Caabu and Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) Parliamentary delegation visits West Bank February 2020
From 17-21 February 2020, Caabu took another UK parliamentary delegation to the West Bank, together with our partners at Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP). The delegation consisted of three Labour Party MPs: Neil Coyle (Bermondsey and Old Southwark), Alex Norris (Nottingham North and also a Shadow DFID Minister) and Jeff Smith (Manchester Withington).
The delegation had meetings with both Palestinian and Israeli officials, and also meetings with the UK Consul General, DFID, the UN, and a variety of Palestinian, Israeli and international NGOs working on the ground, including Amnesty International, B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch. In Bethlehem, the delegation also met with chef, restauranteur and tourism advisor, Fadi Kattan. He explained the challenges facing the tourism sector in Palestine and operating a business in the West Bank.
MAP’s report of the visit can be read here.
A host of themes were covered by the delegation, many of which have been common themes on previous delegations due to their acute significance and importance. The delegation took place in the context of the unveiling of the Trump ‘plan’ on 28 January 2020 and the Israeli government announcing plans to officially annex huge swathes of Occupied Palestinian territory in the West Bank.
The importance of such delegations is for elected UK representatives to see for themselves the situation on the ground faced by Palestinians – in particular the most vulnerable of Palestinian communities – and how the Occupation, the threat of annexation, and various fundamental barriers (some physical and some not), impact their daily lives.
The Military Court at Ofer
Palestinian child detention is an issue which previous Caabu and MAP delegations have placed huge importance on. Together with Military Court Watch, the parliamentarians visited the military court at Ofer, and witnessed several ‘trials’ – some with Palestinian minors – at the court. 95% of cases in the military courts result in convictions. Gerard Horton and Salwa Dubais of Military Court Watch explained the military detention system and the ways in which Israeli forces operate in order to carry out raids, arrests and control Palestinian populations across the occupied West Bank. According to Israeli Prison Service (IPS) statistics, there are 4,520 Palestinians (West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza) held as “security prisoners” in detention facilities including 183 children (12-17 years). At the court, they met with many families of young people who were currently in detention and whose ‘trials’ would be held later that day. This included the father of a young man from the Bethlehem area needed urgent dialysis treatment for kidney failure – dialysis which is needed three times a week. According to the father, his son had only received one treatment since his arrest eight days earlier.
The YMCA in Beit Sahour – meeting former young detainees
The delegates had the opportunity to meet with several young people who had been through the military detention process courtesy of the YMCA at Beit Sahour. The YMCA works with people aged between 6 and 35, but the majority of recipients of their help are aged between 12 and 21. The young men discussed their experiences with the MPs and how they were being assisted by the YMCA with the impact that military detention had had upon both themselves and their families. The young men discussed the psychological impact of detention, and how this had affected their education. When people come out of military detention, there are two main things which either happen next or are standard from someone who has been through this system. The first thing is that the young person would come out of this with a hero mentality – they would be thrown a party by either members of their family or the community and treated as if they were a hero. Then around a week later in many cases, the second consequence is apparent once the excitement following their release has died down. This is the traumatic experience which includes a deep sense of mistrust of peers, family members, community members, PTSD, sleeping disorders and poor performance at school.
One young man arrested in his final year of high school (which meant he was unable to do his exams) spoke of his arrest. He was arrested in a place where other young people were throwing stones. He was handcuffed and used as a shield between the young people and the Israeli soldiers. He was put on the floor of a jeep, surrounded by dogs, handcuffed and blindfolded. He returned to school but his time in detention had a huge impact on his concentration. Another spoke of being arrested whilst with a broken leg and taken to a police station in a settlement in the Etzion bloc, He was forced to take off all his clothes and be fully naked, with only handcuffs put on very tightly.
All of them spoke about the upset, distress and pyschological impact their arrests also had on their families – especially their mothers.
Aida Refugee Camp
With UNRWA, the delegation also visited Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem. The camp itself is a hotspot for various raids (more often than not involving Palestinian minors) and military incursions. This was an opportunity for the delegation itself to visit the camp and see the conditions inside it. UNRWA briefed them on the latest developments for the residents of the camp and also on the current implications for UNRWA itself particularly due to US cuts and active actions against the UN agency. Other issues discussed at Aida refugee camp included the use of tear gas by Occupation forces, and provisions for safe spaces. A previous report has led to Aida being labelled “the most teargassed place on earth”, with 100% exposure to tear gas for residents there. Teargas exposure in Aida camp is also inside people’s homes and school classrooms.
Inside Aida camp, the delegates also visited the Lajee Center – a vital space for children of the camp providing activities, workshops and exhibitions – trying to provide a safe and secure environment for these young people.
Issawiya, Occupied East Jerusalem
The situation in Occupied East Jerusalem is becoming increasingly more difficult and tense, notably since various US announcements, and including US cuts to UNRWA. One particularly tense area of East Jerusalem is Issawiya – where there are regular clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians– including in recent weeks. The Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem call this a ”harassment operation”. The delegation visited Issawiya with the Jerusalem Legal Aid Center (JLAC).
