Delegation to the West Bank

31 July 2017

(Article by District 5 Organiser Nigel Gibson, featured in the August 2018 issue of the ASLEF Journal)

Earlier in the year, District 2 Organiser Kevin Lindsay, Howard Kaye, the EC member for District 5, and I were offered the opportunity to go to Palestine as part of a trade union delegation organised by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign to gain an understanding of the conflict and the difficulties faced by Palestinians. A week before departure we met with a PSC representative who advised us of the dos and don’ts when travelling to Tel Aviv and the West Bank. 

We were perhaps a little blasé about these precautions and probably felt, as experienced travellers, that things had been exaggerated. We were to leave all paper work relating to the trip behind, we were to delete social media accounts and email trails associating us with PSC, and to travel and arrive separately, going through passport control independently of each other. 

PalestineAs it turned out we were the fortunate ones. On arrival at Tel Aviv we met up with our guide and two other trade union colleagues. We waited for hours before learning that two of our delegation – Hugh Lanning, director of PSC, and a postal worker from the CWU – had been held for questioning about their visit and were not being granted access to the country. Later that evening we were told that both were to be denied entry and would be deported the following morning.

The reason for their refused entry was a new law that bans anyone who supported the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign. The deportation of Hugh was widely reported in the mainstream media as he has travelled to Palestine on many occasions. We then learnt of the line of questioning relative to our colleague who has a different ethnic background to us and it became apparent that we had been treated very differently. 

We were not held in an area with others or questioned at length about our purpose or background. From the different experiences you can only deduce that skin colour and appearance had more to do than any real concern the immigration authorities had about the security of their country.

So our delegation was down to six and, in the absence of the PSC director, we were lucky enough to have a very experienced Palestinian bus driver who, for the purposes of this article, and to protect him and his family, shall remain nameless. He lives and works in Jerusalem, has supported other delegations from the UK, knew exactly where we needed to be each day, and was able to give us a real insight into his personal experience of what he has witnessed happening to his home and country. Whilst he was passionate about Palestine he showed no obvious malice towards the Israelis yet you could tell the hurt he felt for his fellow Palestinians and how they are treated as second class citizens in their own land.

The first impression we got of Jerusalem, looking out of the hotel window on the first day, was of a busy main road with a tram system and people going about the business. Of course this is not the reality. The tram system has been built not only to connect the illegal settlements which surround Jerusalem but also to divide Palestinian communities in half – literally.

You can only use many of the roads on which we travelled if you have the relevant documents – effectively preventing the majority of Palestinians, who were not born or raised in Jerusalem, from using them. During the visit we met an economics lecturer who works at the university in Ramallah who explained that Jerusalem is just a few miles down the road but she cannot travel there because of these movement restrictions. She gave us a real insight into the wider restrictions imposed by the Israelis with restrictions on imports and exports to the extent that the West Bank and Gaza Strip are effectively isolated from one another. 

Imports of chocolate, for example, are not allowed because those in control determine it unnecessary to sustain a 2,200 calorie diet. We noted during the journey by bus that many of the houses have black water tanks on top of the properties because Palestinians are not allowed to access their own water supply and are therefore beholden to Israeli provision – who are known for withdrawing access – so these roof tanks help sustain a supply in such times.

During our various visits to differing organisations it became apparent that the Palestinians are effectively being driven from their land. A statistic quoted on many occasions was that the illegal settlements that surround Jerusalem have a population of 600,000 people from across the world, including Europe and America, living in brand new purpose built properties with all the facilities we would expect in the UK. Of 150 settlements, 100 are unauthorised, but also have access to good health and education services, children’s play areas, and the residents travel freely about their daily business. Driving through these areas felt no different from driving through a modern estate in the UK. The United Nations confirmed these statistics and explained that, under international law, these settlements are illegal yet this same international community sits on its hands and does nothing. 

