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14 September 2006 Edition

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Adams in Palestine Dialogue the way forward

Finding solutions is possible

Last week Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams travelled to the Middle East. Two party colleagues, Richard McAuley and Joe McCullough, accompanied him. Here RICHARD McAULEY writes about their experiences.

No amount of column inches in newspapers, television images or photographs can prepare you for the obscenity that is the Israeli Wall. It is a monstrous piece of engineering and design which the Israeli government should be ashamed of. The day after we arrived in Jerusalem, the Negotiations Affairs Department of the PLO gave us an early morning briefing on the Wall which contained a mountain of detail and information. In truth, there was probably too much detail. But even that didn't - couldn't - prepare us for our first glimpse of the Wall.

It zigzags its way, mainly through Palestinian land, for hundreds of kilometres. When completed this eight-metre-high wall will stretch for 662.8 kilometres, more than twice the length of the 1967 border. The Israelis claim it's about security but it patently isn't. It's about stealing Palestinian land, allowing for the construction of more settlements on the West Bank, linking the existing and planned settlements, dividing any emerging Palestinian state into two major blocs and smaller canton-like structures, and ensuring the inclusion of all of Jerusalem into Israel. Along with Israel's planned settlement strategy in the Jordan valley, it's about controlling access to water. In places it would be akin to building a wall up the Falls Road, separating one nationalist area from another. It divides families. It divides Palestinian communities. It separates farmers from their land. It forces young children to wait at checkpoints for hours to get to and from school. It is a policy which encourages the construction of ghettos, from which Palestinians will be eventually pushed, allowing their homes and land to be taken.

The Wall captures 9% of Palestinian land on the West Bank and, when added to the planned settlement programme, it will mean that around 45% of Palestinian land will be under Israeli control. Currently there are 370,000 Israeli settlers living on the West Bank. The Wall traps around 260,000 Palestinians. It means that almost 40% of the poorly-developed Palestinian economy is also under Israeli control.

I tell you all of this because it is wrong - it is a major violation of the rights and entitlements of the Palestinian people and needs to be highlighted - but also because it is evidence of a current Israeli strategy which seeks the maintenance of a divided, poor Palestinian territory which cannot develop into a proper state.

The Wall was condemned in 2004 by the International Court of Justice and by many in the international community. To its shame, that same community - and especially the EU, which has imposed economic sanctions against the Palestinians - has done nothing to challenge the construction of the Wall.

In his interviews and conversations, Gerry constantly drew attention to the importance of the Israeli government understanding that its strategic interests, that the peace, security, prosperity and stability of the Israeli people and of the Palestinian people, are inextricably bound up together. Each needs to defend the other. Each needs to work in partnership with the other. That is the only future which can guarantee no repeat of the decades of conflict which have bedevilled that region.

On the Tuesday evening when we arrived in Jerusalem Gerry gave a press conference in which he put the argument that 'war is not the only option'. He appealed to all political leaders to make a fresh effort to rebuild the peace process.

That same night, the Sinn Féin delegation had a very good meeting with representatives from a wide range of Palestinian and Israeli NGOs involved in peace work. There was a consensus that the only real solution is a two-state settlement.

The following morning, Gerry met with Dr. Ahmad Tibi, the leader of the Arab Movement for Change - an Arab party in the Israeli Knesset. He told us of the many problems faced by Arabs living within Israel including laws preventing marriages, laws excluding spouses from living in the state after the death of a partner, job discrimination and restrictions on movement. This was followed by our briefing on the Wall and the tour. After travelling around parts of Jerusalem and seeing for ourselves the impact of the Wall, we met up with representatives of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and were taken in an armed convoy to the Presidential compound in Ramallah. It was a surreal experience, driving at speed through narrow roads and streets, many of them in a very serious state of disrepair, with sirens blaring. Often, one side of the road would be overlooked by new Israeli settlements while the other side held cramped, ramshackle villages of Palestinians. The difference in living standards - even at first glance from the inside of a speeding car - was obvious.

Much of the Presidential compound was destroyed by the Israelis several years ago when President Arafat was placed under siege in his office. In recent times the damage has been repaired and, following his death, President Arafat was buried there in a tomb which now dominates the compound.

We were taken to the tomb by Palestinian officials and Gerry laid a wreath. It was a solemn moment. And then it was into the office and a meeting with Rafiq Husseini, the President's Chief of Staff, and other senior advisors. President Abbas had had to unexpectedly leave the country a few days earlier but Gerry later spoke to him by phone. Rafiq Husseini updated us on the current situation and, despite the war in Lebanon and the conflict in Gaza, he said there was possibly a window of opportunity now which the Palestinian President intended to grasp. The hope is that a government of national unity can be formed, which will speed up the reopening of negotiations with the Israeli government and re-engage the international community.

After a press conference in the compound, lunch with the President's senior advisors and a phone conversation with President Abbas, we travelled to the office of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC). There we met with a representative group of parliamentarians led by the Deputy Speaker Hasan Khreishe and including representatives from Fatah, the Third Way, Abu Ali Mustafa, the Alternative bloc and Hamas. They told us that currently the Speaker of the Parliament and 43 members of the PLC, including a number of Ministers, are being held by the Israelis.

Gerry expressed Sinn Féin's support for the Palestinian cause and the creation of two states. His message to the Palestinian groups was the same as in his public remarks aimed at Israeli opinion: dialogue is the only way forward, all violence should end, all democratic mandates should be respected, and the funding ban on the PLC should be ended by the European Union. Much of the media interest was in this meeting because it included Hamas and for this reason the Israeli government had refused to meet us.

By this stage our schedule was running late and we headed off to Kalandia refugee camp. There we were met by several residents who brought us around, describing conditions and the history of the camp. It was opened in 1949 and is under the control of Israel. It has a population of just over 10,000, many of whom are entirely dependent on emergency food rations. Conditions in the camp are appalling. In the course of our short walkabout we met one young lad who had been released the previous day after spending two years in an Israeli jail. There are 10,000 Palestinian prisoners. We also met the family of two young boys who were killed in the Intifadah. We all came away from the camp angry at the conditions in which the people are forced to live.

In all, we spent around 40 hours in the region - a short trip which does not make us experts in its problems or potential solutions. Drawing comparisons between the peace process in Ireland and efforts to resolve the conflict in the Middle East would be foolhardy. There are similarities but there are also significant differences. But it is clear that the conditions exist on the ground for war to continue in varying degrees of intensity into the foreseeable future. And with increases in weapons technology, the dangers for all concerned and for the world in general are enormous.

Finding solutions will require leadership on both sides, a willingness to take risks, take initiatives, and compromise. It will need the Israelis and Palestinians working together and defending the rights and freedoms of the other. The Palestinians understand this. Not having met Israeli representatives, it is impossible for us to know if they do. Despite its longevity, its human toll and ongoing consequences, and the deep-rooted fears and distrust which exist, the Middle East conflict is not intractable. There are solutions.

* Richard McAuley at the Israeli Wall

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