Sinn Féin - On Your Side

Follow Bairbre de Brún’s Gaza visit online

28 February, 2009 - by Martina Anderson MEP


Sinn Fein MEP Bairbre de Brún's visit to Palestine can be followed online at the new EU website.

Follow her daily blog at http://www.sinnfeineu.com/en/topic/1

Writing late last night Bairbre de Brún said:

Today we visit Bethlehem and Hebron on the West Bank

By building the Wall around Bethlehem, the Israelis have choked the life out of the place. The elected Mayor of Bethlehem describes it as the unseen destruction of the town. Moreover, the wall is being used to define the border and to further annex Palestinian land.

The Mayor tells us that if the settlements continue then within one year there will not be enough land to build a viable Palestinian state. None of the citizens can leave the city unless they have a special permit from the Israelis. A woman peace worker tells us that the work they were doing building dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian women has now been disrupted because the Israeli women are not allowed to go into Bethlehem and the women from Bethlehem are not allowed out to where the Israeli women live.

There are three sources of income for Bethlehem. The biggest is not surprisingly pilgrimage and tourism. Last time I was here the wall had choked off most of the tourist traffic into Bethlehem. It was like a ghost town so I'm interested to see if there is any more life around the place now. I had since heard that things had improved and the Mayor of Bethlehem tells us that once the Israelis stopped making each tourist get out of the bus at the checkpoint things started to pick up.

It is much better now but still not what you'd expect for a city that houses the famous Church of the Nativity.

Agriculture was the second biggest industry but now all the cultivated land is on the other side of the wall so this form of income is cut off from them. The third biggest industry was those who went to work in Jerusalem, but this has dropped dramatically because people cannot get a permit.

Most of the children of Bethlehem don't know Jerusalem and have never been there even though it is only 9km away. Even someone who has had a stroke or heart attack can only get specialised treatment in Jerusalem and must be transferred at the checkpoint from an Arab ambulance to an Israeli ambulance, which is medically really dangerous. Many people who visit Bethlehem have painted slogans on the apartheid wall. Some are messages of hope and peace. Others are humorous. One very serious question painted on the wall really struck a chord with me: "Israel - have you become the evil you deplored?"

The wall snakes around the whole of Bethlehem and it also cuts in two what was previously the main road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and on to Hebron. Now it is a dead end, and we move on to Hebron by another route. When last I was in Hebron there were efforts under way to entice Palestinians back into the Old City of Hebron and to revitalise the area.

The Hebron Rehabilitation are regenerating and restoring many of the apartment buildings which Palestinians had abandoned due to harassment and the pressure of living under very difficult conditions. As with Bethlehem this morning, I am keen to see whether things in Hebron have changed for the better or worse. In fact when we arrive many things are the same as before. Hebron is well known for the particular violence of the settlers against the Palestinians.

In a story reminiscent of Holy Child in Ardoyne we meet with young Italians from an NG0 whose main job for a couple of years was to accompany primary school children to school in a village near Hebron in order to deter attacks on them by settlers. Since 2006 this function has now been carried out by Israeli soldiers. The international NGO is not allowed to accompany the children any more but they still monitor from a distance because the children are frightened of the Israeli soldiers.

One positive note is that the work of the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee has indeed progressed and many of the old buildings have been restored and preserved. They have renovated more than 800 apartments and prevented them being either wrecked or taken over by settlers.

Once the settlers take over a house it is no just the house that is lost to the Palestinians. Suddenly there is a whole area around the house where Palestinians are no longer allowed access. Palestinian families who move into the renovated apartments get free restoration and free electricity, and even if they do not own the renovated apartment they are allowed to stay there for free. In spite of all of that there are still vacant apartments as quite a few people prefer to live where there is greater security, rather than put up with constant harassment from the settlers. We walk around the old city and the Israeli forces try to prevent us even from going into some of the streets I was able to visit .

I'm standing in the middle of a stand off with the Israelis outside the Ibrahimi Mosque where the prophet Abraham and his wife Sara as well as Isaac and Jacob are buried.

I am talking on the phone to Feile FM live, telling them about the stand off as best I can as well as describing the horrors of Gaza as I experienced them yesterday as behind me an armoured jeep arrives with reinforcements to deal with the formidable Italian MEP Luisa Morgantini who never takes no for an answer where Palestine is concerned.

Now it is late in the evening and we are heading back towards Jerusalem after a meeting with the Mayor of Hebron. As so often on this trip his message to us is that nothing can move forward unless the settlements go. He also tells us he has challenged political figures abroad to tell him if they could live alongside the type of crazed and aggressive settlers that have moved en force into Hebron. With a wry smile he entertains us with anecdotes of those international figures who came to see for themselves and had to admit they couldn't put up with being stuck to the Hebron-type settlers either!

In touch of irony the earlier stand off with the Israeli forces ended up with a victory for the good guys and we got to walk down the streets where we wanted to go. However, before we got back to the bus the skies opened and we were all drenched. The soldiers didn't laugh but whether that was because of our status as MEPs or their lack of a sense of humour I'll never know. As I sit on the bus my mind strays back to the question Feile FM asked me about what Europe can do. There is only one answer given all that's going on here; suspend the EU-Israeli preferential trade agreement until Israel respects human rights and ensure that there is accountability over the slaughter and destruction in Gaza in recent weeks."

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