When I was a teenager, the situation in Palestine captured my imagination and ignited a fire in me. I wanted to do something about the atrocities I kept reading about. I wanted justice, peace and a fair resolution. It seemed very black and white back then.
As an adult, I recognise that there are at least two sides to every story and as an MP, I am painfully aware that the complexities of international negotiations are never straightforward. Bearing all this in mind, I jumped at the chance to go on a cross-party delegation to Israel and Palestine to see the situation for myself and see if a resolution was, in fact, possible.
I'm not really sure what I was expecting. Well, if I'm honest, I think I was expecting the whole of Palestine to be like the parts of Gaza we see on TV with bombed-out buildings, horror and desperation.
We flew into Tel Aviv airport which was clean and welcoming. The transition between Israel and Palestine was so seamless that I didn't even notice it. I was expecting security checks, road blocks and a very real line between one state and the other.
As we drove, I became aware that running parallel to the main road was an attractive retaining wall, or so I thought. This was actually the barrier, erected by the Israelis, between the two states. It is only further out of town and away from the tourists that it turns into concrete blocks with razor wire and watch towers. The barrier and the green line it is meant to follow, is a good example of the subtleties of the problems that face any lasting resolution.
On my first day I literally sat in 'no man's land' in the building used to decide the official green line, the demarcation line between the armies of Israel and its neighbours in the 1949 peace agreements. Called the green line (as it was signed with a green pen) the route was agreed again in 1967. It has been widely accepted as the basis for the border between Israel and Palestine.
In 2002, the Israeli government decided to turn the green line into a physical barrier. While still not completed, it is planned to be 700 kilometres long and 85% of the intended route encroaches on to the Palestinian West Bank. Israel says this is a temporary security measure. This violation of the border was referred to the international court of justice in 2004 and it was confirmed that Israel has the right to build a barrier, but that it must conform to international law. This clearly means following the green line and makes the 85% of it in the West Bank illegal occupation.
Apart from the illegality, the main impact is that the barrier goes through 150 Palestinian villages and towns, isolating farmers from their land and their livelihood. Olive trees are the biggest source of income for the area but farmers have to apply for a permit to cross the barrier to tend to their trees and harvest their crops. Applying for a permit is a time-consuming job and farmers are routinely turned down for security reasons.
Part of the process of applying is for the farmers to prove they own their land, but most of the land has never been surveyed. By 1967, only 30% of Palestine had been documented before Israel stopped it. At present, 50% of farmers' applications are rejected, but actually, most don't even bother applying any more, so the real figure of people denied access to their land is very much higher.
For farmers fortunate enough to be granted a permit, there are only 85 gates along the barrier to enable access and only nine are open daily. The rest are only opened during the olive harvest in November/December and opened first thing, so famers are locked in until the Israeli Defence Force let them out at night and if they have a medical emergency, forgotten tools or run out of fuel - tough!
When you overlay a map of the illegal Israeli settlements with the planned route of the barrier it all becomes clear. The barrier is actually encircling the major settlements and if it continues as planned, it would illegally occupy 9.4% of the West Bank.
Our trip, organised by CAABU and Medical Aid Palestine, was predominantly in the West Bank as currently the Israeli Government does not allow British MPs to visit Gaza.
Gaza is a horrific humanitarian disaster that we cannot allow to continue. It is a tiny strip of land, 26 miles long, with sea on one side and massive walls and security on the other. The population is 1.8million, making it the second most densely populated area on the planet and 85% of that population is dependent on aid. The GDP is now 30% less than it was 20 years ago, making it the only place in the world that this has occurred and by 2020, the situation will be untenable.
The 'tunnel economy' was the only way people were surviving, and this is now largely shut down. By the tunnel economy, I don't mean guns being smuggled through tunnels, I mean the only way to get food, necessities and fuel into the city was by trading with Egypt through a system of tunnels. Yes, Gaza faces the sea, but for security reasons the Israelis only allow fishing within a three-mile radius. You need to remember that the only place for the population's sewerage to go is into the sea. Finally, exports have largely been stopped.
So, there is all this hardship before you even consider the ongoing violence that is perpetuated by both sides. I deplore the use of violence. However, we must recognise that the Israelis use the Palestinian violence in Gaza as a politically convenient red herring to stall negotiations. It is that violence that I repeatedly heard being used as a justification for why Israel needs to take the security measures it does. The violence stops the world from clearly seeing Gaza as the horrendous humanitarian crisis that it is, but at least we are aware of it.
My trip showed me the hidden scandal, breaking every international law, the illegal occupation of Palestinian land. I believe this will make a two-state solution virtually impossible. Right now, as well as the barrier, Israel is very actively building settlements on Palestinian land and using the protection of the Israelis housed in the settlements as the justification for military rule. If we truly want to see peace in the region, this blatant flouting of the law simply cannot be allowed to continue.
Sarah Champion is the Labour MP for Rotherham and shadow minister for preventing abuse and domestic violenceSuggest a correction