In September this year Joanne and I had the opportunity to engage with UNRWA, (UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine) a temporary NGO set up in 1949 as to assist Palestinians displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict. 66 years later and the agency is still going strong with an annual budget of US$1.5bn, focussed on supporting 5 million Palestinian refugees stranded in Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. 1.5 million of these folk are in camps and that is where UNRWA focuses – helping relieve their living conditions, sometimes in the face of overt hostility from locals of the host nation. This is particularly the case in East Jerusalem where we spent time in Aida Camp, one of the oldest (1950), most densely populated (5,500 people in just 0.17 sq km) and most troubled camps, being as it is only 7kms from Jerusalem’s Old City.
The notorious Israeli-constructed Wall runs hard up against Aida Camp which provides the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) a great vantage point above the camp, and from which they don’t hestitate to harrass the occupants on a regular basis – from 2014 until present the camp averages 1 incident per day with the IDF. As has happened right across the West Bank since the Far Right’s Netanyahu has become dominant in Israeli politics, the escalation of violence from the IDF has been unrelenting. The liberal, centrist Israelis we talked to back in Jersualem confessed their regime was an embarrassment to Israelis who increasingly are regarded internationally as pariahs and to have lost their humanity.
The photos show the tear gas canisters sitting on the wire netting above the soccer ground in Aida, stranded up there as the locals have tried to make their only recreation area safe from indiscriminate IMF volleys of tear gas that rain down on the school we were visiting and across the neighbourhood.
The Israeli tactics are obscene and the teachers, UNRWA workers and of course the Palestinian families themselves were all suffering from respiratory problems when we were there. In the school we listened to a tape of the most notorious abuse so far from the IDF who megaphoned the camp and told them that if they did not desist from stone throwing they would be gassed to death – children, youths and the aged. The Israelis suspended the officer concerned and promised a “review”. Nothing happened.
Also amongst our UNRWA site visits was the embattled village of Wadi Fakum which is being encircled by the expansion of Jewish Settlements on the surrounding hills. This valley village depends for its livelihood on farming the adjoining fields. But the encroaching settlers are just full-on abusers of the rights of these inhabitants. They continually harass them, let the raw sewage from their hilltop suburbs pour down the hillsides upon the Palestinians’ fields, undertake sorties to burn the farmers’ olive trees, beat the local children up, and encroach into the village with guns. Such totally despicable behaviour goes without sanction by the authorities. The aim obviously is to drive the Palestinians out and by doing so, seize the abandoned land. Given settlers can bear arms and villagers aren’t permitted, settlers are subject to civil courts while villagers are answerable in military courts, and the blind eye that Netanyahu’s thugs turn to all this – the future for Wadi Fakum is bleak.
The wall and the settlements are the main tools the Israelis are using to attack the Palestinian settlements. It is clear the settlements are spreading west, and heading all the way out to Jericho on the banks of the Jordan river, which will in effect drive a wedge right across Palestine, divide Palestine into north and south separating families and communities.
The wall on the other hand is nowhere near the Green Line agreed in 1947 and that formed the basis of the 1993 Oslo Accords signed between Arafat and Rabin that agreed to the principle of two self-governing states. With Netanyahu coming to power first in 1996 and his party being decidedly against the two state solution and withdrawal from the Occupied Territory, Israel has been categorically ambivalent on the two state solution. Hence during Netanyahu’s current term the hostility is escalating, and it appears to be threatening the very existence of Palestinians.
So this wall comes well into the West Bank and twists and turns its way along, designed deliberately to inflict maximum hurt on the Palestinians. Communities are separated from their schools and health centres, farmers are separated from their fields (as is the case with the wall at Aida) and of course the Israelis ensure all special Muslim religious sites end up on the Israeli side of the wall. It is provocative, it is illegal according to international law, and its purpose is far from that declared by the Israelis.
The Israelis argue that the wall has been necessary to “defend” Israel. Having been to several theatres where zones are used to separate hostile sides, that claim is patently rubbish. Zones typically contain a no-man’s-land which acts as a buffer between the two sides. But with this wall the IDF get up on the top of it and harass the Palestinian locals below – there is no attempt at separation, it is an offensive not a defensive device.
It is abundantly clear that Israel does not accept the two state solution that the UN recommended back in 1947, and the agenda is to continually squeeze the Palestinians. The wall and the settlements are weapons for a land grab so that when the inevitable happens and Israel is checked, the “new” Israel will be much larger than that defined in 1947. Despite how much is written on this sort of behaviour, the rate of encroachment is accelerating. International impotence in reining Israel in, is deafening in its silence.
The radicalisation of the population in Palestine is steadily being manufactured by the regime of Benjamin Netanyahu and its total abuse of human rights and international treaty undertakings. Already Hamas rules Gaza and support for it in the Occupied Territory is growing steadily as the Abbas-led Palestinian Authority is seen as totally useless in reining in Israeli aggression.
Yet despite the obvious – that this is all leading to a violent breakout by the Palestinians trapped in Gaza and increasingly in the West Bank, as recently as 2014 the UN Security Council once again failed to resolve to censure Israel. The US is the problem and in the past has had to use its veto to prevent such a motion (2011). While the US, at least under Obama, disagrees with Israel’s tactics, it limply argues that peace can only be resolved there in a bilateral agreement between Israel and Palestine, rather than engineered by the UN. Hence its veto (in 2014, and supported by Australia!). Given American activism in trying to force “peace” in other parts of the Middle East rather than leave it to any bilateral arrangement between locals, such an excuse is limp, even hypocritical.
Our visit at an end – or at least this part before we move on to Syrian refugee settlements in Lebanon – Joanne and I resolve to help UNRWA, that 60 year old “temporary” NGO for displaced Palestinians – by putting some resource in to help it get resources to entrapped Palestinians. Despite the agreements they’ve signed, the Israelis have become even more obstructive in their efforts to impede the work of UNRWA so every bit of help we can provide, hopefully can make a difference.
Isn’t it ironic, that from a land formed as a shelter for the victims of the worst atrocity of the modern era, have emerged descendants from that terrible time who compromise their own humanity in order to inflict as much harm as they can get away with on another people, a people who have just as much legitimacy to reside in the area as them. Civil-minded Israelis are ashamed, thank goodness.