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16 June 2005 Edition

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Seeing it for myself... SINN FÉIN TD VISITS PALESTINE

Aengus (left) and the other Irish parliamentarians at the Palestinian Legislative Council

Aengus (left) and the other Irish parliamentarians at the Palestinian Legislative Council

As soon as you land in Tel Aviv Airport — well, a few minutes before — you know something is not right. The air stewards have handed you the Israeli equivalent of Britain's PTA form. Where are you going, who with, where are you staying, your mother's maiden name, your passport details, your mobile number and virtually everything else, stopping short of asking you what will you have for breakfast.

When you stroll down the spotless corridors of the airport and approach the security/passport control, its obvious that Big Brother will be made aware of your presence and will probably track you via your mobile phone GPS for the duration of your stay in the occupied lands.

Tony Gregory TD, who was ahead of me in the queue, got the third degree, regardless of whether he had a diplomatic passport or not. I don't, and expected much the same at the ungodly hour of 5am, but my airport experiences in Britain during the 1980s and 1990s had prepared me for everything. Alas, it was no more than: "Are you with him? Go ahead."

The armoured cars that the Irish consulate laid on for our journey to Jerusalem brought home to us the harsh realities of the ongoing conflict that is Palestine since the British interference stirred it up — and since the Israelis decided to do unto others as was done unto them.

Spy posts and roadblocks

Our whistle-stop tour of Jerusalem, Ramallah, Bethlehem and Hebron showed us, a delegation of the Oireachtas All-Party Friends of Palestine group, time and again that the Israelis have learnt much from repressive regimes around the world since they began to occupy the land of Palestine and to impose their will. The hilltops are covered with spy posts, not dissimilar to those that dot the Irish border landscape. The roads to the Palestinian towns and villages are blockaded or accessed only through Israeli checkpoints — again I remember the Six Counties in the last three decades.

For three days we travelled and met Palestinian parliamentarians, academics, refugee camp workers, farmers, human rights observers and development workers. As we drove on settler roads — roads built to link Israeli settlements but which Palestinians are barred from unless they have one of the very rare permits granted to Palestinians — we saw how the Israelis cut through local roads, destroying local economies, forcing goods to be carried from the fields on horseback or on foot. We saw how farmlands were cut off from the farmers, sometimes meaning that they are abandoned and thus open to confiscation under the law.

Illegal settlements

We saw the illegal settlements, the mobile homes of fundamentalist Jews intent on pushing the boat out as far as possible in a new land grab from Palestinians, secure in the knowledge that the Israeli state will protect them, regardless of international treaties. "Protection" means harassing Palestinian residents, closing down their local economy and forcing them into poverty, in the hope that the people's resolve will be broken and that they will abandon their homes, thus allowing the illegal settlers to become legal. This is how and why there are 1,500 Israeli soldiers in Hebron "protecting" 400 settlers!

The misnomer that is the Israeli "settlements" was brought home to me very starkly and can be seen by the accompanying photos. These are no temporary shanty towns as one might imagine; these are top of the range apartments/homes. All mod-cons, the best of roads, the full range of services — and don't worry, you can still literally "dump" on your Palestinian neighbours, as was evidenced by the raw sewage pipelines aimed at one small rural Palestinian area we visited. Betar colony is planning to dump its raw sewage onto the Wadi Fukin farmlands.

These settlements are strategically located to allow the Israelis to grab the most fertile land, the groundwater reserves and the high ground, so as to dominate the countryside. These aren't "settlements" as we might understand them; these are highly sophisticated, very secure modern towns being built to cater for a further influx of immigrant Jews from Russia, the US or elsewhere, and the expanding population of the Israeli state. Israel is a Jewish state for a Jewish people, much like unionism tried to create in the Six Counties. Tolerance for other people and other religions is not part of the agenda for the Israeli state, as we saw with the near strangulation of Bethlehem and the continuous encroachment into Jerusalem.

Already, Israel illegally occupies and dominates much of Jerusalem, but not content with that, they are buying up Palestinian properties, through bribery, inflated prices, or by simply intimidating the owners or the neighbours. The Wailing Wall and the Al Aqsa or As Sakhra (Dome of the Rock) Mosques are controlled by Israeli armed forces and while we were there, their Jerusalem Day closed down the city for two days so they could celebrate their military supremacy.

Bethlehem

To go from Jerusalem to Bethlehem is a short drive, but it will take hours. Already the Israeli blockade has destroyed the local economy. All goods in and out must use the 'back-to-back' system. A truck delivering to the town must offload its goods at the permanent checkpoint and then they are loaded onto another truck from the town. This is common throughout Palestine, adding to the time to get to the market and, therefore, to the price of production.

