It’s been widely reported this week that Tony Blair was thoroughly shocked when he learned the full truth about the enormous numbers of barriers, obstacles and settlements that the Israeli government has constructed within the West Bank during its 40 years of occupation.
We had already heard about his reaction to the UN briefing he was given when he took up his new job as Middle East peace envoy. He came to Hebron for another briefing last week – we caught a glimpse of him arriving at the municipal office – and we were told afterwards that he was shocked all over again by the dire situation here.
You might think it strange that a former prime minister should be so taken aback by the realities of a problem he has been concerned with in some way for over a decade. But I can understand it because our group had the same UN briefing in Jerusalem, and we were really shocked too.
We were 25 well-informed people (or so we believed) from Scandinavia, Germany, France, Poland, the UK, the US and South Africa: several were students of international politics, all of us were concerned enough to volunteer for three months on a World Council of Churches accompaniment programme. And yet we discovered we didn’t really have much of a clue because until you see it and experience it for yourself, you just cannot imagine how far things have gone here.
At the breifing a map of the West Bank and East Jerusalem was projected on the wall and gradually overlaid with all the myriad obstructions which control the movement of Palestinians – the vast majority of them nowhere near the official border between the West Bank and Israel but scattered all over the Occupied Territories.
First there was the infamous Separation Barrier, 90% of which does not follow the border but is being built on Palestinian land. Taking the form of a hideous concrete wall in urban areas and a complex of fences and ditches up to 80 metres wide in rural places, it penetrates with great long fingers deep into the West Bank to snake round Israeli settlements and physically join them to Israel.
It loops like a noose around a number of Palestinian cities, such as Qalqiliya, where the 48,000 population can now only get in and out along a single road guarded by a checkpoint, strangling the town’s economy. And it cuts off over 50 farming communities from their own land. The farmers have to get permits to work their fields which now lie on the other side of the Barrier, but in some areas only 20% of farmers actually get the permits.
Then came the major checkpoints where Palestinians must queue for hours to get to work. Then there were the closures, things like earth mounds or concrete blocks strung across roads which cut many communities in half; then the road gates, the trenches and the “flying” checkpoints – spikes laid temporarily across the road at an average of 140 a week.
At the current count, there are a total of 571 obstacles, all within an area only roughly a quarter the size of Wales. We have already experienced just a tiny fragment of the exhausting and depressing inconvenience these obstacles cause to daily life here.
On our way to dinner with the head of Hebron’s medical services, we took a taxi to the point where the road to his village crossed a main highway mostly used by Israeli settlers. Finding four big concrete blocks barring our way on each side of the highway, we had to get out, thread our way through them and find another taxi on the other side. He has to do the same every day or else drive the long way round, taking about an hour to do what should be a 15 minute commute. This is just one of about 100 “closures” around Hebron and it’s been like this for and astonishing 20 years.
And in Bethlehem we went for dinner with an elegant and sophisticated Christian Palestinian woman, an English teacher at a Christian school, who has not visited Hebron, just 30 km away, for seven years. She told us that for four years there was a huge earth mound straddling the road and she had to scramble over it to get a taxi to the town. “It was so humiliating that I don’t feel like going that way again even though the mound is no longer there,” she told us.
The Israeli government justifies the obstacles on the grounds of “security” but the reality is that terrorists don’t present themselves at checkpoints so all these barriers are actually there to contain the Palestinian population and protect the Israeli settlements which have been built on occupied land.
There are now 150 settlements They are totally illegal under international law and have been condemned by numerous UN resolutions but their inhabitants enjoy all the benefits of Israeli citizenship. They were shaded in deep purple on the map and were mostly surrounded by even bigger areas shaded in light purple marking what the government has designated as “state land” and ear-marked for their expansion.
Then came the 100 or so “outposts” – usually caravans placed by people from a settlement on a nearby hill with the aim of taking over even more land. These are illegal even under Israeli law but are often connected to electricity, water and roads. Then, in shades of grey, there were the “military areas” and the “nature reserves” which Palestinians are barred from building on.
By now the map was a mass of red lines, black lines and blue lines, bristled with crosses, cones, blobs and squares marking the obstacles and was shaded in great patches in purple and grey. What it showed was that the settlements now inhabit or control a massive 40% of the land in the West Bank.
The Palestinian areas appeared in fragmented patches on the map, shaded in brown. It vividly conveyed how the Palestinians are virtually confined in increasingly isolated areas which the UN’s Office for the Co-Ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) calls “enclaves.”
We were told that the result is their economy is completely suffocated and 57% of the people live below the poverty line, many of them dependent on food aid. The idea that this mess could be turned into a viable independent state in a projected “two state solution” to the Israel-Palestine conflict began to look increasingly like a sick joke.
Later we were given a tour of East Jerusalem by Angela Godfrey-Goldstein, a British-born Israeli who works for the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions which campaigns against the occupation.
East Jerusalem is a densely populated area which used to provide 40% of the Palestinian economy before it was annexed by Israel in 1967. We took a walk beside the ghastly Wall and saw how it now slices off the town from the rest of the West Bank, then stood on a hill while Angela pointed out numerous brand new Israeli settlements – often financed by US money – spreading through and fragmenting the entire area.
Angela – an Israeli for 26 years – described what was happening as a system of “apartheid” in which the Palestinians are being forcibly confined in ever more crowded, destitute “bantustans.”
Many of the activists here are wary of using this kind of emotive language but it increasingly appears daubed on the Wall. Angela uses it deliberately to evoke memories of South Africa in an effort to grab the world’s attention. She says that even the Israeli population mostly does not know what is going on as it is just not discussed on the TV or in newspapers.
As for us, I felt the most shocking thing about the fact that Tony Blair was shocked, and we were shocked, by the real facts on the ground, was just that – that we were shocked. This has been going on for 40 years. We should have known.