from their respective unions

Manuel Cortes TSSA General Secretary
Mick Carney TSSA President
Andi Fox TSSA Executive Committee
Peter Pinkney RMT President
Mick Wheelan ASLEF General Secretary
Marz Columbini ASLEF Executive Committee
Colin Smith ASLEF Organiser
Hugh Lanning PSC
Steve Sibley PSC
Paul Scholey Morrish (TSSA Solicitors)
Tim Lezard Union Solidarity International Editor, Journalist, and a former NUJ President

  

A brief historical timeline of Palestine since 1945 

 

1945 Second World War ends.

1947 UN proposes to divide Palestine into an Arab and Jewish state.

1948 Jewish leadership declares Sovereign state of Israel.

1948-49 Arab-Israeli War. A war between Israel and the Arab League, plus the Palestinian Arabs. This set the 1948 borders. The Gaza Strip and the West Bank were occupied by Egypt and Transjordan respectively until 1967.

1967 Six Day War. Israel attacks its Arab neighbours in what it claims is a pre-emptive strike. Both the Gaza Strip and West Bank are occupied by Israel. This sets the 1967 borders.

1974 The PLO is allowed to represent the Palestinian refugees at the UN.

1987-91 The First Intifada. Palestinian uprising and protest against Israeli occupation and rule.

1988 Palestinian Declaration of Independence.

1993 The First Oslo Accords. Treaties aimed at a negotiated settlement between Israel and Palestine, much of which has subsequently been ignored by Israel.

2000 The Second Intifada begins.

2002 Israel begins construction of the wall to stop ‘Palestinian Terrorism’ which will supposedly follow the Green Line (Internationally recognised in 1967) boundaries.

 

UN visit.

 

On the Wednesday morning, we were taken to one of the UN peace centres set up in East Jerusalem. The UN has offices across Israel and Palestine and has had for many years. Yet still the occupation continues.

Gaza is 45km long and 8km wide. Within its walls, 1.8 million people have been ghettoised, making it one of the most over populated areas in the world. Reconciliation efforts between Hamas and Fattah, two of the main political parties vying for control across Palestine, bore fruit in 2014. This did not suit Israel and with the kidnap and murder of three Israeli students in mysterious and still unexplained circumstances, Israel had the excuse it needed. Israel attacked, then occupied.

Israel’s occupation of Gaza is in breach of international law, as it is within the West Bank. Article 43 of the Hague regulations states that Israel, as the occupying power, bears the primary responsibility for ensuring the welfare of the protected Palestinian population. This they are clearly failing to do. 2104 Palestinians were killed in Gaza. 1462 of these were civilians, 495 children and 253 women. The Israeli ‘Defence’ Force (IDF) claimed to have killed 1000 terrorists. But the human toll continues long after the ceasefire has been brokered and the bombing stopped. 100,000 people are still displaced in Gaza. Fuel & electricity shortages, bad before the Israeli forces enacted ‘Operation Protective Edge’, are now far worse. Power blackouts are 12 to 16 hours a day. Massive water shortages lead to loss of crops, water being something I will refer to more than once in this report. Very little fuel is available and not all can afford fuel anyway. Unemployment in Gaza stands at 42%. Youth unemployment is far worse, currently standing at 60%. Hospitals have to prioritise surgery and non-life saving procedures can take years.

Gaza is sometimes referred to as the world’s largest open prison and there is some truth in this. It is a fully walled community and again, the walls are something I will mention more than once, with just 3 recognised crossings into Israel and one into Egypt. As ever in the complicated world of Middle Eastern politics it is the people whom suffer. Since the change of regime in Egypt in 2013, the Rafa crossing has been closed. This means Israel now has total authority of all crossings into and out of the Gaza Strip. The airspace and sea access is controlled by Israel. Imports are massively restricted, exports likewise. Relief tunnels into Egypt, once used to smuggle fuel, food, and commercial goods have been closed by the Egyptian authorities with the assistance of the ‘neutral’ USA.

Not unlike across the West Bank, permits are used to restrict the movement of goods and people. Since the latest Israeli attack there have been more Palestinians crossing the border but it remains far from the level of crossings made in 2004. The import of construction material into Gaza is barred by Israel leaving the people unable to repair their homes, their facilities, or their hospitals. During the attack in 2014 18690 homes and 75 hospitals were destroyed. Some 100 UN facilities were damaged, with 100,000 people being displaced.