In some cases, over 77% of the cultivated lands in the western Bethlehem villages are cut off from the Palestinian farmers by the Apartheid Wall. Unemployment in some Palestinian areas runs as high as 70% of the male population. No industries locate in those areas. Those that did have now been ruined by the Israeli blockades.

As with the Six Counties, tourists will stay away if they are forced to run a gauntlet of military checkpoints. Bethlehem was hoping that its plans for one million tourists would be realised this year, but only 15,000 came. Who wants to see the hideous concrete Apartheid Wall surrounding this ancient religious city? Most tourists also want to be sure that they can get in and out of the locations they visit. There is no guarantee of that with the Israelis controlling movement through the Wall. Soon they will also close the nearest gate to Jerusalem, forcing a round trip of many miles.

Israeli spokespersons I've heard over the years have always justified their incursions, land grabs, the Apartheid Wall, etc, as merely reactive and defensive of their rights as a people. But collective punishment is never excusable, nor is security a legitimate excuse. These policies are also not accidental, not the "unfortunate but necessary" by-product of a state merely seeking to protect its people, using extreme measures only as a last resort, as we would be led to believe. No. What becomes clear when you see the results of this occupation for yourself is that every move — whether it is the location and expansion of settlements, the route of the Cement Roadstone-built Apartheid Wall, the house demolitions, the land confiscations, the properties targeted for purchase, take-over or theft — has been purposeful and planned in minute detail for maximum repressive effect.

Hebron isolated

When we visited Hebron, an old beautiful and vibrant city, we weren't prepared for what we saw. The old city was cut off literally from the new. A security zone existed that only residents were allowed into, and therefore the hundreds of shops and businesses in the arched cobbled old narrow streets have been forced to close due to a lack of custom and the harassment of the population by the Israeli garrison, along with settlers who, again, literally dump on the locals.

TDs' rude awakening

This is where TDs John Gormley, Tony Gregory and the others in the delegation awoke to the true nature of military occupation. Soldiers will point guns at you. Checkpoints are there to harass locals and visitors alike, and arrogance and bad manners are par for the course with occupation armies. You need only travel some 50 miles from Dublin to have experienced that.

In the space of 20 minutes all these finally became clear to my parliamentary colleagues as we went to visit the very ancient and holy Al Ibrahim Mosque, which houses the crypt of the prophet Ibrahim. This was also the scene of a mass slaughter in 1994, when a Jewish-American zealot forced his way into the mosque and killed 29 muslims who were at prayer. And the reaction of the Israelis? They imposed further restrictions on the Palestinian people and also on their visitors.

Legislative Council

The struggle to build democracy in this disjointed state does not enjoy the support of all Palestinian groups, but the Palestinian Legislative Council has tried, despite the obstacles, to have a semblance of democratic accountability. Unfortunately, the elections for a new council were put on hold while we were in Palestine. Israeli interference with registration and their refusal to guarantee free movement to and from the polls in the proposed July elections were some of the reasons given. So too was the failure among Palestinian political groups to agree the number of seats and the method of elections (whether through a list system or a partial list system).

The work of the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian Police (who escorted us in armed convoys in Palestinian controlled territories), and the Legislative Assembly which conducts its business through teleconferencing with its representatives in Gaza, all show a healthy desire for peace and democracy in this land. The absence of two of the members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Marwan Barghouti and Husam Khader, due to their arrest and imprisonment in Israeli jails, is marked by their photos occupying their seats (see photo).

Finally, in Ramallah, we took the opportunity to pay our respects to one of the 20th Century's most influential revolutionary leaders who passed away recently — Yasser Arafat.

What my visit confirmed to me — and this was even without visiting the open sore that is the Gaza Strip — is that the Israeli state continues to do its utmost to make Palestine an unviable state, one which will forever more be dependent on outside aid.

We as republicans must join with all those who believe in justice in the campaign to get the Israelis to abide by the many international resolutions they continuously defy in the course of the occupation.

What we can do

As Irish people, we need to figure out a way to effectively increase pressure on the Irish company Cement Roadstone Holdings to instruct its subsidiary, which is supplying the material for the Apartheid Wall, to stop at once and to use its profits to dismantle the Wall.

We should each contribute in any way we can to the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which is organised on an all-island basis, and express our solidarity with the many Palestinian groups and political prisoners who are still under pressure.

We must also demand that the Irish government increase its aid to the region to complement the tremendous work being undertaken by groups using international aid to alleviate the day-to-day crisis of the Palestinian people.

Finally, we must continue to build more broad-based support for the campaign to force the EU to live up to its global responsibility by suspending the EU-Israel preferential trade agreement.

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