time to get tough with israel

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    If the timetable for peace in the Middle East is allowed to slip, we should consider imposing economic sanctions and suspending arms deals with Israel, says Jenny Tonge

    Monday June 23, 2003

    A week after returning from the Gaza Strip and West Bank on a fact-finding mission organised by Christian Aid, I feel ready to reflect on what I heard and saw.
    My companion, Oona King MP, was so appalled, as I was, by our first day in Gaza that she felt she had to report immediately, which she did, in an article in the Guardian on June 12.

    Oona is of Jewish origin but is not a religious Jew and to do justice to some very dear Jewish friends and colleagues and constituents, I wanted to get a wider picture and a more balanced one before I commented publicly.

    The road map to peace in the Middle East is the only show in town and yet the deadline for phase 1, which calls for cessation of hostilities on both sides, is far away.

    Two hours after we entered Gaza following a long wait, interrogation and what seemed an endless walk across "no man's land" to a waiting car, Israeli Apache helicopters attacked a car thought to contain the Hamas leader, Abdel Aziz Rantisi.

    Rantisi survived but several innocent Palestinians were killed. This was Israel's "response" to the gun fight which killed Israeli soldiers at the Erez checkpoint the weekend before, through which we had just passed.

    Next day, the suicide bomber struck in Jaffa Street, east Jerusalem, killing 17 Israelis. The tit-for-tat tale of horror continued all through the week of our visit, piling misery and terror in innocent Palestinians and Israelis alike.

    Conditions in the Gaza strip are dire. Food is in short supply and medicines likewise. Some 60% of Palestinian children and 74% of pregnant women suffer from anaemia, but roadblocks and checkpoints in Gaza and West Bank prevent people from reaching hospital, and some have died.

    Many homes and businesses in Gaza have been reduced to rubble by Israeli bulldozers after sometimes as little as 10 minutes warning to the occupants - I have never seen so much rubble and filth and razor wire - and I was a child in the Black Country in the 1940s and played in the bomb damage there!

    Farmers' lands have been destroyed in Gaza and West Bank to create safe areas around heavily guarded "settlements" of Israelis, often taking far more land than officially recorded.

    Up to 83,000 olive trees have been destroyed on the pretext that they might "harbour" terrorists. Anyone who knows their olive trees will know that their foliage is too scanty to hide a man or woman and that they only produce fruit after 15-20 years. The trees destroyed were ancient and productive.

    Roadblocks mean that what produce Palestinian farmers can grow often deteriorates in the long wait for clearance - often a day or more - and is then worthless at market. Some farmers are producing fruit like strawberries for Israeli companies but they report the prices have dropped, and nothing is labelled "produce of Palestine", only "product of Israel".

    This injustice concerning country of origin is being addressed by our government, backed by the EU, but it led both Oona and I to feel that the only moral action was to call for a boycott of Israeli goods by individual citizens in much the same way as we successfully boycotted South African goods in the apartheid years.

    Even fishing rights have been reduced. The fishermen in the Gaza strip have a "triangle" of sea in which to fish, the apex of which is three miles from the coast - it was 12 miles before. In contrast, the Israeli settlement on the coast in the south of Gaza has plentiful fishing rights.

    The wall and security fence was perhaps our greatest shock. It is way beyond the 1967 green line from the north-west to the south-west of the West Bank.

    A security fence (with a deep ditch plus razor wire and look-out posts) is also being constructed, from the north-east to the south-east of the Jordan Valley. It is ingeniously constructed to exclude the best aquifers from the Palestinian lands and blatantly cuts them off from the whole Jordan Valley and its fertile lands and water, and, in the case of Qalqila, cuts Palestinians off from their natural gas fields outside the town.

    We stood beneath it at Qalqila, where the whole town is surrounded by the wall apart from a heavily-guarded Israeli "passage" in and out from the other Palestinian lands. It is eight metres tall with armed concrete watchtowers and a "buffer" zone of 30-100 metres wide filled with rubble and razor wire. It will be 360 km long and will isolate east Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank.

    I stood beneath the Berlin Wall when visiting East Germany many years ago and it bears no comparison. This wall is monstrous. It is medieval.

    The whole of the West Bank and Gaza is honeycombed with Israeli settlements and roads used only by settlers. A trip from Jericho to Ramallah (25km) will take half an hour by settler road and up to 24 hours if you are a Palestinian because of checkpoints and obstructions on the winding minor roads which they have to use.

    We struggled to describe this honeycombing or even "Swiss Cheesing" of the Palestinian territories. This combined with checkpoints where two MPs from the United Kingdom were delayed and humiliated, but at least treated with some caution. Palestinians are humiliated and demoralised and the sense of hopelessness at those checkpoints is palpable.

    The methods being used by the Israelis on reflection are not really "Warsaw Ghetto" or apartheid, but Ariel Sharon's government's own ingenious way of totally cutting off Palestinians from any normal life, while attempting to stay within international law. They are squeezing the Palestinians to death.

    And what of the Israelis? I was moved when we met a British Israeli group. Struggling, as a non-Jew, to understand the "pull" of this land, I listened to one of my constituents who now lives in Israel, near Tel Aviv.

    She said that her parents had escaped Nazi Germany in 1939 and came to Britain, where she had been brought up, educated and married. Nevertheless, she said: "In the UK I always felt totally at ease externally. I fitted in with my surroundings, but felt a constant inner turmoil. Here in Israel I do not fit in. I still feel frightened and uncomfortable, but there is a deep inner peace, that at last I have found my roots."

    This must be the way so many Israelis live in this gilded cage, although the economy is now suffering terribly from the intifada. There is fear everywhere, fear of the suicide bombers who strike at random in the most crowded places. A bus journey is to be feared and endured, a car journey on settler roads runs the risk of sniper bullets.

    No one is safe, and yet they must endure. They must resist the commonly held view that the terrorists, backed by Palestinians and indeed the Arab world, will drive them into the sea and they will lose their Promised Land.

    No one, from the British Israelis to the Israeli government representatives we met, would contemplate the notion that the way the Palestinians are now being treated will give more and more support to the terrorists.

    No one can condone terrorism but we can understand why it occurs. It is born out of bitterness, desperation and poverty and all the present actions of the Israeli government are making it worse.

    The Palestinians, like the Israelis, want a secure land, free from terror as promised when the land of Israel was created in 1947. It has never happened.

    It is important, finally, to emphasise that being opposed to the policies of the present Israeli government is not anti-Semitic, and Jewish people all over the world do themselves no favours by raising this issue.

    The road map, as I have said, is the only show in town, but we cannot allow the peace process to be delayed indefinitely by Prime Minister Sharon or the terrorists.

    The government of Israel has the most to give, to relent on the draconian measures it is using to destroy a viable Palestinian state.

    If no progress is made in the summer, the UK government, the EU, Russia and the US, the so-called quartet, must bring pressure to bear by considering economic sanctions and the suspension of all arms deals.

    They would be measures worth taking if they would secure a free and secure state of Israel and a free and secure state of Palestine.

    · Jenny Tonge is MP for Richmond Park and Liberal Democrat spokeswoman for international development
 
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