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It's the Occupation, Stupid

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The 50-day war in Gaza ended at 7pm on Tuesday 26 August, when the Israeli and Palestinian unity government of Hamas and Fatah agreed to an indefinite ceasefire. By then the war had taken a heavy toll: In Gaza, more than 2,100 dead, including 500 children; over 12,000 injured; 20,000 homes destroyed or badly damaged; around a third of Gaza's 1.8million people displaced. On the Israeli side 64 soldiers and five civilians killed.

I arrived in East Jerusalem two days later, on a parliamentary delegation organised by Labour Friends of Palestine and the Council for Arab-British Understanding. Our visit was limited to the West Bank and East Jerusalem as it was not possible to enter Gaza, but the pain and suffering caused by the 50-day war is raw and the anger is palpable, regardless of where you find yourself. We witnessed the tragic consequences of the war first-hand in the Makassad hospital in East Jerusalem, where we met a Gazan a father and his four-year old son who had both had a leg amputated after their home was destroyed by an Israeli missile. The boy's mother had been taken to a hospital in Hebron, 20 miles away, where both her legs had been amputated. Attempts are now being made to get the family re-united.

The UN's August 2012 report, Gaza in 2020: A Liveable Place?, showed that fundamental weaknesses in Gaza's physical infrastructure, combined with rapid population growth, were creating enormous challenges. The report predicted that Gaza's only water aquifer may become unusable by 2016, and that electricity provision will need to double if it is to meet demand. It concluded:

"To ensure that Gaza in 2020 will be a "liveable place", on-going herculean efforts by Palestinians and partners ... need to be accelerated and intensified in the face of all difficulties".

This devastating onslaught on Gaza has triggered yet another humanitarian crisis, and that's what's creating headlines in the here and now. But it is also possible that it has inflicted such damage on Gaza's already crippled infrastructure that it will become an unliveable place well before 2020. You just can't help wondering whether the Israeli government factored this into its calculations when it opted to launch such a wide-ranging attack on the Gaza Strip.

The immediate causes of this latest tragedy in the bloody history of Palestine are well-known: the murder of three young Israeli settlers in the outskirts of Hebron led directly to the immolation of an Arab boy in East Jerusalem and the rest, as they say, is history.

What is clear is that these acts of murder would never have taken place were it not for the history of violence and conflict that stretches back for generations. Zig-zagging our way around East Jerusalem and the West Bank through the check points and around the barriers we met the Prime Minister of Palestine and senior officials of the Palestinian Authority, Bedouin community leaders, shepherds, farmers, doctors, aid workers, UN officials, a former Israeli Defence Force soldier, an official spokesman of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We even had a chance encounter with an Israeli settler in Hebron who warned us that the UK is on the brink of being over-run by ISIS! A diverse range of individuals with different interests and stories to tell, but all linked by a single reality: the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

The occupation is ruthlessly efficient at a systemic level, but I was also struck by how petty and mean-spirited it can be. At one Bedouin encampment Israeli soldiers had confiscated some playground equipment donated by the Italian government because it was considered to be in violation of planning regulations.

The history of Israel-Palestine is undoubtedly complex, but its present is actually far less so. For when you boil all the issues down to their essence, the fact is that the presence of 550,000 Israeli settlers on land that has been internationally recognised as occupied is what drives this conflict. The two-state solution will continue to be a pipe-dream unless and until Israel decides that it's prepared to end the occupation: it's as simple as that.

The map of the West Bank is a messy mosaic of Palestinian towns and villages interspersed with Israeli settlements, and those settlements do not look or feel like temporary arrangements - they are there to stay, backed by a government in Tel Aviv that truly recognises their political and symbolic importance (and for evidence of that you need look no further than the 30 August announcement of the takeover of 1,000 acres of land belonging to five Palestinian villages in the Bethlehem area of the West Bank: the Gvaot settlement will be the largest Israeli appropriation of West bank land in 30 years).

These are the facts on the ground, and this is why there is a growing sense that a radical new approach to the negotiations is required, based on a peace process that is rooted in international law and aimed at ending the occupation, rather than prolonging it. As Mr Netanyahu does not seem to be willing or able to find the political will to compromise then it's essential that more pressure is now brought to bear on him by the international community, and particularly the EU. Recent guidelines issued by the UK and other EU countries advising against doing business with the illegal settlements had a major impact on the Israeli government. The UK government must now also work with its European partners to end all EU trade and investment with illegal Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territory.

The death and devastation of the 50-day war has led to a tangible shift in global public opinion. The world knows that this must never be allowed to happen again, and it recognises more clearly than ever that the onus is now on Israel to come to the negotiating table in good faith. The peace process has seen many false dawns, but it's just possible that this time it could be different.

Around the Web

2014 Israel–Gaza conflict - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

BBC News - Gaza-Israel conflict: Is the fighting over?

Israel-Gaza conflict 2014- - Israel News | Haaretz Daily Newspaper

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict | Al Jazeera America

Israel estimates cost of Gaza conflict at £1.5bn