Visit to Palestine - July 2007

2nd April

I had a discussion with members of the FIDA party. I met several members of their new youth organisation, which appears to be growing, and is very active. I also met their Palestine Legislative Council member. He went on to address a memorial meeting of relative and friends of two of their members who were killed on April 1st 2002. This was the date of the Israeli mass invasion of the West Bank and Gaza. 28 people were killed in Ramallah in two days. From his speech at the meeting, it is clear that this party is still in favour of the two state solution. They have no armed section, and are in favour of mass peaceful protests, around the wall etc. The meeting was very moving as it contained both the wives and children of the assassinated people.

3rd April

Last night the Israelis raided the Al Bireh Municipal offices (This is the other half of Ramallah). Hamas won the Al Bireh Municipal elections. They also raided the Chamber of Commerce, which also has a majority Hamas. They stole as much Municipal material, including hard drives, as they could, trashing a great deal of other things. Yet again showing their attitude to elections. This goes alongside the stealing, a couple of months ago, of all the food at an orphanage for 2000 children in Hebron, because it was run by an Islamic charity. Two weeks ago a Japanese student lost an eye, when he was hit by a "rubber" bullet at the demonstration at Beilin. These villagers won an Israeli High Court decision, that the Wall should be redirected. Yet just as everything else in Palestine the Israelis, in reality, make no concessions. All of this in the "peaceful" West Bank.

5th April

Public Sector workers were on strike throughout the West Bank, on Thursday. They are complaining about the three months back pay that they are owed, which is only gradually being paid back. Last Sunday there was a demonstration of Bank and Insurance workers outside the main arab Bank Office. These workers are complaining that they are paid in Jordanian Dinars, and this has dropped in value the same as the dollar, in other words, they have lost nearly 20 per cent of their pay. This is the case for most private sector workers, who are paid in either US dollars, or Jordanian Dinars. Alongside this all these workers are losing out with a rapid rise in inflation. Remember also there is no fallback in terms of social security. The whole situation is one where people spend the whole of their time just trying to earn enough to survive. But still they fight. I looked through the pages of an Arabic Daily Paper Al Ayyam, and all but two of the photographs were of demonstrations, sit downs at settler roads etc. What a cheek of those people that say why don't the Palestinians try peaceful protest. More and more banks seem to be opening here. All Jordanian. It seems most are designed to take money out. Expatriate money has been squeezed ever since 350,000 Palestinians were chucked out of Kuwait, and the Gulf, at the time of the first war.

6th April

This morning (Sunday) I had an interview with the General Secretary of the El Bireh Municipality. It was in his office, that was raided by the Israelis 3 nights before. The Israelis were there from 12-4.30 in the morning. The door was forced open by drilling the lock. It took 2 days just to clear up the mess, and they still don't know what papers they took. They also took the server for the buildings internal cameras. Considering these offices are only used for municipal services, one would have difficulty understanding the reason for the raid. The only explanation could be that there are 9 Hamas Council members, 4 Fateh and 2 supporters of the PFLP. So the Israelis just want to mess up the functioning of the Council. El Bireh is really part of Ramallah/Elbireh, but is now slightly larger than Ramallah. The Municipality is not allowed to use half of its land, by the Israelis, it has to go to them to get permission to use its own waste dump. It is surrounded by a settlement on one side, a military base on the next (Beit El), then Qualandia checkpoint, and last Ramallah itself. Much of its land was stolen for 'Greater Jerusalem'. It serves 45,00 people, and has 220 workers. Up to now they have relied on the fact that 50% of El Bireh people live in the US, and so they get finance from them. Until the Nakba the population was only 5,000, this immediately became 15,000. The municipalities refuse to take responsibility for the refugee camps, like Al Amari, and Qualandia, which are serviced by the UN But they do help the soceities within them. After leaving the municipality I went to Arura village. This is about 25 Kilometres from Ramallah, it had taken my lift an hour and a half, because he had been stopped for 1 hour at Atara Checkpoint. Lucky for me we went straight through. The village is in area where there are no settlements, except one on the edge. This one is new, it started with a mobile phone mask, then houses to protect it, then the whole mountain top, then Palestinians were banned from using the two nearest mountains. So a security barrier for Orange, or is it an excuse? The village has a new clinic, donated by Oman. This clinic has to cover 50,000 villagers in the North Ramallah area, because they have difficulty getting to Ramallah hospitals, because of the Atara checkpoint. The problem is they don't have finance for an X-Ray machine an ambulance or other instruments. The whole area is covered with Olive trees, and on a clear day you can see the Mediteranean. I walked round looking at the anceint houses, the village is more than 1000 years old, and has Olive trees from Roman times. On the way back it came on the radio that tomorrow there was another 1 day strike by municipality workers, this to be followed by further action.

