“We have been waiting for you for a long time” – Dr. Riyad Al-Malki, Minister of Foreign Affairs – Palestine – April 2, 2018.
During the first week of April 2018, eighteen Members of Parliament representing all five of Canada’s federal political parties visited Palestine. It was an historic visit, the first time a large contingent of Canadian parliamentarians had come to Palestine to experience first-hand the life of Palestinians who have been living under Israeli occupation since the 1967 war. The trip was funded privately; no tax dollars were spent on this trip. Eight New Democrat MPs were part of this trip – more than any other party – including our Parliamentary Leader, House Leader, Quebec Lieutenant, and Finance Critic.
We met with a wide variety of groups and citizens including: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas; a Bedouin community in Eastern Jerusalem threatened with forcible transfer to accommodate an illegal Israeli settlement; a group of middle-school-age girls who attend a United Nations school in the Jalazone Refugee Camp in West Bank; Breaking the Silence, an Israeli Civil Society Organization that collects stories from retired male and female Israeli soldiers, several of whom told us their duty was to dominate and intimidate Palestinian society; Fawzi Juniedi, a teenager who was arrested, blindfolded and jailed under Israeli military law; Bassem Tamimi, father of Ahed Tamimi who is currently serving eight months in an Israeli prison for slapping and kicking two Israeli soldiers last December when she was 16 years old (Amnesty International calls her “the Rosa Parks of Palestine”); and the inter-faith Higher Presidential Committee For Church Affairs in Palestine; along with other human rights, government ministers and parliamentary leaders. Here are some of the things we heard that week.
We were told that Palestinians want their own state; President Abbas told us that they would accept a two state (Israel and Palestine) solution with Palestine comprising only 22% of the original Palestine; the remaining 78% would go to Israel.
The government of Israel continues to build what the United Nations and international legal experts refer to as illegal settlements within Occupied Palestinian Territory.
A retired Israeli soldier we met with said it was his job as a soldier in the Israeli Defence Forces to randomly select Palestinian homes, enter them in the middle of the night, search them, intimidate the family that lived there, and then move on to their next randomly selected home in occupied Palestine.
The government of Israel has set up a special military court to try Palestinian children as young as 12 years of age for “crimes” that include throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. These children are sometimes blindfolded, questioned without their parents or a lawyer present, and held in jail unless or until they confess. Conviction rates in these courts are close to 100% and can include jail time.
Both Palestinians and Israelis see Jerusalem, a city divided by a large Israeli-built wall, as the potential capital of their states. In order to encourage a negotiated two state solution, countries around the world agreed to not place their embassies in Jerusalem. The recent move of the United States embassy in Israel to Jerusalem has the potential to delay and derail talks leading to a two state solution. The decision has fuelled anger among Palestinians, and the recent events where at least seventy-one unarmed people died has also fuelled anger there and internationally.
The third generation refugee camp girls attending the United Nations school shared with us their desires for the future which include a free Palestine; one girl said she would like to be President one day!
During our seven days in Palestine, we experienced the many difficulties the Palestinian people endure living under Israeli occupation, including many checkpoints staffed by Israeli soldiers, being refused entry to the Al-Shuhada Street in the Old City of Hebron because we arrived with Palestinian guides, long travel times between cities because only Israelis can use the shorter routes, water restrictions, and the walled-off illegal Israeli settlements in Palestine (many more are planned).
The Palestinians we met in the streets were all very friendly and welcoming. We also experienced some of the world’s holiest sites for Christians, including the Nativity Church in Bethlehem (the birthplace of Jesus), and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (the Crucifixion and the Resurrection).
It was sadly ironic that in this place that truly should be a symbol and an icon for peace, there is oppression and conflict. Canada must do more towards a real, long-term, just peace for Palestinians and Israelis, and must call on the government of Israel to end the occupation.
Wayne Stetski is the Member of Parliament for Kootenay-Columbia