“What I’ve learned is that every angle of Palestinian life has been systematically disrupted by Israel”, so said Simon, one of the participants on the recent 11-day issue-based study tour to the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel.
“It’s the calibrated cruelty,” interjected Jan, and the “systematic pernicious, relentless bullying,” voiced Richard. “I learned something new during every session,” added Rory. “I’ve been here many times and yet I learned so much more from this very in-depth study tour experience – both from the Palestinians and from those in this group,” Gill contributed.
These are just a few of the comments from the participants that were shared during a time of reflection at the end of the study tour that included nearly thirty encounters with Palestinians and critical Israeli Jews in a tour that went south into the Naqab/Negev, north into the Galilee, west along the Mediterranean coastline and east along the Jordan Valley. Most of the time, participants stayed in a Bethlehem hotel directly across from the eight-metre-high apartheid wall. They experienced waiting in line to get through checkpoints and what it is like to find other routes out of the “little town” when Checkpoint 300 was closed. Some of the participants even walked through the checkpoint early one morning experiencing the frightening crush amongst the Palestinians lucky enough to get permits to work in Israel.
Hearing multiple accounts about child arrests was especially poignant as were the many stories about military incursions, settler violence, home demolitions, water apartheid, land theft and more. "International governments have not been kind to Israel by allowing it to get by with these violations of international law," said Clare.
In addition to meeting in homes, offices and other premises, the tour participants spent time off the bus walking in the countryside and in villages, towns and cities. Environment issues were highlighted as we learned about research, education and conservation efforts that are undertaken. Although the Jewish National Fund was present at COP27, it is heavily involved in “greenwashing”. For example, draining of the wetlands just north of Tiberias that destroyed 219 species and the destruction of Palestinian villages and orchards and the planting of pine trees that change the soil to acidic making it impossible to sustain food bearing fruit and nut trees, with the focus on monoculture and with the pine trees susceptible to forest fires.
Although there is always a core group of organisations visited for each tour, itineraries are updated and new appointments included. In November we had our first visit to British Park, a forest and recreation area that extends over 10,000 acres. The forest was planted by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) in the 1950’s over the location of seven Palestinian villages that were destroyed during the Nakba when the state of Israel was established. Some of the Palestinians made refugees at this time moved to what became Aida Refugee Camp. To compare the space where these villages once stood to the size of Aida Camp with its 7000 inhabitants within 0.071 sq km, was shocking. The funding for British Park came from Jewish British citizens. To this day, JNF-UK has charitable status within the UK which is challenged by the Stop the JNF campaign.
The theme of demolitions and displacement and the resulting land theft due to Israel’s settler colonial policies, run through all of the study tours. While in the Naqab/Negev, we stopped for a view of Umm al-Hiran, one of the unrecognized villages, a community formerly with 2000 residents where now less than 300 live due to Israel’s demolition of homes and the pressure that it is putting on the people to move to the recognized town of Hura, with its poor services. Hura is more like a “reservation”, as the Palestinian Bedouins are moved off of their land and their agricultural way of life to living in cramped quarters. Our guide that day, Khalil Alamour, said that he expects that within months the remaining residents of Umm al Hiran will be forcibly displaced, replaced by Jews who are currently living in a nearby forest waiting to move here. The new town will be called Hiran. The question is, why must the new town of Hiran be located here when there is so much space in the vast Naqab Desert?
While near Jericho in the Jordan Valley, we stopped along road 449 for an explanation about harrassment from violent Israeli settler shepherds who have set up their tents across from the Bedouin community. The settler shepherds have moved their flock onto the land that was used by the Bedouins resulting in not enough land for grazing.both flocks. Such actions pressurized the Bedouins to give up and leave because it is no longer economically viable to raise their sheep and goats.
As always, we meet incredibly inspiring women and men who refuse to be enemies, who reject being victims, who work non-violently as they stand up against injustice and with a vision for democracy, equality and peace. It is their voices that we carry with us as we stand with the oppressed.
It was a joy to visit the Jordan Valley Solidarity Campaign’s beautiful community centre in Bardala. This centre is made of mud bricks, a project began by ICAHD and Torat Tzedek during its building camp in 2018. The centre is used for many activities by the local people.
“The tour was life-changing for me. I’m ashamed of my family’s Zionist background. Being here has allowed me to grow in confidence in representing the Palestinian situation in my work,” so said playwright Nikki during our last day together. At present she is putting the finishing touches on her play about a bookshop in East Jerusalem which will performed next spring. Nikki wasn’t alone in her sentiments. The tour made participants feel uncomfortable by what they witnessed and each of them returned home determined to intensify their commitment to the oppressed Palestinian people so that change will come.