After the reconciliation between Fattah and Hamas, a government of national consensus was formed, but never implemented within Gaza. Hamas employs 40,000 to 50,000 people across Gaza, which they are unable to pay. Ramallah, where the government is based in the West Bank, is able to pay its government employees. This is an understandable source of tension across Gaza. This along with a low and declining quality of service means that Gaza remains a very volatile area, one we were unable to enter to see for ourselves, as entry is barred by the Israeli authorities, meaning that the atrocities they have committed remain closed to the outside world. The United Nations is calling for an end to the blockade of Gaza on humanitarian grounds but, as is often the case with the United Nations, Israel ignores this and continues to contravene International law. 

The West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Settlers 

Much of the time of the delegation was spent either within East Jerusalem or the West Bank. The West Bank is, by and large, supposed to be governed by the Palestinian Authority, but as with much else across Palestine, it is nowhere near as straight forward as that, as much of it is controlled by the Israeli authorities. Settlements have been built across the West Bank in contravention of the Fourth Geneva Convention. This states that in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Israel is not supposed to build housing. Israel has been ‘settling’ in these lands since 1967. Currently there are by conservative estimations 375,000 settlers in East Jerusalem and 800,000 in the West Bank.

Within the West Bank itself the Palestinians are still severely restricted, both in the land that they can build on, even when they can prove historic ownership, and by their freedom of movement. Much of the land is criss-crossed by roads, not open to Palestinian residents of the West Bank. Checkpoints scatter the landscape, the colour of your car registration plate defining if you will get stopped. White number plates for Palestinian citizens, yellow number plates for Israeli citizens and Palestinian citizens of East Jerusalem. Even then, as we found ourselves you can still find yourself stopped if your driver is an East Jerusalem Palestinian. We were pulled over, our bus boarded by boy soldiers serving in the Israeli army. An 18 year old standing in front of you with a fully loaded fully automatic weapon is somewhat unnerving.

Across the West Bank the Palestinian Authority controls 40% of the land and has 80% of the population. The term settlement itself is something of a misnomer. I had the impression it was small outcrops or villages occupied by a few hundred ideological fanatics, but far from it. Settlements are often towns or cities of up to 50, 60, 70000 people. All gated and walled with checkpoints, lookouts and sniper towers to keep Palestinians out and protected by the Israeli occupying force and private security hire. The settlers themselves are often economic migrant settlers, either from other countries or from within Israel, encouraged to settle by the chance of cheap land, financial encouragement and in some places a place to live. These settlements are often clean, lush, green looking places (Israel controls all of the water) unlike much of the Palestinian areas which are showing the signs of age, war and disrepair. Again Israel controls the building materials that the Palestinian population are allowed to take into their own homeland.

Often you will find in a settlement that the majority of the settlers come from a single country, often having migrated to Israel at roughly the same time. There are settlements primarily of American citizens, Russian citizens, Armenian citizens, etc. and then construction takes place and the settlements spread, forming large towns and even cities, taking more and more land. Yet in Palestinian lands, very little construction takes place. Of course the constant unchecked growth in the settlements is all built without permits; all illegal, yet ignored.

A Jewish Settler, born in another country, has more rights the moment he sets foot on Israeli soil than a Palestinian citizen whose family have lived in their own land for generations.

 

A land of fences, walls and barbed-wire.

One thing you notice driving through Israel itself alongside the West Bank border is that the land is cut apart. Much of the landscape, certainly on the Palestinian side, looks stony and barren, even bleak looking. Certainly far different from what we would be used to in the UK. And everywhere is the ever-oppressing wall. Fences and barbed-wire cut swathes across the country. Even within Palestinian towns where settlers have decided to set up home, it is impossible to escape the wall. Settlements within Palestinian towns are often ideological rather than economic, a belief that this is their land and that they have a right to be there. These Settlements are illegal under International law, as indeed are all settlements across the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but like those, they are protected by walls, fences and checkpoints. This keeps out the Palestinians but unfortunately doesn’t keep the Settlers in. These Settlers are responsible for the upturn in attacks against Palestinian citizens. Indeed, just one week after we had returned, an 18 month old toddler was killed after a petrol bomb was thrown through the window of his home. His mother suffered 90% burns, his young brother 60%. Militant settler graffiti was daubed on the walls of his home.

Palestinian schools near Israeli settlements are often fenced in for the protection of the Palestinian children, making it difficult for children to get an education. One school in Hebron is fenced off, the windows meshed to stop Israeli settler 'activity'. The activities include attacking primary aged children walking to and from school and the smashing of windows. Any reaction from the Palestinians is likely to bring the security forces upon them.

