I had the remarkable opportunity to travel to Israel and Palestine last week to visit development and human rights organisations which are working for peace in the region.
It was my first time to travel there, though I had often campaigned on the issue with Michael D Higgins and the Labour Party in Galway. Despite having read many books and watched frightening news reports, I do not think I ever fully grasped the reality. Until last week.
Images of huge walls, blockades, and suicide bombings have been replaced by farmers struggling to work their land, fishermen unable to fish, unnecessary poverty and most surprisingly - some of the happiest children I have ever met.
The Israeli/Palestinian conflict has lasted anything from 46 years to 1,500 years, depending on who you talk to. Since the 1967 Six Day War, Israel controls the Occupied Palestinian Territory of the West Bank and Gaza; two small pieces of land separated from one another by Israel itself and two ‘Berlin wall’ type barriers. East Jerusalem, home to thousands of Palestinians has found itself annexed to Israel and cut off from the rest of its people.
Of the dozens of individuals and groups met, and of the countless sites visited, the following are just a few examples of the everyday struggles that people in the region are experiencing.
Queuing to cross the barrier at 4.30am: The security wall separating Jerusalem from the Palestinian territory is an imposing and ugly structure, illegally built on Palestinian land. Some 10,000 Palestinians are permitted to cross the barrier every day for work in Jerusalem and they are considered the “lucky ones” as unemployment in the OPT is rampant.
Every morning, without fail, they queue. They queue in the dark from 4am onwards, entering a six foot wide caged walkway, two by two. As I queued with them, I was struck at how normal they thought it was. The queue would stop for 10 minutes, resume, stop, resume as we slowly made our way through the cage to security screening.
The politics of water: The land in the region is desert. To see how Israel has improved, irrigated, and reclaimed the desert within its borders is incredible. The stark difference between this and how Palestinian farmers in the Jordan Valley carve out a living with so much less is admirable.
One farming community was in serious decline because illegal Israeli settlements had seized wells, restricted access, and devastated their ability to farm. The community was struggling to survive. Humiliatingly, many were forced to work on the illegal Israeli farms, farms which had caused the problem in the first place.
Gaza: The Gaza strip is tiny, only 141sq miles, and surrounded on three sides by walls and the fourth by the Mediterranean. Imports and exports are severely restricted due to the Israeli blockade. Leaving or entering, if you are Palestinian, is almost impossible.
With a population of 1.7 million, it is a vast, dense, urban prison. Fishermen are preventing from fishing further than six miles out, even though the main fishing grounds are at eight/nine miles. Straying boats will be stopped or attacked by the Israeli navy.
Power is a luxury as the electricity station generates intermittently, but the wealthy, of which there are some, use generators. While visiting a school project supported by Irish funds, I watched children walking home together in thick crowds, playing, laughing, and running - I was amazed at the normality of their happiness – like it was completely natural to laugh and run in a place under siege.
Hebron and South Hebron Hills: Hatred and fundamentalism seem entrenched in the ancient West Bank city of Hebron. The population is 95 per cent Palestinian. Violence between Israeli settlers who moved to the city in 1968 has resulted in the city centre becoming a ghost town, strictly off limits to Palestinians and overseen by soldiers.
In the South Hebron hills we visited Susya - a traditional Palestinian village - on Palestinian owned land, demolished several times by the Israeli army, only to be rebuilt. It neighbours an illegal Israeli settlement. Legal argument, intimidation and bureaucracy are being used to get rid of Susya, but the villagers continue to rebuild, despite the adversary.
I have been asked jokingly since I got back - “Have you got a solution?” The truth is, I can’t think of one. There are peace talks underway again which are being treated with scepticism. Actions by the Israelis through settlement expansion seem to undermine the once championed two state solution, and it seems very unlikely Israel would accept a one state option.
What Ireland and the international community must do is focus on the ordinary people - the farmers, the fishermen, the children, and the communities. These people are not part of a conflict; they are simply surviving.
Can we continue to tolerate a blockade of Gaza that punishes a civilian population of 1.7 million people? Do we stand by and watch illegal Israelis settlements displace Palestinians, and then allow their goods to be sold in Europe? Do we allow one people control and dominate another in the name of security? Do we allow human rights, fundamental protections central to our humanity, be dispensed as a privilege? I believe the answer is No