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Christian Aid Ireland board member visits Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory

Give tax dodgers no where to hide Hazel Baird, who sits on the Board of Directors for Christian Aid Ireland, recently returned from visiting Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory (IOPT).

In this blog she reflects on the trip, the people that she met and the challenges that continue to face this region.

 It was a privilege for me to join a group of church leaders to visit IOPT with Christian Aid and Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, March 2016.

This was my first visit to the country but over the years I had tried to follow and understand the Palestinian and Israeli perspectives on their conflict and in particular sought to understand why some communities in my home country of Northern Ireland identify with either the Israeli or Palestinian position.

The purpose of the visit was to better equip and engage church leaders to articulate the effects of social and political unrest on the IOPT region; to make critical connections between national and international policy and how they contribute to growing poverty and inequality in the region.

We were also challenged to think about what a just peace might mean for both sides and how we could support a viable solution for both.


Urgency to act

The visit came at a time when there is a deeper sense of urgency to act and do something different, 20 years of negotiations to establish a state through the Oslo peace accords have failed and the Israeli and Palestinian leaders appear to have no acceptable strategy to prevent the violence escalating into another full scale uprising.

Our first visit was to the Jordan Valley area with the Palestinian Agriculture and Relief Committee (PARC).

The small farmers we met lived near Israeli settlements that had been established in the fertile plains in UN designated Palestinian territory.

Give tax dodgers no where to hide

A new road built in Bethlehem, cutting Palestinian farmers off from their land. Photo credit: Hazel Baird

We heard the problems the farmers faced in being prevented from drilling deep wells to access suitable water for agricultural and domestic purposes, the security problems they faced and the distress of having their homes demolished because they were built without a permit.

It is important to note that it is almost impossible for a Palestinian to get a permit to build a home.

PARC supports these communities through water, sanitation and hygiene programmes and agricultural developments. Women also benefit from small grants and training to enable them to make products that could be sold at local markets. Although the people’s lives were made very hard by the enforced deprivations, they seemed resigned, expressed little anger and hoped the international community would come to their aid.


Entering Gaza is like stepping back in time

A problem with the permits into Gaza reduced the time we could spend there and restricted the programmes we could visit. The intense security at Erez crossing point, (currently the only crossing point open) and the long walk through the exclusion zone onto the Gaza side reinforced the sense that Gaza is like an open prison, only a tiny trickle of Gazans were coming out through the security point with permits granted for humanitarian reasons such as health care.

On entering Gaza, my first impression was that I was stepping back in time as donkeys and carts move people and goods around the streets.

My second impression was that I was in a war zone, with broken buildings pocked with gun fire, piles of scrap sorted by type and shops with nothing much to sell.

Give tax dodgers no where to hide  

A bombed house in Gaza. Photo credit: Hazel Baird

Lots of men with primitive equipment seemed to be focused on manual activity as a semblance of an occupation.

There is 40.5% unemployment in Gaza with 100,000 unemployed young graduates. 80% of the 1.8 million population receive aid.

There is now almost no drinkable water in Gaza and there are severe water and electricity supply restrictions.

We heard opinions that the Gaza population is oppressed by the Israeli military blockade but also by Hamas. the ruling political party (with a military wing).

There is great frustration and young people in particular have feelings of hopelessness for the future.  

Again we visited agricultural and reconstruction programmes funded through PARC.  We were disappointed to find that crops produced with the support of international funding had been sprayed with herbicide for security reasons and they were unfit for human or animal consumption.

The UN informed us that 20,000 UN facilities have been destroyed through military action in Gaza but we observed some reconstruction that was being funded through International Aid.

We joined an EAPPI volunteer one morning at the Bethlehem checkpoint and came through with the Palestinian workers who were fortunate enough to have permits to leave Bethlehem for mostly construction work Israeli areas. The accompaniment programme offers protective presence at checkpoints, to children on their way to school, herdsmen in rural pastures and at house demolitions.


'Breaking the silence' on human rights offences

We were encouraged when we met Israeli partners working in Civil and Human rights. They represent Palestinians through the courts - although they are very often just delaying the inevitable.

The human rights organisation B’Tselem raises awareness in Israeli society of the human rights issues associated with government policy and military action.

The desire of many young Israeli soldiers to 'break the silence' about the activities and behaviours expected of them during their military service is also encouraging.

We were informed that there is also a movement of senior ex–military officers who are testifying to the unreasonable treatment of Palestinian citizens, although we did not have the opportunity to meet them.

Of all the conversations held during the week, the following statement from a Palestinian farmer made the greatest impact on me:

'Don't tell them what we said, just give witness to what you saw and tell the truth.'

Concrete barriers, different languages and cultural differences and separate lives allow one party to demonise the other and injustice is a daily reality.

Greater efforts must be made to bring significant groups from each side together to recognise their common humanity and envisage a future that is not characterised by separation, suppression and violence.

The international community is tolerating and condoning breaches in international law. It is tolerating destruction of infrastructure funded through their Governments by their tax paying public, why?

Israel wants to be regarded as a credible democracy, its citizens live in fear, they are frustrated by failure of the peace negotiations and consequently are leaning more to the right.

We were told that moderate Israelis are leaving the country. The more time that lapses the more polarised the parties become and the more advanced the occupation becomes. Waiting for new leadership is a dangerous option.

This conflict is considered by many to be too toxic to get involved and prefer to leave it to others to risk attracting unwanted attention and engaging in difficult conversations.

However the minimum required of any observer of this humanitarian situation is to witness to what they saw and tell the truth to all who will listen.

Related information

Christian Aid's work in IOPT

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