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22 November 2006

Barrett on Palestine

At this time of year for most people in Edinburgh thoughts turn to Christmas; shopping, a break from work, spending time with family and watching the children enjoying their presents. Over in Palestine, Jerusalem and Bethlehem, where it all began, life is very different.

I have just returned from a visit to the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel, to see what is happening on the ground to investigate whether the aid, paid for by Edinburgh taxpayers, is being used effectively.

While many in Edinburgh were making plans for nativity scenes and carol services, I was in Bethlehem in an armour plated vehicle with bullet proof glass to see what was happening on the ground. From Bethlehem, our scheduled visit to Hebron was cancelled as artillery shells in Gaza had just killed men, women and children sleeping in their beds, as a reprisal for rocket attacks on Israel. These rockets are often fired from the Gaza Strip by young men who launch them from built up areas – then disappear. The Israeli response is often quick and fatal. In the aftermath of this attack, armed men stalked the streets of Hebron ordering shops to close and forcing people indoors. With no way in, I was able to spend an extra hour in Bethlehem and visited the Church of the Nativity.

Later on, I listened to evidence from the Palestinians, children in a refugee camp school and their parents. I also heard from Israeli settlers on the West Bank who believed they had a right to be there. We heard a detailed security analysis form the IDF (Israeli Defence Force) and Government spokesmen about what they had to do to combat suicide bombers and other dangers.

From the Palestinians I also heard about how their land was originally given away from under them by the British and others. I was told the harrowing tale of a 10-year-old child being treated for cancer reaching a checkpoint on his way to hospital and being allowed through, only without his mother. He then had to make his way to hospital on his own for treatment. I also heard of doctors being denied access to their own place of work and students stopped from going to study, because of travel restrictions on all young men between 16 and 25. The education and health systems are crumbling and poverty on a scale of Sub-Saharan Africa is now unfolding on our doorstep.

The Israelis believe they must protect themselves, and justified the construction of the partition wall (which has all the looks of the Berlin wall) on the grounds of security. The wall or security barrier is 670km long and divides communities, farmers from their fields, villages form their water supply and people from their work.

The example of a woman forced to become a suicide bomber by her husband, who then attempted to blow up the hospital treating her was just one of the many examples of the threat experienced by the Isrealis which has resulted in such tight security, the construction of the wall, and check points throughout the country.

Because of the humanitarian crisis, we are delivering aid to those suffering most, but some of the projects funded by taxpayers in the UK are being blown up by those we also support. I saw the remains of a bombed Palestinian police station which was full of computers, supplied by the UK to combat crime. One reason given for the attack was to kill a known terrorist who was being held at the station. He fled when the building collapsed. Such contradictions are common place here.

Settlements are now springing up throughout the West Bank, built on hilltops - like forts, using up the scarce resource of water five times more quickly than the locals, and accessed by roads which bypass existing villages. A form of apartheid exists on many roads with roadblocks and checkpoints now so frequent that local produce is ruined by the time it gets to market. At the same time, customs duty and taxes collected by the Government of Israel are not passed on to the elected Government of the Palestinians because the people voted for the Hamas party, which does not recognise the right of Israel to exist. As a result, school teachers and doctors have been without pay for months. Chaos is unfolding on a daily basis. The Palestinian people held democratic elections, but following the result, they are asking why we do not respect their democracy.

What makes the potential for disaster so much worse, even than in Africa, is that Syria, Iran and Iraq are all on the doorstep and involved one way or another. There is a very real possibility that the trouble could escalate into a major regional conflict. This is a situation that no one wants, regardless of what side you are on.

All of this is happening in Jerusalem and Bethlehem at a time when Christmas is approaching and there should be goodwill to all.

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This website was established while I was a Member of Parliament. The site content is being kept online as a source of information, but all forms / email have been disabled.