November 2019 Study Tour participant, Kathleen Zimak, has given us permission to share her personal letter that she wrote upon her return home.
Dear Friends and family
I returned from Tel Aviv last night after completing a political study tour of Israel and Palestine with a group drawn from a variety of backgrounds including a German woman whose father was a Palestinian from a village called Lubya, one of the 500 plus villages destroyed in the Nakba ,the catastrophe of 1948 which displaced around 750,000 Palestinians. The tour was organised in conjunction with the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions led by an Israeli citizen Jeff Halper.
In the last eleven days we have explored the history of the region with current developments, all revealed through the stories of those who live here and not just the tourist landmarks. Our base for the first week was Bethlehem, a city in the West Bank now surrounded by a concrete wall and fence up to nine metres high. The city is now accessed by checkpoints and can be left by its residents who wish to visit nearby Jerusalem only by permit that is issued by Israeli authorities. For our second week we were based in Jerusalem and Nazareth, the latter being the only Palestinian city in Israel.
Our journey has taken us both to major conurbations and to Palestinian villages as far away as the Negev where Bedouin families are resisting removal from their ancestral homes. The demographic, economic and social conditions in every area we visited showed clearly that the two-state solution is dead. Israel as a settler colonising power has already annexed the land it occupied in 1967 through its carefully planned construction of illegal settlements, confiscation of land and house demolitions.
This was clearly demonstrated by our meetings with a series of impressive people both Israeli and Palestinian who are either resisting as individuals the injustices of the system as it applies to them or documenting the human rights abuses of the military regime. We talked for instance to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Jerusalem who detailed the appalling blockade of Gaza. Gerard Horton of Military Court Watch graphically described the terrorisation of villages by the imprisonment of children. We spent an afternoon with the journalist and writer Jonathan Cook who lives in Nazareth and is married to a Palestinian. He now is an Israeli citizen but like other Palestinian Israelis does not enjoy the same rights as Jewish Israelis. He took us to Saffuriya the site of a village destroyed in 1948 not far from Nazareth itself. The families who were driven out from there still live in Nazareth and make up 40% of the population. His analysis of the history and current political situation was fascinating.
Amongst Palestinians themselves we met a farmer whose life was documented on TV last year. His house has been demolished twice (and rebuilt with the help of ICAHD) despite deeds dating back to the Ottoman Empire and has just received a permit to stay in his home in return for Israeli confiscation of his last parcel of land. We met a Bedouin spokesman who took us to a village under threat of demolition and told us the story of his teacher friend who was killed by gunfire as he left his house in the night rather than see the bulldozers destroy his home.(This incident filmed by activist friends was shown as part of the Turner prize exhibition last year at Tate Britain.)
I thought that I was reasonably well informed before I came but I knew little about the sheer scale and cruelty of the brutal military occupation in which Palestinians are imprisoned. (And the military aspects of this regime are all too evident. Twice I shared a hotel lift with two Israeli soldiers with enormous machine guns who were having a break from sniper duty on the roof of our hotel during a Jewish festival). I have also learnt more about the courageous resistance of the Israeli opposition as well as the resilience and determination of the Palestinian people despite so many attempts to break their spirit by government policy as well as by unrestrained individual acts of racism. We have also learnt that there is hope for a better future in a one state solution that activists on both sides are formulating, in which all have equal rights and one citizenship. That however seemed to be a very distant dream in many situations that we met. The policy of the government is clearly one of ethnic cleansing on a number of fronts, the obliteration of Palestinian history, the confiscation of land and water resources, demolition of houses, discrimination in education, the stifling of Palestinian enterprise and tourism, restriction of movement, intimidation through arbitrary arrests especially of children and minors, and an unrestrained use of force and weaponry. Most of these we saw with our own eyes and we were shocked. No one can accuse us of being ‘taken in’. The evidence is all there to see.
Our tour enabled us to see the contrasting landscapes of this beautiful land. We visited the coast at Tel Aviv and the old seaport town of Jaffa, saw the breath-taking views from the Bahai gardens in Haifa, drove through the olive groves and fruit trees around Jerusalem, and the date palm plantations around Jericho. Travelling south we saw the bare hills and plains of the Negev desert which have a beauty of their own. The weather has been superb throughout with unseasonal hot sunshine. Visiting the Holy sites in Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jerusalem was of course special. I enjoyed the wonderful Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth with its mosaics of the Virgin and child donated by numerous nations. In Bethlehem I met Nicola Juha a young Palestinian who teaches the painting of icons. He showed us round old Bethlehem which tourists rarely visit. Groups brought by Israeli tour companies are whisked quickly away after visiting the Church of the Nativity and are even told to avoid Palestinian shops. He emphasised especially how marginalised the Christian community feels and how they desperately need the support of the church here.
Coming home last night I contrasted the ease with which I can travel with the enormous difficulties Palestinians face in their daily lives as they travel to work or see their families or go to worship in Jerusalem. Even marriage is restricted. A man or woman who lives in the West Bank would not automatically have the right to live with a spouse in Jerusalem or a few miles away in Israel. Every journey involves a permit and checks. On our very first day in Bethlehem we went to Checkpoint 300 to queue with the hundreds of workers who go to Israel to work mainly in the construction industry. For this they need a permit which must be renewed every three months. We walked through the electric turnstiles at the Wall with them and saw how they must remove their jackets and have their bags searched, show their permits and have their fingerprints checked, just as if they are going to a foreign country. Most of them leave home at 2 or 3 am in order to get through in time for their work.
As you see thus is not the usual greeting from an overseas holiday and replaces all the postcards I might have sent! I hope you will excuse its length, but I cannot conceal from you what I have seen and heard. I feel I must let friends know what is happening in that country for the story just is not being told by our media and newspapers. I know however that some of you are only too aware of the situation and I hope that if so you will not mind hearing it all again.
Throughout my stay I have been reminded of visits to apartheid South Africa for the systems here are disturbingly similar. One can only hope for a similar resolution sooner rather than later. We all felt that the system cannot be maintained indefinitely especially as the UN reports for instance that by the end of next year Gaza will be uninhabitable. But Israel is backed by finance from its major sponsor the USA and our own government has its own interests there.
Thank you so much for reading this email. I do hope you will keep the plight of the Palestinians in your thoughts as we approach Christmas.