I am by nature an optimist. When I visited Palestine recently with a cross-party group of MPs, I went with the hope that the two-state solution was still a possibility, but now I'm not so sure.
On our second day, we reached the town of Hebron in the south of Palestine just as the sun was setting. It is a beautiful place, built from the soft, buttery rock that surrounds it. The sense of history is palpable, it feels like the biblical town you saw in Sunday afternoon films when you were little - there are even donkeys!
As we drove, we passed checkpoints, but we were never stopped. As we reached the centre it dawned on me that something was amiss. It was like a ghost town and where were all the people? Right in the middle of Hebron there is an illegal Israeli settlement of approximately 35 families. To protect the families, the Israeli Defence Force have effectively made the surrounding area a no-go zone for the native Palestinians. (I later found out that our minibus had Israeli plates, that's why we weren't stopped at the checkpoints.)
The area the settlers had chosen was right in the middle of the old town, next to the main market street. Formerly, this was the bustling heart, now all of the shops are boarded up and the market long gone. But there are still Palestinians living above the shops. Overnight, their front doors were welded shut so they could not gain access the street. I know this to be true as our guide was the Sergeant who supervised the work. To get out, the residents have to climb up on to their roof, clamber onto a neighbours' roof and exit onto another street. Imagine doing this is you are elderly, are carrying food or have a baby in a buggy! All this to protect the settlers who illegally decided to occupy their town.
As we walked we were watched by heavily armed soldiers. There was a constant stream of soldiers, out of uniform, jogging up and down the street and, at one point, a pick-up truck packed with youths sped and hurled insults at us. It felt like a very tense environment and made me feel extremely vulnerable - I certainly wouldn't want to be there on my own.
We quickly reached the next checkpoint on foot and decided to go through. It was down a narrow, dark back street. As we emerged out into the other side it was surreal - a bustling city street with cafés, shops and people - lots of people and such a stark contrast. We had now crossed back into the real Palestine. This is what life is like, two parallel worlds, uncomfortably living side-by-side. Reluctantly, we crossed back and got into our minibus. As we drove we saw a young boy, probably about 11-years-old, being marched to the barracks surrounded by five soldiers.
What we witnessed was apparently a common occurrence and in my opinion, is a systematic attempt to cowl the next generation of Palestinians.
As of July 2015, 5,369 Palestinians are in detention, 153 of those are children, and one is a girl. The main reason children are detained is because they have thrown stones at Israeli vehicles. The penalty for this is up to 20 years. Usually, the sentences are one to two months. Because of the occupation, the children are tried in a military court which has a 99.7% conviction rate. To be fair, this ridiculously high rate is largely because the child would be subject to a longer detention if they appealed. However, by pleading guilty they get a criminal record which will likely prevent them getting travel permits in the future. Settler children would always be tried in a civilian court, with a 6.4% conviction rate. This is clear discrimination, and clear example of the two-tier system being operated.
Most children are not actually charged. They are usually detained, roughed up, humiliated and then sent home. Children under 16 years can be detained for two to four days without charge. The soldiers have no obligation to inform them of their rights. They'll see their lawyer for the first time once they are in court, not during detention/interrogation, and remember, most children don't get charged.
So what was the point of that child we saw being marched into the barracks? Let's see it from the Israeli perspective. There are approximately 400,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem). The Israeli Defence Force is tasked to protect them and only seven settlers have been killed in the last five years. This should be recognised as a superb military achievement when you consider that the settlers represent illegal occupation of Palestinian land and the settlements are often in remote areas. Strategically, how can Israel keep her people safe? Put very bluntly, there are three options: kill the native population, deport them or intimidate the population into submission. From what I have witnessed, I believe the Israeli military strategy is to get inside the Palestinians heads and break their spirit.
Not all of the children detained are taken off the street, usually soldiers will take them from their homes. If the military were sent in to do this during the day, understandably, there would be a riot, however, doing it at night, creates a huge amount of intimidation, but with no repercussions.
The first the family knows is when they wake up and soldiers and dogs are in their bedroom. The family is then herded into a room, the suspect child will be taken with hands tied, head bagged, thrown on floor of a military vehicle and driven to a military base. Imagine the terror, the confusion, the fear. 63% of children are arrested at night and 58 per cent of children are strip-searched.
There are an average of 1,400 night raids like this per year and all happen less than 2km from Israeli settlements. The majority of detained children are shipped to Israeli prisons. Not only is this a war crime, it makes it almost impossible for their families to visit them because of how difficult it is to get a permit.
In 2012, a British delegation of lawyers led by Baroness Scotland made six recommendations in relation to child detainees:
• Don't arrest children at night
• Let people know their rights, written in Arabic
• Every child must see a lawyer before interrogation
• Parents should be present during interrogation
• There should be an audio-visual documentation of interrogation
• If any of these recommendations are breached, throw out the case
(The last recommendation would mean the others would be more likely to be followed).
I do not think it is realistic to expect the practice of child detainees to stop. However, unless the intimidation and breaches of human rights are prevented, it makes it hard to see how meaningful peace talks can continue between the two states.
What can we personally do to get lasting peace between Palestine and Israel?
I don't believe it is possible to get peace unless Israel stops building settlements in Palestine. They are illegal under international law, they are the justification for 62% of Palestine being under Israeli military rule and they create a two-tier cultural system which I believe is morally wrong.
However, we must recognise that currently, five Israeli ministers are settlers. Settlements won't stop without international pressure. To achieve anything, we need to draw attention to the situation and to that end I would like to see export products produced by settlers being labelled as such. We know where our meat comes from, why can't we know where our dates come from? This information would enable us to make informed choices if we want to buy goods generated from an illegal occupation or not.
As a nation we could fight for Palestine to have the same favourable trading terms with the EU that Israel benefits from. We should also be making a clear stance that we believe the settlements are wrong. Currently there are 17 countries boycotting settlement products, surely we should be the 18th?
Sarah Champion is the Labour Member of Parliament for Rotherham
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