Prominent Dutch women visit Israel and occupied Palestine

EI’s Arjan El Fassed facilitated a mission of prominent Dutch women to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories which took place between the 7th and 12th of July. The mission was organized by United Civilians for Peace, a joint initiative of six Dutch peace and development organisations who have been working with their Palestinian and Israeli counterparts for many years in the field of development, peace building and human rights.

On Monday, July 7th, the first day of the visit, the delegation visited Ramallah and spoke with representatives of civil society organisations, including Randa Siniora, director of the Palestinian human rights organisation Al-Haq, director of Mattin, Charles Shammas, Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, president of the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees, and Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, member of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

Tineke Lodders-Elfferich, chair of the women’s delegation said: “The core message of our counterparts is that to solve this conflict it is essential to recognize that international law is being violated. The Netherlands has an obligation to ensure respect for the international legal order. That obligation is also valid when it comes to our foreign policy with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Another aspect which the delegation found of great importance is the participation of women in all political processes in the area. Hanan Ashrawi stated: “Palestinian women have a special role. They were crucial in building Palestinian civil society. At the same time they are a vulnerable group.”

Tineke Lodders-Elfferich, chair of the delegation

In the afernoon the delegation were provided with a tour around East-Jerusalem and Israeli settlements organised by the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. During the tour it became clear that the building and expansion of Israeli settlements hampers any chances of success of the so-called “roadmap”. Settlements, by-pass roads which only can be used by Israeli settlers and soldiers and the more than hundred military roadblocks in the occupied West Bank have separated the area in more than 300 isolated enclaves. Ria Papac-Koedoot, member of the board of the Dutch Council of Women said: “It was disturbing to see that East-Jerusalem has been completely separated and isolated by a circle of settlements from other parts of the future Palestinian state.”

During the evening, the delegation spoke with a number of leaders of the Palestinian women’s movement. They described from their own experiences and humiliations daily life with military roadblocks and the siege on Palestinian communities. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is hardly analysed on its effects on women and women play hardly a role at the negotiation table. They urged for an international strategy against this consistent discrimination, oppression, and in favour of a significant role for women in the peace process.

Israeli bulldozers razing Palestinian lands

On Tueday, July 8th, the delegation visited Nablus and Qalqilya. On its way to the north of the West Bank, the delegation passed several Israeli military road blocks. Despite the start of the implementation of the roadmap, Palestinians are still restricted in their movement between various towns and villages. In Nablus the delegation visited the old city which in April 2002 and several times thereafter was invaded by the Israeli occupying forces. The destruction is still visible. Conversations and meetings with residents of the old city showed them that despite traumatic experiences, people are resilient. Staff of the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees told the delegation that during the Israeli invasions they tried to continue their work with the aid of volunteers. Sylvia Borren, general director of Novib and current chair of United Civilians for Peace, said: “The thing that gives me most hope is this resilience of people under horrible circumstances. What hits me the most is that people are imprisoned in isolated enclaves and that their freedom of movement is reduced to an absolute minumum.”

In Qalqilya, the delegation visited the so-called “security barrier” which on that spot has already been completed. The mayor of Qalqilya, Ma’ruf Zahran and Jamal Juma of the Palestinian environmental network (PENGON) explained the impact of the wall on the lives of the residents of Qalqilya, who are mostly dependent on agriculture. The wall encircles Qalqilya almost completely. The connection with the rural lands and the 32 villages in the area is lost. Only on the east side of the city is one road that provides access to the West Bank, but is closed by an Israeli military roadblock. The local economy has collapsed and around four thousand residents have already left the city. Some 50.000 Israeli settlers live in the area around Qalqilya. Israel will annex at least seven Israeli settlements in this area through the building of the wall. Jacobine Geel, a spokeswoman of the Dutch media, commented: “It’s bizarre to see that at the time people talk about the roadmap, on the ground the opposite is being accomplished by one of the parties. I wonder why the European Union support the roadmap, while at the same time it doesn’t do anything to stop this clear violation of international law.”

