A tourist trip to a Palestinian refugee camp (as printed in The London Jewish News on 30 July 2009)

On my last visit to Israel I booked a day tour of the West Bank, including Hebron and Bethlehem, to see for myself the truth of what was taking place there instead of relying on the arch-polemicists who have forged careers writing about the plight of the Palestinians. One, George Galloway, is a national hero. Every Palestinian seems to know of his deeds.

We set out for Hebron, the site of the biggest flashpoints in the Middle East between Jew and Muslim and home to the Cave of Machpelah, containing the Tomb of the Patriarchs. In Hebron in August 1929 the Orthodox Jewish quarters were attacked by a mob of Muslims spurred on by the Mufti of Jerusalem leaving 60 Jews dead. In February 1994 Baruch Goldstein walked from the Machpelah’s synagogue into its Ibrahimi Mosque and murdered 29 Palestinians at prayer. The Machpelah contains the graves of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, revered by both Jews and Muslims, and is run by the Muslim Waqf.

The divisiveness of the Machpelah sets the tone for the rest of Hebron with Jew and Palestinian separated by a complicated road system and with some Jews living literally above Palestinian residents. From the Machpelah could be glimpsed an array of neatly presented Palestinian houses spread over the hills. Of course, being on a pro-Palestinian tour we were taken to the one dreadful dwelling which seemed totally uninhabitable. It was at the end of a row of houses owned by Jews and on the roof you find yourself confronted by an IDF position only some 20 yards away. Jewish neighbours, we were told, constantly harassed the house’s Palestinian occupants. I asked why the occupants didn’t sell their house to the Jews who wanted to buy it and move on like other people who have neighbour problems. Apparently, that would be impossible as the family would be then be “collaborators” and come under threat from other Palestinians.

We then journeyed to Dheisheh Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. You immediately notice ubiquitous UN signs. We met a twenty-something Palestinian refugee who has travelled the world with his family and who has a French passport but has chosen to live in the squalor of Dheisheh. The UN still classes him as a refugee even though he has access to the whole of Europe. I asked him why there is no private investment in Dheisheh to reduce the size of school classes, which each contain up to 70 pupils, and to improve the medical facilities. This self-elected spokesman for Dheisheh’s refugees responded that investment wasn’t wanted in case the UN considered its work finished and would then leave Dheisheh. The millions of refugees might then lose the so-called right to return to Israel.

So there you have it. Wretched Palestinian residents of Hebron who cannot sell their house to Jews for fear of reprisals and wretched residents of Dheisheh forced to live their lives in squalor while their better off representatives reject money that could turn a foul refugee camp into a full functioning village. And their futile political choice is between the religiousness of Hamas, who will always view Israel as an Islamic waqf, and Fatah, with its religious-like devotion to a spurious right of return. Both are equally tantamount to a long-term rejection of any properly constructed peace process. However, Hamas is more explicit and honest in its repudiation. Arafat was always presumed to be the main culprit for misappropriating Palestinian Authority funds for his own use but it seems there are other well-heeled Palestinians who wish to see their own people receive as little help as possible.

One response to “A tourist trip to a Palestinian refugee camp (as printed in The London Jewish News on 30 July 2009)

  1. Context is everything. While you mention that Palestinians refuse to sell homes to Jews, what’s missing is the reality of the illegality under International Law, of Israeli citizens raking up residence in Occupied Territories. And of course the lack if political or civil rights of the Palestinian residents of Hebron. It’s a grossly unequal power relationship and under such conditions it’s absurd to consider ordinary property transactions.

    Any move towards a ‘properly constructed peace process’, as you put it, first requires that Israel end the Occupation and that Palestinians are able to exercise the same political freedoms that are enjoyed in England or Israel. As long as Palestinians are subjugated to Israel’s insatiable appetite for more territory there will not be peace. Perhaps after a Palestinian state is established, Israelis can apply for residency permits to live in Hebron, just as the British government requires that a foreigner from outside the EU must follow immigration procedures in order to live in London. Anything less is a slap in the face and a denial of Palestinian self determination and sovereignty.

    The Right of Return is another anchor of a real and just peace. Those involved in teh process here understands that physical return for most Palestinians will not happen. However the dignity of recognition, and adequate compensation for lost lands, livelihood, and suffering, will go a long way towards an eventual reconciliation.
    Fred Schlomka