In the days leading up to the delegation’s visit, a Palestinian child Malek Issa was shot in the eye and blinded in his left eye by a rubber-tipped bullet from an Israeli police officer on 15 February. Reports indicate that Malek is the eleventh child to lose an eye because of a rubber-tipped bullet . Tensions in Issawiya continue to rise, and the area is frequently raided by Israeli police and put under blockade. Israeli forces have also demolished many Palestinian homes and structures. In East Jerusalem in 2019 and 2020, 196 Palestinian homes have been demolished either by the municipality or the owners have been forced to demolish the homes themselves – including in Issawiya. The delegation met with various families in Issawiya, including Hatem Abu Riyala, who was forced into a wheelchair and disabled because of a previous demolition of the top floor of his home. The top floor of his home has demolished on several occasions, with the latest being in December 2019. The rubble which still surrounds Hatem’s properly, makes his movement due to his disability, even more difficult.
Augusta Victoria Hospital, Occupied East Jerusalem
The delegation also visited the Augusta Victoria hospital in East Jerusalem, where they met patients, including child cancer patients from Gaza. One of the main healthcare challenges for those from Gaza especially (but also in the West Bank) is Israel’s permit regime. People needing urgent treatment are often not granted permits to go to receive treatment in Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem. 35% of permit applications for patients needing to travel to medical appointments outside Gaza were either delayed or denied in 2019.
There is an even greater problem for companions of patients (including those of young cancer patients, and sometimes worse for young parents) to get permits to come from Gaza to Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem – often it is a grandparent or elderly relative who will travel with a young cancer patient, rather than the child’s mother – who will remain separated. There have been several examples where this has been the case.
The delegates met with 3 year old Jana from Jabalia in the north of Gaza. Until her case was raised on social media and through the WHO, applications for permits for Jana and her mother Maysa to access health facilities outside of Gaza for cancer treatment were frequently delayed and denied. Since October 2019, three applications were made to Israel to exit Gaza to receive radiotherapy at Augusta Victoria in East Jerusalem – which is not available in Gaza. On 15 February 2020, Jana finally received permission to exit Gaza for her appointment at Augusta Victoria on 16 February thanks to her case being raised.
One of the most acute and visual representations of the Occupation is in Hebron. With both Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence and Palestinian activist Hisham Sharabarty, the delegation saw Hebron first hand – from the sterilised zones of Shuhada Street, to the Old City whose Palestinian population is heavily depleted.
The delegates were given a tour of the “sterilised” (meaning no Palestinians allowed) zones of Shuhada Street (under full Israeli military control). While the whole area of H2 in Hebron is free for settlers to walk and drive in, it remains restricted for Palestinians. Palestinians are unable to drive in large sections of H2, and areas of Shuhada Street remain completely closed for pedestrians, cars and shops (many of which were welded shut). Citing the protection of a few hundred settlers living in the heart of the city, the army severely restricts the movement of tens of thousands of Palestinian residents. The tour included witnessing the settlements within Hebron itself, and what was once the bustling bus station, fruit and vegetable market, meat market and jewellery market.
Palestinian residents in Hebron have to live with daily settler harassment and constant military activity. In the Old City, and in the boundaries between H1 and H2, the delegation witnessed the checkpoints and obstacles that divide Hebron. When walking through Hebron’s souk, you can witness the netting that is often in place in certain areas to stop waste, garbage and fecal matter being thrown down from the Israeli settlers in the settlements overlooking the streets of the souk. Whilst businesses operate in this area of Hebron, many cannot – with many units still shut and economic life and activity not being at the level it should be. They were given two differing perspectives from former IDF soldiers who served in Hebron, and Palestinians who have lived their entire lives in the city.
The delegation, courtesy of Palestinian women’s NGO Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling (WCLAC) and Oxfam, met with a group of women from Hebron in the area of Tel Rumeida. It was led by activist Fayzeh Abu Shamsiya who welcomed the delegation into her home. They discussed the impact of occupation in particular on women, notably issues such as isolation and harassment from settlers and soldiers. The delegates heard how women in Hebron are often adversely affected by the Occupation. In an area of Hebron such as Tel Rumeida, issues of social isolation are very common. In many cases friends or family members will not visit or will not be able to visit those living in Tel Rumeida. Residents will have their names written down on paper at the checkpoint. Only those who are listed will be able to visit. There is little faith that much is changing. One woman told the delegation: “I’ve been speaking for 35 years and I’m still yet to hear my echo.”
Women spoke about how young women going to and from school faced being humiliated by male Israeli soldiers – harassing them, using coarse, vulgar and sexual language towards them, touching them, or taking the sanitary pads out of their bags and waving them around. The overwhelming concern from parents in Hebron – especially mothers – is the inability to protect their children from harm – either harm at the hands of Israeli soldiers or Israeli settlers. There is an overwhelming fear that their children will be harassed and hurt, and that they are unable to live a life free from some of the harshest realities of occupation in Hebron.
The Jordan Valley
With Palestinian NGO Al Haq, the delegation visited the Jordan Valley, an area that Israel plans to illegally annex. They witnessed the impact of occupation on Bedouin communities such as in Ras al Awja. The communities spoke of the lack of access to water, the lack of rights to build on land (Palestinians are unable to build in Area C which includes the Jordan Valley), the inability to farm and graze their livestock without restrictions and to access services such as healthcare. Israeli forces carry out frequent demolitions in the Jordan Valley of Palestinian homes and structures, meaning that many Bedouin communities are at a severe risk of forcible transfer.
The Palestinian Circus School, Birzeit
One of the final delegation activities was a visit to the Palestinian Circus School in Birzeit, a project supported by Medical Aid for Palestinians. The delegates watched a preview performance from students at the circus school – which included an equal number of students with learning disabilities. It was important to see this project and see the integration of students with disabilities to be part of something like this and be supported and encouraged not just by their mentors and teachers, but also other students and friends who were part of the circus school.