The wall itself is very different depending on where you are looking at it from. For example, on the tourist routes from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, the wall could even look quite pleasant. Modern and clean and not really overly oppressive, but enter the occupied territories and it’s a different matter altogether. Surrounded by barbed-wire and the barbed-wire on top of the wall is usually 9 metres tall, cut with 40 metre watch towers and sniper towers. A smart person within the PSC has estimated the walls within the West Bank would stretch from Dover to Glasgow.

When walls are being built, as they constantly are, they are built either through Palestinian lands, separating Palestinian farmers from their crops, or right alongside Palestinian towns and villages, denying them the right to grow. All of this serves the purpose of keeping the Palestinian population out of their own lands, again, often lands that they have held for generations. There is no right of inheritance for Palestinians and their land.alestinians can spend many hours a day at checkpoints, either trying to get in and out of the West Bank or to move around the Occupied Territories simply to get to work. A Palestinian worker denied passage through a check point is unlikely to be looked upon favourably by his employer despite it being of no fault of his or her own that they could not attend. Israeli soldiers can deny passage on a whim. There is no realistic recourse.

Much of the issue within the Occupied Territories is about land. Israel controls all building permits. They designate what the land can be used for. They can take the land of a Palestinian family if they decide that there is dispute over the land ownership, no matter how many generations have farmed the land before. It can be designated forest land, though no tree is ever grown, farm land though no seed is ever planted, or construction land though no building is ever built. The land is then handed over to settlers. Because of the control over the movement of population, Palestinian farmers have been forced to grow less labour intensive, cheaper and poorer quality crops. This has obvious financial impact and, like much else, causes hardship.

Land can be deemed for public purposes. Across East Jerusalem, 22% of the land has been earmarked as a ‘Green Area’. Not one park has built on this land. Across the occupied territories and East Jerusalem, the constant threat hangs over Palestinians that their properties will be deemed ‘illegal’. Currently, over 11000 properties are under the threat of demolition. Often foreign aid structures can also face demolition. As with much else in Palestine the world sits by wringing its hands. 

East Jerusalem 

Palestinian citizens within East Jerusalem generally have more rights than citizens within the West Bank. They are still subject to the ever present checkpoints within the West Bank but the yellow number plate on their vehicles gives them greater access. That is not to say they do not fall foul of some awful discrimination by the Israelis. Each Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem is given a ‘right to reside card’. This can be removed, seemingly at a whim. Stay away from your home for too long and, not only can you find it occupied on your return, but you also lose your right to reside.

Probably one of the worst forms of discrimination is the ‘mixed marriage law’. Choose to marry a citizen of the West Bank and you lose your right to reside within East Jerusalem.

The Palestinians in East Jerusalem face a silent war, not one with tanks or guns, but an economic war, a war of discrimination. Palestinians are on much lower incomes, often paid well below the legal minimum wage however they are forced to pay the same taxes. 40% of municipality of Jerusalem is Palestinian, however only 7 to 9% of money taken from Palestinian citizens is spent on Palestinian neighbourhoods. Settlements are built in such a way as to surround Palestinian neighbourhoods; preventing growth. 

A Palestinian family within East Jerusalem

 On the Wednesday we were taken to meet a Palestinian family who have been victims of the Israeli expansionism. One of the tactics being used by the Israelis is to divide Palestinian lands, separating families and cutting the Palestinians from their land. This is also happening within East Jerusalem as they seek to connect other parts of Jerusalem to the illegal settlements within the East. If your property happens to be in the way then this is just your bad fortune. This happened to one such family we met on the Wednesday afternoon. Nabeel, his family and his descendants have lived in their property in a housing project since 1956. In 1958 Jordan gave over part of the land to Nabeel with the intention of registering it in his family’s name. This never happened and since the 1967 war and the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, as a Palestinian, Nabeel is prevented from doing so.

As was a regular occurrence in the early 1970s, settlers laid claim to the area of land by false registration. A number of families were taken to court in 1980s. This dragged on but, at this time, the courts sided with the Palestinian families. After that, settler society's passed the property claim onto other settler groups. Again the Palestinian families were taken to court. The Jewish lawyer representing the Palestinian families reached agreement with the courts but without the consent that the Palestinians owned their land; rather, they were 'protected residents’. This example is used all over Israel.

