West Bank, August 9.
We had a very busy day in the West Bank.
There’s a lot to learn and absorb. A briefing from the Ramallah office of the Canadian government is really helpful. Ramallah itself, a centre of commerce and social activity on the West Bank, is bustling and busy. New buildings. We pass through Area C (still controlled by Israel administratively and policed by Israel). We are told that this means in effect, no regular policing.
Excellent briefing from Negotiations Support Unit of PLO. Settlements and their continued expansion are the single greatest threat to a viable and sovereign Palestinian State. Expansion continues and the impacts are real (as we are to see later in Bil’in). It means Palestinians don’t have access their land and resources around the settlements. Settlements now number about 170 with a population of close to half a million. The by-pass roads connecting them and the Wall, now two thirds constructed, means close to 90% of the settlements will be within the wall, even though they go far beyond the green line. The settlements are illegal under International Law. This system of segregation of Palestinian land, and over 600 check points in the West Bank, and a permit regime, is a major road block for a Palestinian state.
Later we meet with the Foreign Affairs Minister of the PA, a self described “moderate”. He says Israel is implementing a clear policy of a “settler state” in the West Bank. We also talk about the situation in Gaza and he points out $4.4 Billion has been provided by the International Community to re-build Gaza where 25,000 homes were totally or partially destroyed in the war and bombing in December/January, but the materials for re-building are not getting in. UN reports on the ground have said that 860 truck loads are needed every day to go into Gaza to cope with the humanitarian disaster. But only a small percentage is allowed in by Israel.
Later on we have a lively discussion with Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian MP, who is critical of the way things are being done by the Fatah Party, the dominant party in control of the Palestinian Authority. He advocates for a more grass roots approach to support democratic development, rather than focussing on security issues. He has been supporting non-violent resistance to the occupation, and believes this must grow.
I have anticipated our visit to the small community of Bil’in, a village of about 1700 people 30 minutes from Ramallah. I met Mohammad Khatid, a leader in the village, in Ottawa and was so impressed with his leadership and work. He is now in jail. We met with other village representatives and their Israeli supporters and visited the site adjacent to the fence/wall, where they hold weekly demonstrations. The wall cuts through their land. The earth is scorched black from numerous tear gas cylinders and there is a terrible smell that makes you want to vomit. It’s the remains of “skunk water” they say. As many as 50 containers containing this skunk water are shot over by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), at a time, and once on you, will remain for weeks in your hair and skin. One villager tells us they have been terrorized by night arrests and the children are very scared and can’t sleep. Arrests are nothing new, they told us, but the focus of the security forces has increased since the court case in Montreal, where the village has taken 2 Canadian companies to court for building an extension to an illegal settlement next to the village. The village of Bil’in won a court case in Israel two years ago that the wall had to be moved so it doesn’t separate their land, but nothing has happened. “They are trying to kill popular non-violent resistance”, but the villagers continue to pursue their case. We also meet a man whose brother died at the wall after being shot by IDF. His brother’s memorial is a few feet away – and he himself was arrested, and shot in the foot while handcuffed and blind folded. He has a warm smile and easy going manner which defies what he has experienced.
Villagers who are arrested face military court – and a much harsher legal system than the Israeli supporters who are arrested and face the regular Israeli system.
Mohammad is in jail – and we have requested to see him – but are told it will take 10 days at least. We will send him a message.
The Israeli supporter who works with the village gave a recent update, that last night (Sunday) the security forces came and harassed his family in their homes. His father was taken in for questioning. We will monitor what is going on.
Now off to Hebron (Monday). I was there in 2002 and am interested to see if it’s the same Mayor of Hebron that we met with then. We will also meet the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH) folks.