Recently I went on a fact-finding trip to Israel. We were told that we arrived with questions and that we would return with more informed questions. That was certainly true. There are no easy answers to the Israel/Palestine situation but we need to keep trying to find a solution – to my mind this has to be a two-state solution, with Israel and Palestine acknowledging the legitimacy of each others’ claim to land in the region. The recent stabbings in Jerusalem is a salutary reminder of how quickly tension can give way to violence and how far we are from coming to a solution.
Day 1 – Tel Aviv – Jaffa
We travelled to our base in Tel Aviv. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t what I found. Tel Aviv is an incredibly cosmopolitan, achingly-trendy city based around the beach. Arabs represent about 20% of the Israeli population, so I should not have been too surprised to have walked past a number of mosques on our way to Jaffa, the old part of the city to the south of Tel Aviv. Listening to the call to prayer from one mosque, I wouldn’t have known that I was wandering around one of the most hotly disputed areas in the world. Tel Aviv is home to a number of technology start-ups with a young population. There was a palpable buzz around the place and a lot of building and regeneration work. I’d be keen to return to look around some more.
Day 2 – Erez Crossing, Gaza
We travelled south to Netiv HaAsara, a small settlement on the border with Gaza. We heard from two young girls that live their lives in fear of rocket attacks. When the alarm sounds, residents have just 15 seconds to get into one of the many shelters dotted around the moshav (village). The kindergarten was totally reinforced to take pressure of the children there. However we heard how one elderly couple had to sleep in a shelter after the husband had a heart attack and would not be able to protect himself in time. We saw the opening of a tunnel that had been discovered last year. There are two types of tunnel, smaller ones to get men in and out quickly and ones big enough to drive a truck through in order to smuggle goods. From this vantage point we could see a Hamas training camp on the outskirts of Gaza City. Later on in the week we heard how bullets from the training camp had hit one of the closest homes to the wall, with Israel retaliating by bombing that same training camp.
The next stop was to Zikim, a nearby kibbutz on the coast which was the location of a Hamas terrorist raid last year. We saw one of the small boats that police the controversial blockade which aims to stop the import of weapons and materials that may be used for tunnelling. The kibbutz is one of the few remaining that work on socialist lines. Our host who arrived in Israel from San Francisco in 1971 explained how residents all got paid the same wage regardless of what work they did. Everything is pooled and they all eat together.
Then to Erez Crossing, the single crossing point between Israel and Gaza. We saw an expensive, underused crossing designed for 45,000 people crossing each day which has just a few hundred coming to Israel from Gaza on a daily basis. There are limited reasons that are accepted by the Israeli authorities before a pass is issued. However a number of lorries carrying freight do pass through with supplies. We saw a video of a woman who had been isolated before she revealed her bomb belt which was then detonated safely. Israel left Gaza ten years ago. Some Palestinians in Gaza destroyed much of the old Israeli infrastructure rather than use it themselves. At the Kibbutz we had seen aerial photography showing the marks of former buildings on the Gaza side of the barrier.
Our final visit of the day was to Sderot, the closest city to the crossing. This is where many of the rockets were targeted. We heard from Kobi Haroush who is in charge of security. Kobi showed us the carcasses of rockets that had rained down on the city, up to five foot long, many of which were stuffed with nails to cause extensive injuries. Regular alarms, explosions and the fear of following the 13 fatalities and dozens of injured has led to post-traumatic stress including miscarriages and 18 year-olds wetting their beds whilst on national service. The city lives in fear and a whole generation is being scarred.
Day 3 – West Bank, Palestinian Territories
On our way to the West Bank we stopped off at the Save a Child’s Heart charity. Cardiologists in Tel Aviv perform major heart surgery on children from Gaza, Kenya, Ethiopia and elsewhere on a pro bono basis. The charity has recently opened a residential home for the children attending the hospital where they will often stay with their mothers for several months at a time. The surgeons train African doctors as well which builds capacity in their home countries. We met many of the children who were incredibly grateful for the help and support that they were getting from this inspirational charity.