7th April

I went to the new office of the Federation of Democratic Trade Unions today. It looks like the strike in the Education, and civil ministeries is complete. This includes all the teachers in the public schools. They are also going on strike tomorrow from 12, and will be demonstrating outside the Legislative Assembly on Wednesday. Meanwhile all the parties in the Assembly, which is boycotted by Hamas, because 40 of their members are in Israeli jails, have declared their support for the strikers. As I earlier reported, the workers are owed backpay, their pay is often late, and it is reduced in value because of inflation. The strike is by a union, that is independent, not part of any federation, but in talks with the independent federation. The Health workers are not on strike because they have not yet completed their negotiations. The strike was provoked by the threat of court action, and docking wages. Prime Minister Fayad has been on TV saying their is no way he will pay the strikers. Yet again these strikes show the criminal activity of international federations who only talk to the PGFTU, which organises nothing, and boycott the independent unions which are constantly on strike. Earlier I spoke to the Deputy Minister of Education, and he argued that money for projects were coming in to Fayads Govt. and therefore it was not time to defeat it. On the street the govt. appears at an all-time low. Mainly because it has nothing controlling it, the assembly can't vote because it is inquorate, without Hamas, and so it is solely a Govt selected by Abbas.

8th April

One point I need to make about Al Amari Camp: It is not only run by the UN, but its size is designated by them, it is not allowed to grow, and anybody who leaves can lose their refugee card. This applies to all Palestinian camps, including in the Lebanon.

This morning I set off to visit Hebron, in the South. My start was delayed by the Taxi running in to the back of a young drivers car near Qualandia. This led to forced stoppages, being surrounded by a gang of about 50 youths before we got going again. The journey to Hebron takes about one and a half hours, without interruptions. The driver has to take mostly back 'Palestinian' roads. these can be hair raising. We were lucky we went through checkpoints quite easily. The landscape is stunning, except that throughout the journey you see settlements. When you see Maale Adummin, it is like a sceince fiction scene, dominating the horizon. All these same buildings, but even in a decent Sceince Fiction film it is not all new.

As one starts to enter the outskirts of Hebron there is a sign saying that this is a Palestinian Authority Area, and Israelis are not allowed to enter "By Israeli Law". What a joke, they should have added, unless in an armoured vehicle, or a car with an Israeli number plate. I first had a discussion with a Palestinian Activist about Hebron. Its population is 200,000, add in the surrounding villages, and this becomes 750,000. It was always the commercial and industrial city of Palestine. But now this has been changed, at least 100 shoe factories have closed, and this goes for clothing, and other industries. All caused by the Israelis activities. The City is divided into two. There are the Palestinians, and the 400 Jewish Settlers. The settlers have 5,000 soldiers defending them. There were no Jewish people in 1967, but in 1969 they started to move in. They gradually stole Palestinian homes, and created a settlement within the city. The soldiers then closed down sections of the old city markets, and closed whole streets. They set up checkpoints, and divided off 60,000 of the Palestinians from the rest of the city, with the settlers in between. So these people now have difficulty going to hospital, getting to work, and often the Israelis close off the water and electricity.

The Israelis have also closed schools (one of which I saw), they have recently been attacking Hamas schools, orphanages etc. They keep making raids, arresting people and making life hard, closing shops and stopping normal activity. Often people have to get out using the roof tops. But the people are the same as in Ramallah. There are 15,000 students here, and many of the young people go to colleges outside. The Council has 9 Hamas members, and 3 Fateh. The teachers were also on strike Monday. Resistance goes on. I visited a womens' self-help group for women, making baby mattresses, and sewing. I then toured the Old City. The sight is unbelievable: sections are completely blocked off, there are checkpoints and metal detectors everywhere, and where the settlers have stolen the houses above shops, they have enlarged them. They throw stones out of the windows so the Palestinians have to put up netting, which doesn't help against liquids. Everywhere there are Israeli Army outposts protecting the attackers. One whole area has completely deserted streets, with only an occasional settler car. The Ibrahimi Mosque, the third most important Islamic site in Palestine, is controlled by soldiers. To go in I had to pass several checkpoints. It is often closed to Palestinians. The settlers are established in the grounds, and have stolen a huge building adjacent to the entrance. Of course the problem isn't just the 400 settlers within. The Israelis have allowed only two real exits to the City, and control all imports and exports. They have a stranglehold, and are expanding their settlement activity. I have pictures of all these things, and it needs to be seen to be believed.