Again court action was taken and again Nabeel and his neighbours won their case. Despite this, in 2009, eviction orders were still issued and some of the neighbouring families were evicted and their houses occupied. The Palestinian families who were evicted were made to pay for their own eviction. Due to being a large family living in a small home, Nabeel had built an extension onto his house. The courts deemed this illegal and ordered that it must be demolished, in sharp contrast to Israeli settlements within the West Bank. Whilst the legal challenges were going through the courts, militant settlers occupied the now condemned part of the house, causing disturbance in the still predominantly Palestinian neighbourhood. When Nabeel was told by the Police to make official complaint he did and it was he who was arrested. Meanwhile the settlers at the home now had vicious dogs. One day after raising a complaint that he had been attacked, a policeman asked how the dog was. International peace camps were set up in Nabeel’s garden to protect him from the settlers. The police and the IDF smashed down the tents and beat up the protesters. Settlers at the home change every couple of weeks. When asked who can live here, police replied it can be any number of settlers and all settlers have the right to occupy.

Nabeel and his family lived here for 67 years. Originally they were refugees from Haifa where his father had a successful restaurant before 1948. He was arrested for 9 months, allowing the authorities to steal the family home and evict them. 

Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGTFU).

We met the regional head of the PGFTU in Jericho, who gave us an insight into the lot of Palestinian workers, who are forced to work on settler farms. Throughout the Jordan Valley there are 39 illegal settlements, of these, 25 are agricultural. In many cases, the only hope of employment for the Palestinian worker is to work the land of these agricultural settlements, land which of course rightfully belongs to them.

One of the products commonly grown in the occupied territories is dates. Israel is the world’s biggest producer of dates, 33% of these grown across the Jordan Valley. The task of picking these dates is often long, laborious and difficult. The pickers are taken to their tree by crane. The agricultural workers are then left up the palm tree as the crane moves from area to area. They are left with no personal protective equipment or protection from the fierce sun and are susceptible to snake and insect bites. Being left there for many hours with no way of returning to the ground level, they are forced to both eat and go to the toilet up the tree.

Abuses of Palestinian workers rights are common. One example is that, in one particular restaurant in the Dead Sea every six months, the management brings in a lie detector, only for Palestinian workers. Failure to take or pass can result in instant dismissal. Another happens in a factory that burns animal fat to make bio fuel. It is dirty work and dangerous work with little ventilation. It can result in illnesses. Every six months both the foreign and Israeli workers get a health check. These are not extended to the Palestinian workers.

Palestinian workers are paid, on average 40% of the Israeli minimum wage. Working on Israeli land or being employed by an Israeli boss, they are supposed to be paid at least the minimum wage. If an injury happens whilst under the employ of an Israeli, they are supposed to be taken to the nearest hospital or health facility. Again the reality is that they will be taken to the nearest Palestinian health facility, no matter the distance or the checkpoints that need to be passed through. Israel on paper has some strong pro-trade union laws. These however rarely translate into reality and especially not for Palestinian workers.

One way the Israeli bosses use to get around the labour laws is by the employment of a Wajid or a gang master. This is a Palestinian who procures work in the occupied territories for Palestinians, who are then exploited within the settlements. Often the Wajid will be the only man with transport in the village. He will be given an amount of money by the Israeli settler for which he will acquire the workforce required. He will take a 'finder’s fee', plus he will charge the Palestinians for the use of his car. Often the people he employs will be his own family. This acts to the advantage of the settler in a number of ways. If questioned about the exploitation of the workers, the settler can claim he employed someone to acquire the workers for him, i.e. it is not his responsibility. Also the underpayment, he will blame on the Wajid. However, under Israeli law, the onus of responsibility remains with the settler employer to care for his workforce and to ensure that they are not exploited. This is the theory, but it is quite different in practice.

Kav laOved, which literally translates as “workers hotline”, are a Jewish organisation fighting for workers’ rights for foreign, Israeli and Palestinian workers. Kav laOved fight for the rights of workers who are employed by Israelis, on three levels: Law, government and the individual. They work closely with the PGFTU and others. 

One example is that ten years ago, workers were afraid of meeting the union. Much work has been done to educate workers of their rights. Text is translated from Hebrew to Arabic. There are also two industrial areas within the West Bank employing about 6000 Palestinian workers. One factory in one of these industrial areas managed to set up a workers committee. The members of the committee were fired. Work councils, although perfectly legal, are suppressed. Members of committees or works councils find themselves blacklisted.

If the lot of a male Palestinian worker is bad, for a female Palestinian worker it is far worse. Female workers tend to have very little in the way of employment rights at all. This means that they are routinely fired for starting a family or falling ill. Often women are employed as domestic help. There are many cases of sexual abuse, with the women being too afraid to speak out in case they lose their jobs; their families often relying on their income. Cherry tomato pickers are often female. They are susceptible to illness from the chemical sprays used on the tomatoes. Again, they have no recourse to medical attention as they have no rights. 