Ambulance prevented access at checkpoint in the West Bank

During the evening, the delegation spoke with representatives of the Israeli peace and women’s movement. These Israeli women stressed the importance of European support for a just peace. Europe will have to put in some weight in the peace process vis-a-vis the United States to ensure a just and fair result. When this doesn’t happen Israel will control the “road” and the Palestinians will be left with the “map”. Gila Swirsky said: “When you have criticism on Israeli policies most of us will find that justified. A concrete point of attention is the EU-Israel Association Agreement. “Europe has a direct responsibility,” they said. Gila Swirsky added: “If you support the work of the peace movement at the same time, you will show that you believe in another Israel. An end to the occupation means a secure Israel.”

On Wednesday, July 9th, the delegation visited the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. The women spoke with Israeli parliamentarians representing three Israeli political parties. The meetings with the members Naomi Blumenthal (Likud), Colette Avital (Labour) and Ilan Shalgi (Shinui) provided a clear picture of the different trends that exist within Israeli politics. Naomi Blumenthal said she was an opponent to any Palestinian state. Colette Avital said that the occupation must come to an end, stressing the need to convince the Israeli public that there is a Palestinian partner in peace. Ilan Shalgi said that a number of settlements needed to be dismantled, but added that the large settlements should be kept in place. All three parliamentarians were against the implementation of the right of return of Palestinian refugees. Ozden Kutluer Yalim, member of the board of TYE International, said the meeting was interesting but provided not a lot of hope. “It is clear that most Israeli politicians are not ready to subscribe to the conditions of a just peace. I am afraid that without external influence we will never come to a just peace as long as Israel is the dominating party.”

In the afternoon, the delegation spoke with the Israeli organisation Mahsum Watch. This voluntary organisation monitors the attitude of soldiers at Israeli military roadblocks. The presence of these Israeli women sometimes effects the behaviour of soldiers vis-a-vis Palestinian civilians. The delegation was impressed with the conclusion of Mahsum Watch: “military roadblocks are a humiliation for Palestinians. They do not create security. On the contrary, these roadblocks are the cause of more violence and terrorism”, said chairperson Conny Jager. Afterwards, the delegation met with bereaved Israeli and Palestinian parents. The organisation Bereaved Parents was established by Yitzhak Frankenthal, who lost his son at an operation by Hamas. Israeli and Palestinian parents who lost their children during the conflict meet eachother and show that despite the great loss they have to deal with, reconciliation is possible. According to Frankenthal and his Palestinian colleague, dr. Adel Misk, there is a need for such activities because they give both sides a human face of the “enemy” and provides an example of both communities. The organisation calls for reconciliation and for international support for the peace process.

During the evening, members of the delegation spoke with representatives of civil society organisations in Gaza. Dr. Haider Abdel Shafi, head of the Palestinian delegation at the Madrid Peace Conference, and eminence grise of Palestinian politics, welcomed the delegation. He stressed the importance of respect for all UN resolutions to solve the conflict. He pointed at the systematic Israeli policy of creating facts on the ground that are violating the resolutions. He said: “The democratic world has not fulfilled its responsibility.” At the same time he stressed the need of self-criticism. “The lack of democracy and good organisation on the Palestinian side is a problem. This is the challenge for civil society organisations and politicians.”

On Thursday, July 10th, the delegation visited a number of places in the Gaza Strip. The results of destruction since the eruption of the intifada are clearly visible. The main road to the south of Gaza has recently been reopened. The delegation travelled to Rafah and observed the amount of destruction that has been caused. The Israeli army has demolished hundreds of Palestinian homes in the south and the north. Daily invasions of the Israeli occupying forces during the past few months have turned life of civilians into a nightmare. Tiny van Hoeyen was personally touched by the difficult circumstances in which 700.000 residents of the refugee camps have to live. “It looks like an earthquake has taken place but reality is that this is a intentional strategy, which makes it more bitter.”

On Friday, July 11th, the last day of the visit, the delegation met with members of the Palestinian Legislative Council and were provided with briefings on the human rights situation by the Israeli human rights organisations B’Tselem and the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel. On Saturday, July 12th, the delegation returned back to the Netherlands.