Everybody I spoke to demanded that British people act, because they feel our Government's responsibility.

9th April

I went in the morning to the demonstration of Ministry workers. This includes teachers, in an independent union. It was quite difficult to get to the demonstration, which was meant to be outside the Legislative Council Building. Police were everywhere, stopping people getting to the assembly point. Some soldiers from Abu Mazens' special force had been brought in from Jericho.

We got to where the strikers were in a roundabout way. As I said before their complaint is about the high cost of living, and the slow payment of back pay. The strength of feeling has been added to by the fact that Stooge Prime Minister Salim Fayed has taken the strikers to the High Court, arguing that they are affecting students. The High Court was supposed to decide today if the strike is illegal. This has made the strike much more important. All over the world people are feeling the effects of what the UN has said has been a 50% rise in the price of basics in one year. They have said that the food riots in Egypt, and strikes in Jordan will be followed by others. They are clearly right, and the US policy of stopping Govts subsidising basics, as has happened in Iraq will strengthen this. If the Palestinian authorities outlaw strikes, as in Egypt how will workers fight back? Anyway the demonstration showed the almost total opposition to the Abu Mazen appointed Government.

All the four blocs in the Legislative Assembly had their main members speak in support of the workers. This includes Fateh, and Mustapha Barghoutis' group. Only Hamas was excluded because their members boycott the Assembly, or are in prison. Workers spoke from the Independent Unions, and womens organisations. There were about 1000 workers in attendance. Caroline Johnson from the teachers union in Birmingham spoke in their support, saying she was on strike for 2 days when she got back, and I spoke saying that the right to strike was a vital democratic right. (First an elected govt is not accepted, then they move on the right to strike, next the right to speak? All in this 'fight for democracy'.) The workers vowed the strkes would go on. (pictures to follow).

In the afternoon I went to a meeting of the members of the independent bank union in the Arab Bank. This was the members in Ramallah, there were about 100. The bank union has about a 60/70% membership in the West Bank. The workers received a report of the negotiations with the bank, which is based in Jordan. The bank will only negotiate across all its branches, and the drop in the value of the Jordanian Dinar does not effect them in Jordan in the same way. The workers in Palestine are also paid in Dinars but the shops sell in Shekels, so they have lost 20% of their wages. The bank has offered a 6.5% rise, and pay 16 months pay, but this does not make up for inflation. They had a succesful 2hr strike on the 30th March, that is after the banks close to the public, and they do their paperwork. They agreed they would do the same again. The existence of these active independent unions in Palestine is of historical importance, and yet the trade union movement in the UK, France etc. has nothing to do with them, they will only relate to the PGFTU, the 'official' union, which was not present today, and takes no action.

11th April

I went this morning to Bei'Lin, the village near Ramallah, where there are weekly demonstrations against the Wall. Even though the villagers won, in the Israeli High Court, a decision that the Wall should be redirected, ie. not take quite so much of their land, everything goes on more or less as before. The court decision was not dated. So not only has a huge settlement been built on their land, but only a small number of villagers, on occasion, visit another large part of the land, by going through a gate in the Wall. I came on this demonstration last year, the settlement is bigger, and the demonstration, and wall, are in exactly the same place. The only difference this time was that the Israelis fired from the other side of the Wall. It must be said that the Wall, the army, and the protest demonstration are all on village land.

A notable thing about this demonstration, is that it brings together the Palestinians, who are at the front, Jewish demonstrators from Israel, and internationals. Today there were about 100. We marched from the Mosque, in the village, to the Wall/Fence. Palestinians stood on the fence, shouting and waving flags. One pulled open the first stage of the Gate, and this started the Israelis firing. It was a mixture of tear gas and rubber bullets. The rubber bullets started mainly when the young Palestinians started throwng stones with slingshots. Needless to say these are ineffective, but the rubber bullets aren't. An Israeli journalist received a hole in his leg, and was taken off to hospital.

Here in Bei'Lin you see it all, a settlement that contains the biggest concentration of Orthodox jews in the world, built on stolen land, and dominating all activities of the local people, together with the Wall that is a means of enforcing this domination, and to steal more land. Alongside this is the Israeli Army, the enforcers, and they have their special roads all along the Wall. Today, in the West Bank there were two demonstrations against Settler roads.