Exploitation of migrant workers 

Migrant workers are now being brought in by the settler farmers, mainly from Thailand. They come with a promise of lodgings and good wages. The reality is very different. They can be crammed into old animal buildings, for which rent is deducted from their wages. They suffer the same intolerable hardships as the Palestinian workers which they are being brought in to undercut. 

Jordan Valley

The land of the Jordan Valley is rich and fertile, some of the most rich and fertile in the whole Middle East. Once there were 250,000 Palestinians living in the area. During the 1967 war, 90% of the Palestinian population was driven out of the Jordan valley and now it’s down to about 25,000.

As elsewhere, the Jordan Valley is cut apart by settlements, outposts, and their connections. The outposts are often set up by ideological rather than economic settlers. They refuse to recognise the Palestinian right to work the lands. Even Israel supposedly recognises these outposts as illegal. They are supposed to be denied services and are supposed to have been demolished. However, now Israel is seeking to retroactively legalise these outposts. The outposts, like the settlements themselves, remain illegal under International law. The settlements across the Jordan Valley tend to be smaller farming communities. 95% of the produce grown is exported, mainly to Europe. Across the Jordan Valley there were once just three export companies. Now, because of the boycott campaign there are over five hundred, all using clever ways of avoiding saying that they are exporting from illegally occupied land. Despite making up 85% of the population of the Jordan Valley, the Palestinians are given just 5% of the land. This, along with the Israeli water controls imposed on the Palestinians, makes it impossible for them to compete. 

A Palestinian village in the Jordan Valley

We met up with the local mayor of a Palestinian village in the Jordan Valley. Despite the Jordan Valley coming under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority, every facet of their existence is still controlled by Israel. The Palestinian Authority can rarely afford rubbish collection. Land once legitimately owned by Palestinian villagers has been taken for 'security reasons' and now given to settlers and used as farmland. Palestinian farmers across the Jordan Valley are regularly stopped at checkpoints and held for 24 hours. By the time they are released, their produce is wasted. When the Palestinian Authorities complain, the Israeli authorities use security levels as their reasoning, yet it is not the Palestinian farmers with the loaded fully automatic weapons.

As ever, all water use is controlled by the Israeli settlements and farmland across the Jordan Valley is green, fertile and lush. Villages and Palestinian land, by contrast, is dry and often barren. The mayor himself had 120 date trees growing on his land at the back of his home. The Israelis told him that the land had been designated for ‘settler use’ and made him cut down 100 of his trees. The land now lies fenced off and empty, no longer farmed by the Palestinians, never touched by the settlers. 

Water 

We visited Jericho on the Thursday morning as this was where the PGFTU in the Jordan Valley are based. Above Jericho there are a number of fresh water springs. Inside the city of Jericho itself there are two refugee camps. One of the camps was reliant on the water from the springs. The Israelis have stolen the water and diverted it to the settlements. Just one more example of the way water is used to subjugate and control, both within the Jordan Valley and beyond. On average, an Israeli settler uses approximately 487 litres of water per person per day, for their pools, their farmland etc. Across Europe we use on average 350 litres per person per day. Palestinians within the Jordan Valley and beyond get much less; about 80 litres per person per day, in a recognised village. In a non-recognised village, it is only about 20 litres and the Bedouin are lucky to get 15 litres. The World Health Organisation say that about 100 litres per person per day is required to maintain quality of life. Across Palestinian towns and cities huge water butts are placed on the roofs of buildings. This is not to catch the rain but to fill up at the times of day that the Israelis turn on the water. Water is also far more expensive to a Palestinian in the West Bank than to an Israeli. But water need not be an issue; there is plenty to go around, even in hot, arid countries like Israel and Palestine. Ramallah for example, has a higher than average rainfall than London. It is simply being used to control and subjugate. 

Refugee camp 

We were taken to visit the Aida refugee camp near Bethlehem on the Thursday. Again the term camp is something of a misnomer; these are hugely built up cities within cities. People first came to the camps in 1948, leaving homes in the city. They were led to believe that this would be temporary and they understood that they would be allowed to return to their lands and properties. At first people were ‘housed’ in tents. This lasted between three and six years before the first small rooms were built, which were totally inadequate for the large Palestinian families of the time. Life was and remains very difficult under occupation.

We met Salah at Lajee community centre within the camp. Salah was born within Aida refugee camp 42 years ago. In the community centre there is a small museum. They teach dance, music and cultural skills within the centre, managing to get funding to take some of the children abroad. On a recent visit to England the children were asking “where are the checkpoints?” expecting to see them as they would in their homeland. Within the camps you begin to feel dehumanised. Across England and visits to Europe people treat you as human again. The highest levels of education across Palestine tend to be within the refugee camps, with education being seen as the only means of escape. Since the Oslo Accords, life, if anything, has become more difficult. An area of Aida that once housed 800 people now has to cater for 5000, leading to severe overcrowding.

