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UK Aid and the Villagers of the West Bank

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Overseas aid is in the news at the moment with the government promising an aid spending commitment of 0.7% of gross national income next year while recently announcing it will pull its funding to India.

Often wrongly portrayed as a wasteful, cumbersome arm of bureaucratic government which just throws money at a problem, British aid is actually extremely innovative and operates in some very troubled and sensitive environments.

I recently visited a remarkable UK Aid funded project in the West Bank, part of the occupied Palestinian territories, run by the YMCA and Christian Aid. The villagers of Beit Skariya have found themselves increasingly isolated and threatened by the Israeli settlement of Gush Etzion. Despite settlements like this having been declared illegal under international law, Gush Etzion has grown and now almost completely surrounds the village.

This means Palestinian children from the village have been attacked with stones on their way to school and so often drop out early, effectively a denial of their their basic right to an education. Over time this leads to a skills shortage for the local community. There is no market in Beit Skariya because no Palestinian traders from outside will come to the village due to the fear of violence from Israeli settlers. Instead, residents must travel to Bethlehem for food which not only exposes them to violence while travelling, but makes the cost of a four shekel loaf of bread 20 shekels by the time they've paid for transport for the journey.

There is no public transport servicing the village and many Palestinian taxi drivers refuse to drive there. The lack of a local market and transportation means villagers struggle to sell the little produce they make. Even if they were given planning permission by the Israeli government to build greenhouses to increase production they wouldn't have anywhere to sell the extra produce. Because planning permission is hardly ever given to Palestinians in the West Bank they are not able to build storehouses or even make basic improvements to their homes. Between 2000 and 2007 the Israeli Government approved only 5% of all Palestinian building applications in the part of the West Bank it controls, Area C, an average of just 13 per annum. The villagers of Beit Skariya feel like their Israeli settler neighbours, and the government are trying to make their lives so unbearable they will be forced to leave the village their families have lived in for centuries.

Thanks to the support from UK Aid, the villages have been equipped with skills and knowledge of their rights and responsibilities enabling them to resist and improve their chances of survival. Their isolation means medical facilities are hard to reach and emergency medical help often doesn't arrive. After consultation with the community, first aid courses have been provided so villages can treat each other - something which is required when they are attacked by settlers.

They have identified a need to monitor settler attacks and violations. A community action group has been set up which has successfully lobbied the Bethlehem governorate for a bus service so children can now go to school without the threat of violence. Legal training and Hebrew lessons have also been provided so villagers are better equipped to protect their community. Next month a grape press will arrive so that the grapes grown in the village can be made into wine for sale.

Life remains extremely difficult for the villagers of Beit Skariya and they are still left isolated and vulnerable. But thanks to the support of British taxpayer they are not completely alone. By coming together as a community, they are now able to find solutions to a range of difficulties they face.

Twenty-three year-old, Noora Amin Sa'ad, has become the village's first graduate. She said: "I now have hope that my baby daughter will have a better life here than I have had.

"Before I was shy to say our problems and did not have the words to express them. Now we understand that every person in the village has difficulties, but also the capacity to do something about them."