We drove across the barrier to Rawabi, the first Palestinian-planned city in the West Bank. The project is designed to house 40,000 Palestinians in a well-designed series of building set on a steep hill. It has been funded by Bashar Masri, a successful Palestinian business man and Qatar. Residents had just started moving in as we visited. Some Palestinians are not happy as Israeli materials are being used, some Israeli settlers remain convinced that this was Israeli territory and so should not be built on for Palestinians. Both are wrong and I was pleased that the Israeli government did not support the illegal settlers in their controversial view. The rooftops of an Israeli settlement could be seen from the main office at the top of the hill, even though the view was partially obscured by a series of strategically placed Palestinian flags. Two issues have slowed progress. Protracted negotiations about water supply, left the city uninhabitable as there was no water. The small single access road is not enough to cope with traffic that will arise when the city is fully occupied. The Israeli government can help themselves by being proactive in helping with the road.
Our second stop in the West Bank was the Coca-Cola distribution centre in Ramallah. Zahi Khouri, the Palestinian CEO did not take the diplomatic approach of Bashar Masri when we spoke. Instead, he dismissed the rockets landing in Sderot as mere “fireworks” and complained about water-rationing despite having three water springs on site. There is no doubt that with there being two valid sides of this complex argument that there are plenty of examples of hardship and tragedy faced by Palestinians. However Mr Khouri’s partisanship whilst enjoying the benefits that having the exclusive franchise of one of the leading global brands, dented his credibility as a commentator on the ongoing conflict. Instead I was drawn to Bashar Masri’s positive approach, one that gives hope for his countrymen.
Day 4 – Jerusalem and the Knesset
When we first flew over Israel, it suddenly hit me that I was looking down at the most hotly contested piece of land in the world. Visiting Jerusalem drove that point home.
We met three Israeli politicians from different parties. Tamar Zandberg from the Meretz Party squeaked into the Knesset at the last election as the fifth candidate on the list. It had looked as though Meretz would only get four seats and the party leader offered to sacrifice her own seat to allow rising star, Zandberg to take her place instead. As it happens after soldiers votes were taken into account which can often be counted late because of deployment, both were elected. Left-wing Meretz must really rate Zandberg as their future to make that sacrificial offer. We also met former El-Al pilot Yoav Kisch, another rising star, this time from the ruling Likud Party.
I chaired a meeting with Mark Regev. At that time he was a spokesman for Benjamin Netanyahu but had just been confirmed as the next Ambassador to the UK. He was an impressive individual; a doughty defender of Israel, with an unshakeable confidence in the Zionist cause but pragmatic as well. I am looking forward to seeing him in his new role and what he will bring to the UK in replacing Daniel Taub who has done much to help UK-Israeli relationships flourish.
We were taken on a tour of the Old City. The King David Hotel overlooking the City, that was bombed by a militant Zionist organisation in 1946, reminded us of the beginning of the post WWII conflicts. In among the markets we came to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Christians revere this as the site of Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified and his burial tomb close by. The keys to the church are entrusted to two Muslim families in order to ensure peaceful coexistence. To illustrate the difficulties of maintaining a church which everyone has a claim on, a small wooden ladder leaning up against a window above the facade, is a symbol which causes angst if ever moved. The ‘immovable ladder’ has remained in exactly the same place bar two occasions for two hundred years. The Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic churches have been the prime movers in this somewhat absurd but incredibly tense conflict.
The Western Wall is the holiest site in Jerusalem. Donning a Kippah, we saw this impressive 62 foot high wall and had time to reflect on what has gone before us on this very site.
Hundreds of small scrolls of paper were stuffed into the cracks in the wall. More than a million ‘kvitelach’, written prayers, are left each year. The wall was segregated with a women’s area on one side.
A couple of us noted buildings offering food for the poor overlooking the wall. Competing signs including the names of the philanthropists, primarily American, suggested an ulterior motive for the worthy charitable work done there.
Day 5 – Yad Vashem and the Security Barrier
On the last full day, we travelled back to Jerusalem. We had been told that Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in the city would be a heavy assault on our senses. Frankly, it was staggering. The architecture was such, that we were transported around a number of rooms, not knowing what was coming around the corner with the only natural light being as we ascended back to ground level at the end. This echoed the experience of Jews across Europe before, during and immediately after the Second World War. We learned about the slow lead-up to the mass deaths of the camps, the corralling of Jews into ghettoes, stripping them of possessions and dignity. We saw how structured the process was, taking different approaches to different cities across the continent and how horrifically industrialised the death camps became, killing 5,000 people each and every hour. I was born 23 years after the end of the war but remember clearly how raw it was for that generation of Brits who had faced the Nazis. How much more it must have been for those who were systematically targeted, not for battle, but for mass slaughter and extermination. Although I was expecting it, I was still shocked to the core by what I saw and heard.