The Israeli soldiers are known to use refugee camps for training exercises. Women can't sleep as they wish, often having to sleep fully clothed as soldiers come into houses with silent rams. It is not unusual for a woman to be awoken by Israeli occupying forces at the end of her bed.

Whilst we were inside the cultural centre we heard a sharp ‘pop’ sound. This turned out to be tear gas canisters being set off outside. They had been fired at children, no more than about 13 years old, some much younger, by an Israeli soldier. The windows of the centre were opened, the members of the delegation who went out onto the balcony, catching the end of it. Even from the back of the room the smell was horrid and I felt the gas burning my eyes. Possibly more telling is the way one of the youngsters nonchalantly picks up the canister and chuck’s it over a wall. Clearly this is a regular occurrence but it is still worrying, upsetting, and sad when children accept it as such. Much like elsewhere across Palestine and probably more so within the refugee camps, water is regulated by the Israelis. When the children of the camp visited England they were asked what they liked most. Their answer? Showers.

The Key

Within the refugee camps all that many Palestinian families have to remind them of their own and their ancestral life before the 1948 Nakba (disaster) is the key to their former homes. This has become a potent symbol of hope and of return. 

Bedouin communities.

The Bedouins are an Arabic race of people living mainly in the Negev area of Israel. Their lifestyle was traditionally nomadic although, for probably over a century now, they have looked to settle the land. The Israelis now seek to force the Bedouin to live in cities and many Bedouin settlements are under threat of relocation. Seven ‘Bedouin’ cities have been built by the Israelis. These cities are of poor infrastructure and the Bedouin communities object to being moved into them, feeling that the Israelis are suppressing their Bedouin lifestyle. Despite the poor quality of the homes and infrastructure however, Israelis claim that they want to improve living conditions for the Bedouin people. The evidence suggests otherwise.

The Bedouin themselves often live in historical well established villages. The right to this land was not only recognised by the British Mandate in Palestine but also as far back as the Ottoman Empire. They have well established wells, farms and fruit trees. They had developed established trade routes and all the constructions you would expect a small thriving community to have. However, despite the fact that some of these villages have existed for over 100 years, many since before 1948, the Israelis have declared their villages as ‘unrecognised villages’. This means that they get no services, running water, electricity, refuse collection, and the like. The villages do not even appear on maps.

Hebron

Hebron is a city of 250,000 people and greater Hebron, 650,000. There are three Israeli settlements within the city. Within the centre the Israelis have 'settled' near the Ibrahimi Mosque (the Tomb of Abraham), one of the holiest sites to both Palestinian Muslims and Israeli Jews. About 400 settlers live within the settlement, protected by 3000 IDF. To allow the settlers to 'live in safety protected from the Palestinians' the main street has been closed to all but the current residents. Many of the once bustling shops now lie desolate, cut off from much of their custom. Now the only custom are a few tourists and the local residents that are allowed inside.

One resident of Hebron had joined us as a guide. He is a shopkeeper within the centre and said to one of our delegation “I have lived here 56 years. Now I can no longer walk to the end of my street”. Within this area is a market. Partially covered, this was a once bustling market although we arrived on the Friday, the Muslim holy day, so was naturally much quieter. Across the top of the market the market keepers have placed mesh and old mattress springs. This is to stop the settlers above throwing items down upon the market keepers and customers below, although still, dirty water and urine finds its way through. The security forces stand back and do nothing.

On 25/02/1994 Baruch Goldstein, an American-Israeli settler burst into the Ibrahimi Mosque (the Tomb of Abraham) where Friday prayers were taking place. He opened fire with an IMI Galil machine gun. By the time he finished his massacre 29 Muslim worshippers lay dead. Injuries ran into the hundreds. Goldstein was overpowered and killed. The Israelis claimed that Goldstein was a lone wolf, a madman. He was in fact a member of a far right Jewish terrorist organisation and a doctor. However, despite the evidence, an Israeli review found he acted alone. This led to protests, further bloodshed and more deaths. After this the Mosque was partitioned, 60% Israeli 40% Palestinian with two entrances. Our Palestinian guides were not allowed to enter, so I refused to, but inside is the tomb of Sarah (Abrahams wife). A fence covers this, splitting it in two and allowing both Jews and Muslims to worship the same religious icon; such is the contradiction in this land of contradictions. The fencing across the city is indiscriminate. Some Palestinians are cut off from their own front doors. To enter the house they have steps leading to their windows where they must now enter.

