the friend online
19 January 2007

International Edition: a visit to the West Bank

Alan & Pauline York saw the Israel-West Bank barrier for themselves

Our first approach to the Wall in Jerusalem was in a pre-arranged taxi. The Wall stretches and winds for scores of miles along boundaries between Israeli and Palestinian. It is sometimes of concrete higher than in Berlin, sometimes electrified fencing, sometimes a fenced military road, and sometimes a deep cutting with a fence or a wall on one side. Around Jerusalem it is high, solid concrete. Watchtowers are everywhere.

On a World Council of Churches sponsored delegation to Palestine, we had flown from Heathrow to Ben Gurion airport in Israel, and then travelled rapidly on a good road into Jerusalem and up to this huge concrete barrier. The gate was manned by armed Israeli soldiers and there was a big sign wishing PEACE to everyone, but once through into Bethlehem we entered a different world – one of winding streets and small shops, with a definite third world feel to it. We slept in Bethlehem and the next ten days were packed for us and our 33 co-delegates with visits, tours, meetings, lectures and travel from one end of the West Bank to the other.

We visited refugee camps and rural villages, Ramallah and the presidential compound, checkpoints and olive groves, farmers, teachers, and soldiers. And, of course, we listened to people, from Hannan Ashwari to Israeli peace-workers, from an outgoing Palestinian government minister to a delegation from Hammas, from a village mayor to the boys in the street.

Our overall reaction was one of shock. We found a society full of variety and colour, full of interest and imagination, but also full of fear. We saw the despair of young men in a refugee camp near Bethlehem, over-looked by the overbearing wall.

We saw the puzzlement and incomprehension of a farmer cut off from his own olive groves by a military road and an electric fence. We saw the daily humiliation of scores of checkpoints, where teenage Israeli soldiers decide the fate of Palestinians wanting to travel a few miles.

400,000 Israelis now live in settlements large and small, scattered across the West Bank. The settlements are joined by newly built Israeli roads linking settlers to Israel proper. No Palestinian can travel on these roads without Israeli permission. To do so risks arrest.

Restricted largely to lesser roads pockmarked with checkpoints, the Palestinian economy is faltering. Large areas of the West Bank, including almost the whole Jordan Valley, are now in the direct, and apparently permanent, control of Israeli settlers or the Israeli army. So-called 'Settlement Blocks' (areas where more settlement is expected) are thrust deep into the territory, splitting it into small separated fragments of land containg all the main Palestinian cities – Ramallah, Hebron, Jennin, Bethlehem, Jericho, and so on – except, of course, Jerusalem, illegally annexed to Israel long ago.

Life for Palestinians is, to say the least, difficult. An accomplished deputy head teacher in Ramallah tells us he doesn't own a car. 'There is no point', he says, 'I cannot leave Ramallah without Israeli permission, and that is seldom given.' We visit a village suffering harassment from nearby settlers - the shepherd beaten up as he grazes his sheep, the schoolchildren abused as they walk to school. As we leave, a woman says to us 'Please do not forget us.'

In the West Bank 2 million Palestinians are living under a military occupation that has lasted 38 years. But they are also living with a land increasingly taken away from them by various Israeli agencies.The Palestinian Authority rules over a collection of small areas, including the major towns, comprising only about 49 per cent of the total land.

The future looks truly uncertain. Israelis fear suicide bombers, rockets fired from Gaza, and the growing Arab population. Palestinians fear the Israeli army of occupation, checkpoints, house demolitions, and the future.

About five million Israeli Jews and about four million Israeli and Palestinian Arabs occupy the whole of Israel/ Palestine. If present trends continue, in 10-15 years there will be a Palestinian majority between the Jordan and the sea. And the repression of the West Bank (and Gaza) without the prospect of a just political settlement is a cause of desperate concern.

There are good people on both sides working for peace. Hannan Ashwari of Palestine seeks political agreements. Professor Jeff Halper of Ben Gurion University in Israel seeks to reframe the conflict in terms of human rights.

The Wall is seen as a security measure by most Israelis; by most peace workers, including Jeff Halper, it is merely a separation wall, and, together with the roads, the checkpoints, the settlements, and the military zones, it has reduced Palestine to a set of separated cantons, difficult for the Palestinians to govern but easy for Israel to control.

To see the problem in terms of human rights, for both Palestinians and Israelis, is perhaps to begin a way forward. But things may get worse before they get better.

We cannot forget the people we have met and the communities who welcomed us. Being given lunch by the inhabitants of a refugee camp is a humbling experience, especially when you know that the camp has been there since 1948, and the young people serving you are the grandchildren of the original refugees. The history is complex and bitter. To see Bethlehem imprisoned by walls with young armed soldiers letting people in and out at whim is to be reminded of that history. Nervous Israeli soldiers and fearful, angry citizens make the West Bank a difficult place.

But we urge everyone to visit Palestine. By meeting the people there one can come to appreciate something of the real truth of the situation, and by being there, say Palestinians, visitors show some sense of solidarity with a subjected people.

Alan and Pauline York


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International Edition: Multifaith and hope in the West Bank
Jane Garrett, Leeds MM & Jenny Bell, West Somerset MM
International Edition: a visit to the West Bank
Alan and Pauline York
International Edition: Promoting non-violence in the West Bank
Gerald Conyngham
International Edition: Report from the Middle East
Franco Perna
Countries of the Week: Israel & Palestine

Conciliation work in Nagaland
Sarah Alldred, Hardshaw East MM
News round-up
Green living may not be so simple – or is it?
Andrew Hughes Nind
Edward Hoare & Judy Kirby
Silence and patience
Susie Paskins
Why gay people should be welcome in churches
Stephen Cox
A portrait of George Fox
Simon Webb
John Hamilton: politician with a heart
Peter Smith

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