Jill Evans MEP – speech on Palestine at Colwyn Bay – Nov 16
Palestine: the search for Peace and Justice
12th November 2016
It was as an MEP for Wales that I first visited the West Bank in Palestine on a fact finding mission in 2000. The experience left an indelible mark on me. That was seventeen years ago and it is as fresh in my mind as if it was yesterday. I have been back to Palestine – the West Bank and Gaza – many times since and a lot has changed. But not the injustice; not the occupation; not the settlements; not the oppression; and tragically, not the inaction of the international community.
How much longer can the Palestinian people wait for justice and equality? How many more generations will live through the terror? The situation is as bad as ever, if not worse. House demolitions, forced evictions and arrests under administrative detention are still common.
At the end of October, the home of the extended Jaafreh family was demolished in Silwan, East Jerusalem, leaving 35 people homeless half under 18 years old. At the same time the homes of the Sita, and Rajabi families were destroyed in Beit Hanina leaving twelve others with nowhere to go. Those demolitions brought this year’s total to 166, compared to 75 in 2015. According to the United Nations, nearly 900 structures were destroyed or confiscated in the West Bank as a whole in 2016 – an increase of 60% compared with 2015. Several hundreds of families more are at risk of illegal eviction to make way for illegal Israeli settlements.
There are 2.7 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem – about the same population as Wales. Yet over 60% of the West Bank has been designated part of Area C. In Area C Israel has exclusive control over law enforcement, planning and construction. Part of it has been allocated for settlements or for the military, despite the fact that Palestinians live there. The undermining of Palestinian authority in East Jerusalem was illustrated very clearly to me by the Governor and Minister of Jerusalem affairs, Mr Adnan Alhusseini. Despite his position, he was not allowed to have an office in the city or organise any political activity. We met him in an hotel. Understandably, he was angry and frustrated. He did not believe that any good had come from the twenty one years of negotiations and that it was essential for the Palestinian issue to be internationalised.
This is why it was so important that the European Parliament voted in December 2014 to recognise the State of Palestine on the basis of the 1967 borders and with Jerusalem as the capital of both states.
When I was in Jerusalem last year we were shown very graphically the reality of the house demolition policy. We met people in whole communities which had been earmarked for demolition. We saw the young children walking home from school, knowing that one day they would come home to find bulldozers and rubble where their homes once stood.
Demolitions deprive people of much more than their homes. They can also lose their livelihoods, access to education, access to healthcare and basic services.
And many of the buildings demolished have been paid for by donor money – over 200 of them this year – over 60% EU funded – funded by us. Their value was something like €400,000. The first ever debate we had on this in the European Parliament was in May this year, thanks to my group getting it on the agenda. But nothing has happened since. We have drawn up a new resolution on settlements and we are in discussions with some other groups on the left to get it on the agenda, but as yet there is no timescale. Our aim is to have public debate on the issue of settlements and demolitions as often as possible and show people what is going on. No-one should be able to dispute what is clearly illegal.
The very first meeting I had on my visit last year was with an Israeli organisation, Peace Now. It was set up in 1978 to work for a two state solution. One of the reasons is that it believes that the occupation damages Israel politically and economically and that ending the occupation would mean Israel could remain a democratic country.
Peace Now is responsible for a programme called Settlement Watch, which is literally that. Once a year they fly over the occupied territories looking for signs of new settlements from the air. They also receive information from people on the ground about outposts – the sudden arrival of a few caravans or portacabins which soon get connected to mains water and electricity and are joined by others with the intention of creating a settlement on that area of land. This is how the settlements are expanding – quietly, but just as illegally as if the government moved in and built them in public view.
One of the most interesting and poignant meetings I had in Palestine last year was with members of a Bedouin community of Jabal al Baba, high in the mountains and only accessible by landrover. Although not far from Jerusalem, it was like another world. The Bedouins are no longer nomadic but they still live in the hills in tents and farm goats and sheep. They are not connected to mains services so their water comes from tanks and is often piped over long distances by the time it arrives at the tents it is hot. They do not have mains electricity although more and more small solar panels could be seen, providing power to individual homes.
The landscape was incredible. The bright blue of the sky against the yellow-orange of the barren mountains – bright strong colours I have not often seen in Palestine. The hills were quite bare, but I was told that they were grass covered in the rainier season and that there was still enough grass growing on the top to feed the goats. It must be a very hard life but very much a way of life too – the families had lived this way for generations.
But these mountain families, too, were under threat of eviction. I hadn’t noticed when I arrived, but even above this camp was a settler’s house on the summit, overlooking their land and watching them. An outpost waiting to grow. They hadn’t had any real problems, but they knew that the Israeli Government wanted to move them to get control of the land. Agriculture s becoming more and more important politically and an increasing reason for forcing Palestinians off their land. In the case of the Bedouin people, it would mean robbing them of their lifestyle and traditions. They would have to sell their livestock if they moved because there simply wouldn’t be room on the proposed new site.
The Bedouins were fighting the move. Every family had a lawyer and UNRWA estimated that the process could take between one and three years between the objections and the preparations of a new site.