Not that we were sceptics about what we were seeing because, in all reality, you could not deny what the human eye could see but to hear the presentation from the UN gave some real perspective on the situation. They also showed us the changes in the geographical area and how the borders have changed so significantly with the occupation of Palestine extending for more than fifty years. These borders and the ‘green line’ were explained in great detail yet what was absolutely apparent, wherever we travelled, were the massive concrete walls that topped with razor and electricity wire, some 700 kilometres built with checkpoints and gun towers at strategic locations. The Palestinians have to queue for two or more hours each day just to get to work in Jerusalem and the authorities have the right to close the checkpoints at their leisure – making employment opportunities difficult, at best.

We went to Hebron and witnessed first hand a once thriving community high street which has been completely cut off from its custom. As we walked along the street of shops, now all closed down, there was an eerie silence where you could imagine the hustle and bustle that you see in other parts of the world. As we walked up this street we were challenged by a soldier and his colleague from a checkpoint on the wall which now prevents access and the tone and, from the animated nature of the conversation between them and our driver, it was apparent that, in their view, we should not have been there, not least because one of our delegation was wearing a hijab.

The Aida refugee camp was a real eye opener about how people adapt to circumstances, yet they have by no means forgotten their background or lost hope. At the entrance to the camp is an arch holding a huge key which symbolises the key to their homes which they retained when forced to flee in 1948 after the creation of Israel. The Lajee Centre, a community based grassroots organisation for new generations of Palestinians, provides education and opportunities for young people, some of whom we had the fortune to meet. 

This centre is overlooked by a wall and gun tower. Soldiers have fired upon the community, and feelings are very raw, as an 11-year-old child was killed not so long ago. When the authorities were challenged they explained it was a mistake by the soldier concerned yet do nothing to help a community which regularly suffers attacks from the security forces, who use tear gas and other methods to quell the desire for struggle of these people to establish some basic rights and justice as Palestinians. We heard from an organisation that defends the rights of children. Stone throwing takes them through the Israeli military justice system, always stacked against the defendant, leading to unnecessary custodial sentences and real psychological problems.

As trade unionists we were, perhaps foolishly, surprised to hear from our Palestinian counterparts, in the General Federation of Trade Unions and the Post Office Workers’ Union, that the laws and restrictions on taking industrial action are not dissimilar in Palestine to those we are now seeing introduced in the UK. Workers clearly have problems; legislation is less than progressive and unemployment levels for male workers stands at 26% with women at a staggering 60% – the glass ceiling on earnings makes life very hard.

If you’ve read this far, you might feel that, while you have found this very interesting, what is its relevance to our movement in the UK and, in particular, to train drivers. Well, ASLEF has long been a proud internationalist trade union, which seeks to support workers and their campaigns to gain employment and basic human rights, irrespective of their background. As an affiliate to the PSC we have a role to play in supporting its campaign. We are about people and what we witnessed in Palestine is something that cannot, surely, be justified. People must have basic rights, whether that be in the workplace or in society irrespective of skin colour, ethnic background or religion. What we witnessed is nothing short of ethnic cleansing and discrimination.

The boycott, divest and sanctions movement is calling for a full boycott of Israeli products. We can look at where our investment lies in particular in areas such as pension schemes, and we need to question any UK involvement in military trade and ask why our government is so subservient to Israel. We can challenge and boycott companies that seek to establish themselves in Israel such as Orange and Hewlett Packard.

Measures such as these can have a positive effect and improve the lives of those people we met who want, in the words of our driver, to live peacefully and go about their lives without fear or favour in their homeland. That is not too much to ask, in my view. 

I am not a religious individual but I respect the right of others to practice religion which is why I found it very difficult to comprehend the experience over these five days, witnessing such a divisive culture with such contempt for other human beings in a land that is the heart of so many of the world’s religions.

 

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign works for peace and justice for Palestinians, in support of international law and human rights. It is opposed to all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism. Find out more at www.palestinecampaign.org

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