Shedding tears at wall of sorrow

As Prime Minister Gordon Brown called for justice for the Palestinians, EADT Political Editor Graham Dines was in the West Bank and found himself in the middle of a tear gas attack launched by the Israelis.

Graham Dines

As Prime Minister Gordon Brown called for justice for the Palestinians, EADT Political Editor Graham Dines was in the West Bank and found himself in the middle of a tear gas attack launched by the Israelis.

THE villagers of Bill'in poured out of the mosque and made their way to the wall, to take part in the weekly demonstration against the physical barrier which is restricting the free movement of the 2.4million Palestinians who live on the West Bank.

A few miles from Palestine's principal city Ramallah, Bill'in is a community physically divided by the concrete monstrosity which snakes its way around and through towns and villages roads in which the stateless Palestinians live.

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In addition, more than 600 roadblocks have put up, forcing Palestinians to make huge detours to reach hospitals and the factories in which they work.

As hundreds of Bill'in people reached the wall, the Israelis had their answer waiting. Teargas.

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Canisters were lobbed from the Israeli side to disperse the protestors, many of whom had taken their children to the demonstration.

Even the merest sniff of teargas is enough to make you choke, and even vomit. The villagers turned and ran, but that did not stop Israeli soldiers from sending more projectiles over the wall.

One exploded just yards from where I was standing. The full force of its contents erupted among the crops and orchards lining the route back to the village. Immediately, I started choking, my eyes watered tears, and I couldn't stop retching.

For someone who has had respiratory problems, this was a tough welcome to the on-going crisis in the Middle East, which has been raging for more than 100 years and which came to a head when the state of Israel was established in 1948.

The history of the conflict is both simple and complex. The United Nations voted to allow a Jewish state to be created out of the British mandate. But nationhood was denied to the Palestinians.

Within months, Israel found itself the target of a concerted Arab attack. But the fervour and sheer military capacity of the Jews - for centuries the victims of pogroms which culminated in the holocaust - repelled the attack.

In 1967, the Arab states tried again, only to be crushed by the Israelis who took control of Jerusalem. Once more in 1973, the Arabs attacked and failed in their mission to exterminate the Jewish state.

Israel occupied the West Bank - land which is technically part of Jordan - and also the Gaza Strip, which at one time was in Egypt,

Ever since, various summit conferences have come and gone, but no lasting solution has been agreed.

Hope now centres on a two-nation settlement - Israel, and a Palestine made up of the West Bank and Gaza - but there is one insurmountable problem. How do you guarantee Israel's security?

The Palestinians are no respecters of Israel's borders. They launched the First Intifada - war of the stones - in 1987 which lasted six years. It was a mass Palestinian uprising that began in the Jabalia refugee camp and spread throughout Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Palestinian actions included strikes, boycotts of Israeli products and violence. An estimated 1,100 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces and 160 Israelis were killed by Palestinians. In addition, an estimated 1,000 Palestinians were executed by their own people as alleged collaborators.

The rioting stopped and peace talks resumed. But in September 2000, the Second Intifada began. The object was to shake off the Israeli “occupation” and liberate the land for the Palestinians.

Palestinian tactics ranged from carrying out mass protests, general strikes and attacks on security forces. The suicide bombers terrified Israelis, who retaliated by enforcing curfews, constructing road blocks and obstacles such as trenches and road gates, building checkpoints, demolishing homes and shops, orchestrating a land grab, and starting construction of the wall.

Of all the measures taken by Israel, by far the most contentious is the wall. There is no geographical sense to it, and by deviating significantly into the West Bank, it has trapped hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who have been forced out of their homes.

Work started on it in 2002, in response to the wave of suicide bombers attacking Israeli transport and shops in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. The International Court of Justice declared the barrier illegal and called on Israel to suspend construction. The government took no notice.

Settlers have crossed into the West Bank, pioneering defiance against the established population. Thousands of new communities have sprung up for Israelis, who have confiscated land from Palestinian farmers. While these remain, there is no hope of a lasting peace.

Unlike the local Palestinian population, Israeli citizens including settlers enjoy unimpeded freedom of movement within the West Bank and along its main roads.

During his weekend visit to the region, Gordon Brown demanded an end to suicide bombings and rocket attacks against Israel and for the Israelis to stop building work on the war.

“The wall here is graphic evidence of the urgent need for justice for the Palestinian people and an end to the occupation and the need for a viable Palestinian state.” He went on to call for an end to Israeli incursions into Palestinian territories.

“We want to see a freeze on settlements. Settlement expansion has made peace harder to achieve. It erodes trust, it heightens Palestinian suffering, it makes the compromises Israel will need to make for peace more difficult.”

Mr Brown added: “The violence must stop too. Terrorism is a major obstacle to Palestinian statehood and the efforts to ease movements and access restrictions must continue but there is a long way to go here too.”

Pledging an additional £30m of British aid, in addition to the 7.7billion euros promised by the European Union over the next three years, the Prime Minister said: “There is a will on the part of the international community, not just to do everything that we can to support the peace process, but to underpin that peace process with economic support for the Palestinian people.”

After spending a week in the region, it's clear to me that the building of Israeli settlements in the West Bank is provocative and a hostile act.. Caging in the Palestinians and preventing them free movement around the West Bank is brutal.

But the Arab world has much to answer for.

It has allowed hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to live as refugees in unsanitary squalor for 60 years. Why has the billions of pounds raised from oil revenues not been given to help the Palestinian people? Or is the endgame to keep the Palestinians in a state of permanent hostility towards Israel?

Why is it left to the European Union collectively and EU states individually to bankroll reconstruction work?

And are Arab governments really surprised that a nation born out of Hitler's nightmare is untrusting when it has had to fend off attacks in 1949, 1967, and 1973 and now the Second Intifada.

GRAHAM DINES travelled to Jerusalem and the West Bank on a visit organised by the European Journalism Centre in Maastrict on behalf of the European Commission to study the EU's Neighbourhood policy in action.

Bill'in village restistance

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