Our guide was simply excellent. The headset system that we had meant that our group didn’t need to crowd around. She could talk in a hushed, respectful tone sharing her deep knowledge and impassioned interest in the personal stories. The last room in the main museum was the Hall of Names. Pictures of many of the dead circled above our heads and files containing short biographies of 2 million Jews killed in the Shoah struck everyone’s hearts, driving home the lasting impact that this horrendous period in history had on Jewish people. The enormity of the research that must have been undertaken to complete this project was incredible. Our visit to Yad Vashem towards the end of our trip, neatly encapsulated the reason for the rocky journey that Jews had been on in establishing and maintaining a Jewish homeland.
On reaching the panoramic view on our return to ground level, we had two more rooms to visit. The Children’s Memorial is a hollowed-out cavern. The names of some of the estimated 1.5 million children murdered in the Holocaust were read out along with their age and country of birth whilst we walked through a dark room with candles being reflected around us creating the impression of millions of stars. We then led a short memorial service in which my colleagues laid a wreath and lit a flame to share our sympathies and our commitment to remember so that such a tragedy can never be repeated.
Our afternoon was spent with Colonel Dany Tirza who showed us the security barrier that he designed and built which divides Israel and the Palestinian Territories. 95% of the security barrier is fencing, rather than the more oppressive wall that is usually shown in the media. Fencing with cutting-edge pressure sensors surrounded by ashphalt to track anyone seeking to sneak over works in most areas where there is a significant gap between properties. The wall in Jerusalem was constructed where Palestinians and Israelis are separated by only a matter of centimetres.
We looked over to Bethlehem which had been the location of a lot of sniper fire. Dany explained how residents in the block of flats behind us had to live in the back of the property rather than the front, unable to open the fridge at night for fear of the light going on and attracting gunfire. Frankly I was amazed that anyone remained in the flats under those conditions. He explained how he and his staff had walked all 700km of the route of the barrier in order to see first hand the possible effects and had mitigated them as much as possible by building around buildings and controversial areas rather than resorting to demolition or cutting through such areas. This had been tricky for such sites as the tombs of Rachel and Lazarus. The former has its own guarded access route. Similarly the area around a university was so controversial, Dany received a call from former US Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, lobbying for change. This part of the trip really highlighted the lasting divisions and the continuing mistrust between the Israelis and Palestinians. However, the seriousness of the situation was broken up by Dany’s love of telling elaborate stories, a talent shared by many Jews that we encountered in Israel.
We concluded the day by visiting the Founding Editor of the Times of Israel, David Horovitz. It was David who broke to us the news about the gunfire in Netiv HaAsara, the village we had visited on the first day. We asked about other local stories but it seemed clear that the Palestinian-Israeli tension in all of its facets was the single driver of the news across the country.
Over the week, we also met our new Ambassador to Israel, HE David Quarrey and Deputy National Security Advisor Eran Lerman. They added further context to our visit, giving us a much more rounded view of the situation. Our opening advice was 100% correct. I have not come back with any easy answers, but many, hopefully more informed, questions. There are two sides to any conflict. Illegal settlements in the West Bank serve only to exacerbate the situation. But the terror faced in places like Sderot is real. Israelis should be able to live without fear of the 15 second warning, barely enough time to read this paragraph. Benjamin Netanyahu made an offer on his visit to London that he would return to the negotiating table without pre-conditions. He was clear about the first thing that he would be looking for – Palestinian acceptance of Israel’s valid claim to territory in the region, the right to exist. But that would come at an early stage in talks, not in advance. One thing is clear, talks are the only prospect of a two-state solution. Both sides need to recognise each other’s claims. A demilitarised Palestinian won’t be enough. That simply reinforces Israel’s role of custodian in an area that we should be able to recognise in time as an independent Palestinian state. Indiscriminate rocket fire, terror tunnels across the border with Gaza and the recent stabbings will only serve to harden opinion and make a solution even further away. Israel is a democracy that has every right to exist and flourish without fear from those dedicated to ‘push it into the sea’ supported by some of the most tyrannical states in the world. Some hard-liners may be satisfied with continuing conflict. The UK needs to play its part as a critical friend of both Israel and Palestine and help bring the two together. We need to remain optimistic, even when things look difficult. The alternative does not bear thinking about.