Much of the Palestinian housing through the centre of Hebron is in a desperate state after conflict within the city. Like across the West Bank as a whole, the Israeli security forces refuse to allow the import of building materials for repair. Foreign aid charities have been set up to repair the homes but even then the Israelis have a checklist. If you, or any member of your family have ever come to the notice of the authorities for whatever reason you are denied your house being repaired. It is not uncommon to see homes with walls blown away.

 

A Palestinian working in Israel.

Israel is a wealthy first world country, with a high GDP. However half of the Arab (the Israelis refuse to refer to them as Palestinian) population within Israel live below the poverty line and are routinely paid well below the minimum wage. Average unemployment across Israel is approximately 6%. Amongst Palestinian women it stands at 75%.

Wac-Ma’an is a trade union set up to represent all Palestinian and Israeli citizens. Such organisations set up to represent across the communities are generally frowned upon. Bringing people together breaks down barriers. We visited Syndianna of Galilee, a local shop and factory specialising in olive oil, soaps, and many other products. Everything sold by the shop is Fairtrade and part of the Roha Project. This is a project to employ both Palestinian and Israeli women together. Clearly at first there was going to be tensions but once the barriers have been broken down the project is going from strength to strength.

We also met some Palestinian truckers who told us of the difficulties union organising in Israel faces, when your rights are routinely ignored. The transport sector within Israel is similar to the UK. Once it was mainly state-controlled but privatisation is now being brought in, with the privatisation of railways being under way. New ports are being opened to break unions, still government-owned, but failing to recognise collective agreements. The transport sector is traditionally organised by Histadrut, Israel’s organisation of Trade unions, which only recognises Jewish workers.

The trucking industry however is different. It is not particularly well organised, aside from a very bad Histadrut agreement. Pay consists of minimum wage plus bonus, not hours worked. Often this bonus will go unpaid. It equates to very long hours and very low pay. Often it also depends on the shipment the driver is carrying what his pay will be. Upset the bosses and you get long but poor shipments. This system is bad for health and safety and causes accidents. Drivers are meant to have maximum driving hours but this is routinely ignored by management. Wac-Ma’an are trying to organise truck drivers, to firstly give the Palestinian workers a voice but also to offer the Israeli workers an alternative to Histadrut.

One of the drivers told us his story. He is working long hours, often away from home and has a poor life quality. Try to organise within the workplace and you risk losing your job. Drivers suffer police harassment. Fines are picked up for petty issues. Management say that they will pay and then don't. He joined Wac-Ma’an about 6 years ago. They helped him win a difficult case against the company he worked for. He is now trying to organise workers but it is difficult. In Israel only 30% membership is needed to achieve union recognition. However despite some very good labour laws they are often not implemented and you are threatened for trying to organise. One company makes you attend a course on health and safety in your own time on a Friday (the Muslim holy day) every 2 months. Then they make you break the law by insisting on long hours.

Wac-Ma’an stand for bread, freedom, and social justice. They seek to bring workers together whatever their race and whatever their religion. They pride themselves on being Marxist thinkers. Jewish drivers not of the same political persuasion can see the work that is being done and are joining. This realisation that the enemy is not your fellow working man but in fact is the ruling classes, whatever their background, is important going forward. 

Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) 

In 2005 a campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) was called for when Israel failed to act within the Oslo Accords. This was called for by absolute majority in Palestinian society. Trade Unions within Palestine are fully supportive of BDS which seeks to distinguish between individuals and businesses.

A truly global movement is now emerging in response to this call, the PSC leading from the front. Companies who invest in Israel, and more specifically those that have factories within the Occupied Territories, are being targeted. Giants such as Soda Stream have had to pull out of their flagship store in Brighton because of the constant protests. We met one of the main organisers within Palestine. He is quite clear that BDS is working. Companies such as Veolia, who ran Connex in this country before being unceremoniously kicked out, have faced campaign after campaign for their involvement is a light railway connecting illegal settlements. This has led to a massive loss of contracts, as investors shy away. Hewlett Packard is now being targeted for their contribution to the technology that gives Israel the mechanisms of surveillance and control over the Palestinian people.

Israel is fighting BDS by trying to pass legislation to delegitimize the campaign, however the BDS campaign goes from strength to strength, raising consciousness and hitting companies not just in Israel but across the globe. 

