Behind closed doors: inside occupied Palestine

A blog from Debbie Shamir, a student at The University of Edinburgh, who wrote about lessons learnt from the recent Yachad Student Trip to Israel and the West Bank she attended.

October 28, 2019

This summer, I together with a group of British Jews spent five days exploring the complicated situation between Israel and Palestine. Despite the common misconception that all of Israel-Palestine is characterised by unsolvable conflict and violence, we spoke to several people and organisations who longed for peace. They don’t deny the complications but believe that with a suitable government in power, a peaceful resolution is possible.

To start our trip, we explored the effect of checkpoints for those living close to the Green Line with Machsom Watch, an organisation that monitors and reports the system of checkpoints in the West Bank. Palestinians require permits, which are often difficult to obtain, to pass through these periodically monitored checkpoints, with some checkpoints functioning only once a week. We spoke to Omar, a resident of Habla who travels through checkpoints every day in order to successfully run his nursery. Omar, together with several others working in the Seam Zone, must start their day significantly earlier than most to go through an extensive search process at each checkpoint. What should be an easy hour journey to work becomes hours long. This was just the start.

Hebron has a much more harrowing situation. We visited Hebron with Breaking the Silence, an organisation made up of Israeli soldiers who collect and publish testimonies from those who have served across the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. After 1997, Hebron was split into two sectors. H1 was controlled by the Palestinian Authority and H2 controlled by Israel. Since this agreement and prior, Israeli settlements have been constructed in H1: a process which is entirely illegal under international law. With approximately 700 settlers now living there, Israel has implemented strict security measures to ensure the safety of these people. Some roads are even sterilised of Palestinians supposedly to protect Jewish settlers. This pretense of security has meant that several shops and markets have been forced to close. What once was a bustling city has now become a ghost town. With 21 permanently staffed checkpoints the everyday movement of Palestinians is systematically restricted.

We proceeded to visit the Military Courts in Ofer. I speak for us all when I say that morning was the most upsetting of the entire trip. Under Israeli law, Palestinians are tried in military courts as opposed to the civil courts that Israeli citizens are tried in. If one needs proof of the disparity between Israelis and Palestinians living in the region, the legal system is the best place to look. We spoke to two individuals working for the Military Courts Watch, which monitors the mistreatment of Palestinians in the legal system. Upon arrival, we spoke to willing Palestinian families who had children detained for various reasons mostly involving incidents of stone-throwing. We followed one family in their plight to get their sixteen-year-old son released from prison after being caught in the crossfire of a stone-throwing incident.

We listened to the mother’s testimony and proceeded to enter the courtroom to watch as the trial unfolded. With extensive legal jargon and a sub-par translator, the boy on trial was extremely confused about the proceedings of the case. The court set an expensive price for his bail and we later found out that he was released the following evening. It was supposedly our presence that made a minor difference to the outcome of this trial. It was comparatively ‘positive’; we were told the translator was better than usual; the judge was more lenient than most. To me, nothing about the proceedings of the trial seemed ‘positive’. It was a living example of the brutal reality of Israel’s ongoing presence in the West Bank.

We’re often told that humanising the conflict doesn’t aid the situation, facts win arguments, not feelings. However, seeing the desperation on this boy’s mother’s face and the utter confusion of the boy himself as the translator mumbled the conversation that was being had between the prosecutor and the present lawyers, provoked in all of us a unique understanding of the situation. Palestinians do not live in an equal society to Israelis in any facet of their lives. The legal system in every country is in place to ensure justice is served; however, with a 95 per cent conviction rate, the military courts clearly don’t. Children as young as 12 can be detained, Israelis can enter Palestinian homes in the middle of the night, without a warrant, to intimidate and arrest Palestinian families. Nothing about this suggests equality.

The main concern for the Israeli population seems to be security. To them, the occupation exists to ensure their safety. In a nation built upon generations of persecuted people, it’s become the norm to fear your neighbours. Security concerns are valid in such a hotly contested region. However, the idea of security is weaponised by the political right in Israel as a tool to justify the occupation and perpetuate the belief that Palestinians and Israelis will never be able to live in harmony. This political construction needs to be challenged. The occupation is the main hindrance to peace. It’s a creator of animosity and violence. Its existence is symbolic more than it is practical. It’s a constant reminder for Palestinians of Israel’s overwhelming power over them. The array of organisations that we met with including Breaking the Silence, Standing Together, Peace Now and Ir Amim are living proof that thousands of people living in Israel and Palestine want to live in peace.

I’m writing this article because I love Israel: I am a Zionist. I want Israel to be held to account for its actions. A two-state solution might be extremely far off, but I believe that opening the dialogue and creating a conversation around the reality of what is going on is crucial to the struggle for peace. I might only be a beginner on this topic, but I know that there are plenty of Jews, Israelis and Palestinians who are hopeful of a peaceful solution. I encourage you to look at the websites of organisations I have mentioned within this article to find out more about the conflict.

First published at The Student Newspaper

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