It wasn’t my first trip to Israel but it was certainly my most exhilarating. I was part of a delegation of MPs, special advisors and Researchers organised by Labour Friends of Israel. We were on a five day trip to Israel and the Palestinian Authority and it proved to be a whirlwind of meetings, briefings and never to be repeated experiences.
The timing of the trip was important. Abu Mazen had just assumed his new role and the intransience of Yasser Arafat was now in the past. Ariel Sharon was facing protest, but still standing firm, on his decision to disengage from Gaza and remove the settlements, which he had so many years before originally supported. Compared to a couple of months ago, things were beginning to look positive.
Perhaps because of this feeling of a new start, a clean slate, we were able to guage from the people we met, both Israeli and Palestinian, a vision of the future that looked bright. Everyone we spoke to talked about two states, Israel and Palestine, living peacefully together. Many spoke in sadness of too many innocent deaths on both sides, and too much suffering over the years.
Personally, I have always loved Israel, a country of so many faces and so much life. It has been of eternal sadness therefore to witness the conflict in the Middle East take hold and present to the world an Israel which didn’t chime with my own experiences.
The BBC’s skewed coverage of the Middle East often projects an unfair and biased image of Israel – as the aggressor, the goliath, with the Palestinians playing the part of the victims. I wondered how my colleagues, who watched the BBC and read the Guardian, would relate such coverage to Israel and the Israelis we were about to meet.
I also thought about my own preconceptions of the Palestinians and whether I too have only seen a distorted outline of a people I was now to come face to face with.
We were based for the week in Tel Aviv, an exuberant, lively city full of clubs, bars and street cafes, many made infamous by the suicide bombs that have ripped through them over the years. I hadn’t visited Israel since the Intifada and it was shocking to see the numerous locations where such attacks had happened.
The reality of life for the average Israeli suddenly becomes clear when faced with the site of one of these massacres. And throughout the week I became more aware that the hedonism of Tel Aviv was part fuelled by the fear of such attacks. The live for the day mentality certainly cascades through the young of Tel Aviv, but the endless worry of parents, children and friends about their loved ones also permeates the atmosphere.
Throughout the week the delegation were privileged enough to meet with some senior Knesset members and Palestinian Authority and legislative Council members. With each meeting we spoke about the need for security on both sides and how each must prove to the other that they are making every effort to curb any potential violence.
Amongst the Israelis we met were Labor MK (Member Knesset) Ephraim Sneh who has been as a vocal supporter of the peace process for a long time. We also spoke to Colette Avital MK who spoke about women’s and equality issues. It’s striking that Israel, a liberal democracy, has all the internal debates you would expect any country to have – about schools, hospitals, transport etc. Sadly these debates are often eclipsed by news of another suicide bombing. What Israelis want more then anything, it appeared, is to be able to see the front pages of their papers dedicated to domestic issues and not the ongoing violence that has marred much of Israel’s political life for too long.
So on the second day of the trip we visited Ramallah. We saw for ourselves the checkpoints the Palestinians have to pass through everyday. Ramallah itself was a surprise – far more built-up than I had expected and also a lot larger. We were incredibly lucky to meet Saeb Erekat who has been closely involved in the peace negotiations, and Hanan Ashrawi, often on UK media programmes talking about the Middle East. The overall mood was one of cautious optimism, and they spoke of the expectation resting on Abu Mazen and how he has to be aided by Israel, the US and the UK. Help was needed, they said, with stopping the funding that flows to Hamas, from terrorist organisations in Lebanon and Syria.
With this is mind a trip to the Lebanese border provided an insight into what the Israeli Defence Force has to contend with. We visited an IDF base and saw for ourselves how close Hezbollah positions are to Israeli land. Another trip involved us visiting the security barrier around Qulqilya. The reasons for the barrier were explained – seriously cutting down the number of suicide attacks – and the point was made that the majority of the barrier is a fence, and not a wall.
After every visit a discussion usually ensued and we were allowed the opportunity to question people, whether from the ministry of foreign affairs or the Palestinian Authority. These provided the group an insight into the peace process, from both sides, and helped instil a sense that there was no black and white, only grey, in the Middle East.
Throughout the trip I felt that Israelis and Palestinians are tired of war and are now ready for peace. The death of Arafat, who on so many occasions turned his back on Israel’s efforts to make peace, symbolised a change of direction. Where Arafat failed his people, Mazen wanted to deliver. With regards to Sharon, the hardline Israeli prime minister, there was talk of courage in his step to remove the settlers from Gaza. Of course, a Labor prime minister would be preferable, but for the time being Sharon is looking a little less hard line than he has looked for a very long time.
As ever though, it pays to be cautious. Since my trip another bomb has ripped through the heart of Tel Aviv and broke any pretence that the Abu Mazen era would bring a total end to the violence. But the bomb, whilst horrific, has not completely dampened the mood of optimism. With the conference in London on the Palestinian authority going ahead and the road map back on track, a lot still hinges on a very delicate collection of variables. But, for the time being at least, it’s nice to have hope.
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