A Palestinian Politician in the Knesset 

On the last day of the delegation we met Haneen Zoabi an amazing and passionate Palestinian member of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. She told us of the list of 50 racist laws that Israel have introduced since 1948 and how delegations mean so much to the Palestinian people because, “for us there is no chance to wait for any change from inside (the) Israeli system. This (is) why we need more international solidarity. Israel doesn’t care about Arab members in Knesset and what we have to say, about the protests we (undertake). What it cares about (is) public opinion in (the) UK, Europe (and the) USA”. Haneen felt that there was no way to be neutral over the oppression of the Palestinian people. “Countries are complicit by their silence. We say in the Knesset “you will be boycotted, you will be criticised” The leaders of the Knesset tell us to calm down, no one will boycott us. And they are right, nothing changes and there is no International outcry

When the Israeli came to Palestine they expelled Palestinians. They destroyed 573 villages. Only the 15% poorest Palestinians were not expelled. They confiscated our land and wanted them as cheap labour. Ben Gurion, the first Israeli Prime Minister, said in 1948 that the oldest will die, the youngest will forget. He wrote to his son saying we must expel the Arabs and replace them. Everything Israel did in 1967 it had done in 1948. “We pay taxes to learn how inferior we are to the Israelis. We cannot teach our own history. We cannot mention the Nakbar”. The very day that Haneen was visiting us, laws were being passed in the Knesset, raising the sentence for throwing stones from 10 to 20 years. She felt that there was a need to raise debate inside Israeli society as many Israelis either did not know or were turning a blind eye to what was happening in their name.

Haneen called for their legal struggle to be taken up and for Israel to obey International law. Netanyahu calls for Israel to be treated as European and to have European values yet he kills Palestinians. “In the Negev they now want to control and expel 30000 Arab-Israeli citizens. They seek to remove the Palestinian village and replace them with Israeli villages, with the same names. They are seeking to rewrite history. In the Knesset Israeli shout at us “you are the invaders” yet they came in 1948. Israel is not a Jewish state it's an ethnic state. Many Palestinians want to and are prepared to live as equals side by side and in peace.” Haneen feels that the cultural image and the academic image are so important. This is why she supports BDS and feels that British artists should not come to Israel. We finished on a plea to inform and educate; get into colleges, universities and schools, to educate, so that the next generation can change things. 

A thoroughly capitalist occupation.

A month or so after the delegation, you reflect on what you have witnessed, trying to comprehend how people, once themselves so oppressed, can so easily take to the role of the oppressors.

As I spent more time in the occupied territories, I began to realise this isn't just about power and the subjugation of peoples; it's about money. Taxes are imposed on all goods 'imported' from Israel into the West Bank and Gaza. And all goods in the occupied territories must first come through Israel, the worst kind of Catch 22. Palestinians, whilst being on a far lower average wage than Israeli citizens, are expected to pay the same tax levels, taking no account of income or the fact that Israeli employers routinely break the law by paying them well below the minimum wage. Israel offers the chance for foreign Jews, mainly American and Russian, to migrate to Israel and move into settlements within the Palestinian Authorities’ areas. Huge plush areas are set up, protected by great numbers of IDF and security. The foreign settlers are given housing and job opportunities? Allowances for settling are generous and time is given for the settlers to establish themselves.

Often the North American settlers are ideologically driven, wishing to settle in 'their' Holy Land. Often with settlers from elsewhere, they are driven by purely economic grounds, the promised chance of a better life. These Settlements are walled off, the wall pressed right up against the Palestinian lands, denying them the opportunity to grow. They dominate the water supply, Palestinians being given less than the World Health Organisation recommended minimum. The Settlements surround the Palestinian land, the ubiquitous sniper towers ever present.

Water, a basic human right is a precious commodity across Israel and Palestine, although the average rainfall is surprisingly high in some areas. The Israelis control the means of purifying and then they sell the water to the Palestinians at twice the rate that Israelis pay for it. Taxes are punitive, taking no account of income or ability to pay. However there is no equal distribution of tax income; tax money often being spent on settlers who have just arrived in Israel, rather than the indigenous peoples of the land. But like so much in Palestine it remains about subjugation and control. 

The Land of Palestine

So much of what Israel is doing would make the implementation of a two state solution impossible. The constant building of illegal settlements, the wall with its sniper towers, roads which connect the settlements yet are closed to Palestinians cutting them from their ancient lands and farms. Control of the water supply and the blocking of roads with concrete and barbed wire, land unilaterally declared forest areas. All of this is designed to take land from the Palestinian people.

Above all, what I will take away from Palestine is, despite everything, the incredible warmth and generosity of the people. They are suppressed, what little they have, a foreign Government ruling their land wishes to take away and yet still, everywhere we went we were welcomed as one of their own. A truly fascinating country and I now, more than ever believe that without a just and fair solution for the Palestinian people there can never be peace across the Middle East.

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