I visited the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) for five days in February 2023 as part of a parliamentary delegation organised by the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU), Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) and the Balfour Project.
This delegation takes place 3-4 times a year to allow different British Parliamentarians to witness first-hand on a cross-party basis the humanitarian and political situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. I have been planning to visit ever since I was first elected to Parliament but had to postpone a number of times due to votes in Parliament, a worsening of the security situation and the Covid-19 pandemic.
The visit took place in a context of escalating tension and violence, and mass protests in Israel against the government’s planned reforms to the Israeli Supreme Court.
I condemn the violence on both sides of this intractable conflict. Israelis have the right to live in peace and security, without the threat of Hamas rocket attacks; Palestinians have the right to self-determination, freedom and security too.
A Labour government would recognise the state of Palestine.
Our cross-party group stayed in East Jerusalem. Our time was split between field visits and a wide range of different meetings, including with Israeli and Palestinian civil society organisations, the British Consul, local community representatives and a number of projects supported by Medical Aid for Palestinians.
We visited two projects supported by Medical Aid for Palestinians. The first was Makassed Hospital in East Jerusalem, a major referral hospital for the West Bank and Gaza, particularly for pregnant women and sick babies and children.
We visited the neo-natal unit, where many tiny premature babies were being cared for in incubators by specialist nurses. It was very distressing to discover that none had their mother with them. The staff explained that this is a consequence of the way that the permit system operates under the Israeli occupation. The staff told us about the ‘hug rota’ they run to help the babies to be able to form essential attachments in the first few weeks of life in the absence of their mothers.
The second medical project we visited was a mobile health clinic supported by MAP in a tiny Palestinian village in the South Hebron Hills. The clinic is a shipping container, and the team of two doctors, two healthcare assistants and a lab technician supported by MAP, visit once a week. They provide consultations, access to medication, testing and on-going care for people with long term conditions like high blood pressure or diabetes.
The village leaders told us that the shipping container clinic had previously been demolished three times by Israeli soldiers and is currently under a demolition order. This provided a powerful insight into the operation of the building permits system, which makes life extremely hard for many Palestinian communities.
We saw many examples of Palestinian homes and structures being damaged or demolished by Israeli settlers and met with communities who are denied connections to the mains water supply on their own land. Israeli settlements in the OPT are illegal in international law, and it was shocking to see the extent of this activity, both in the South Hebron Hills and on a separate visit to the north of Ramallah.
We met the brother of Shireen Abu Akleh, the Al-Jazeera television news anchor who was shot and killed by Israeli forces in May 2022 in the Jenin refugee camp. Shireen’s brother told us of his family’s search for justice for Shireen, and the shocking refusal of the Israeli government to investigate her death.
We visited a Refugee Camp in East Jerusalem, run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and met with children there who are members of the Shuafat Youth Parliament. It was very moving to hear their hopes and dreams.
We had a very interesting and reflective discussion with several Israeli civil society organisations who work for justice and peace in the OPT. They were very clear that there are many aspects of the occupation which oppress the everyday lives of ordinary Palestinians – such as the operation of permits for hospital attendance, the lack of access to mains water in rural areas, the building permit and demolition scheme and the military courts, which simply serve to increase resentment and tension and stoke the cycle of violence. Their view is that the current situation is not sustainable for Israel, even as it is intolerable for ordinary Palestinians.
The biggest revelation for me as a first time visitor to the OPT was in the detail of life under occupation. The many people we met, including doctors working at the hospital, whose every day lives were disrupted by lengthy queues at checkpoints; the babies separated from their mothers; the insecurity of living in a building which has a demolition order. These are the areas where, I believe, the UK government can and should be pressing the Israeli government for greater accountability and justice. Israel will always be the UK’s friend and ally, but if we believe in a rules-based international system, then breaches of international law cannot continue to be routinely overlooked.
It is a tragedy that a land which is sacred to three global religions of peace is so riven with conflict and violence. There must be a renewed international effort for peace, and it must be possible for Israelis and Palestinians both to live in peace and security. But for this to happen, the ground must first be laid – stopping illegal settlement, preventing the demolition of Palestinian homes and community buildings, facilitating mothers to remain with their new-borns and the cessation of rocket attacks from Gaza aimed at Israel. Neither Palestinians or Israelis should fear for their children, their families and their friends, wherever they live. It is in these details that a signal can be sent that there is something to hope for, that a bigger peace is possible.
Amid many challenging aspects of the visit, it was a great privilege to meet Hanan Ashrawi in a restaurant in Ramallah. Hanan played a prominent role in the peace negotiations of the 1990s as the chief spokesperson for the Palestinian authority. As a teenager, she was an inspiration to me – a woman on the world stage who spoke about human rights and worked for peace. Having visited this beautiful country and met with so many people whose strength and resilience is truly remarkable, we must all strive harder to complete the work to which she and others have been so committed.