Apart from experiencing the warmth and hospitality of the Palestinian people and enjoying the beautiful country, on every visit I try to find a good story -something positive to report back. I always do find something. This visit was no exception.
I met two young Bedouin men who had launched Sahari: Desert Eco-Tourism in Palestine. They had a large traditional Bedouin tent, bedecked in hangings of all kinds and all colours, with carpets covering the floor and a table in the centre with the usual coffee pot. They had trained in Bethlehem before setting up the business. They offer the experience of hikes in the mountains and deserts of Palestine while learning the songs and stories and traditions of the Bedouin, and the opportunity to camp under the stars. Not only was this a unique venture, but the money they made went back into the community, including a kindergarden, which they had built. The pre-school unit was right next to the Bedouin tent. It was a tiny portakabin with the Palestinian flag painted on the outside. I met the children and we took a photograph with the huge Welsh flag I had taken with me. It wasn’t the first time they had seen the red dragon. I am proud to say that when Wales played Israel in the early stages of the Euros, Gol! the Welsh supporters trust, raised money for the school and visited there when they went to Israel for the game.
I was one of over 60 MEPs who signed an open letter to FIFA in October asking for 5 Israeli clubs to be expelled from the Israeli Football Association and from all FIFA events because they were based in settlements. They should either be moved to within Israel’s legal borders or not recognised. We have to so vigilant on so many fronts.
We have to look at the issue of research and development funding, the issue of differentiation i.e. Ensuring that nothing is classed as Israeli if it comes from beyond the 1967 borders, which includes settlement products of course. The EU has adopted guidelines on labelling but they are not being enforced.
I feel a particular responsibility to keep drawing attention to the political prisoners in Israeli jails, including 12 elected members of the Palestinian Legislative Council. Most are on administrative detention, which means they haven’t been actually charged with a crime or put on trial. Of the nearly 6,000 Palestinian prisoners, 160 are children and 26 women.
I have recently signed yet another petition for the end of the blockade against Gaza – collective punishment of 1.9 million people. The suffering in Gaza is terrible. I visited after Operation Cast Lead to see the destruction for myself. Since then I have tried to get to Gaza many times but the Israeli government will not let us through.
Major events this year have shown that change is happening, but not change for the better.
The Israeli government celebrated the election of Donald Trump as much as the Russians, but without the same media attention, of course. We know well by now that when swift action is a political priority for countries, they will find a way of doing it – such as the ban on products from Crimea after Russia annexed it. No such action has been taken against Israel.
I mentioned at the start that I worked with many NGOs, including Israeli groups. These groups are under threat from their own government. A new law means they have to declare funding from EU sources. For many, the loss of European funding would mean they would disappear. His has created a lot of fear. The EU has done nothing.
Many of us were deeply disappointed in Barack Obama and his lack of action on Palestine. We can expect President Trump to be very much worse. He has already said that he would move the US Israeli embassy to Jerusalem which would be devastating because it means recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
So now more than ever the EU needs to take action. It can take unilateral steps and show leadership. It can make the occupation very expensive for Israel.
Rather than protest about what is happening in Area C in Jerusalem, the EU could actively invest in Area C to assist Palestinian communities. It could examine all of its projects to ensure that Europe supports Palestinian self determination and not Israeli occupation. And not Palestinian financial dependence. It could help develop more companies like Sahari.
The EU should demand compensation for projects destroyed by Israel. It should make a comprehensive list of all the damage incurred in Gaza and the West Bank so everyone can see the extent of and financial costs of these actions.
What of our future in Wales? To a large extent, we have worked through the EU and with EU partners on Palestine. In a couple of years we will be outside the EU. We need to be preparing now for how our solidarity movement can grow and thrive at that time. There has been talk of a new international solidarity movement through governments. We should look into Welsh Government membership of that. We will need the governments commitment to be part of a new global network. And we will need to lobby the UK government more than ever before because it will be the UK that will decide on policy on Palestine and Israel, including trade agreements, not the EU.
Will have our work cut out!
But to leae you with some positive thoughts. The first is that statistics show that Israeli people spend more time on Facebook than anyone else. So those of you active on Facebook, there is an opportunity to create new friendships and dialogue in that forum.
Secondly, every year in Bethlehem there is a “Right to Movement” marathon where people from all over the world celebrate the act of movement in a positive and peaceful atmosphere. It is a real marathon which goes along the wall and through refugee camps but more than once because there is not a 26 kilometre stretch or road without a checkpoint. It is a symbolic counter- occupation for one day.
For Palestinians, getting to the starting line can be the hardest part of the race because Israel controls all the borders. It has been especially difficult for runners with Palestinian links to travel from other countries.
It not only takes place in Palestine but is spreading all over the world. Why don’t we establish a Welsh solidarity race in 2017 or have a “right to movement” group running in local marathons. I’m no runner, so I won’t be out there leading the field. But I’m a string believer in Dewi Sant’s “gwnewch y pethau bychain” – do the small things. All of these things make a difference. Today makes a difference. Put all of the little things together and you get something big and strong. And our demand for peace and justice for Palestine will keep getting stronger and stronger.