“The clinic is modern, light, open and clean. Coming from a dark, dirty hospital with MRSA [the superbug] stalking the wards I almost felt we should send our managers to learn from the people here,” reflected Lucy Collins, a midwife from the Royal Sussex County Hospital, Brighton. She had spent two days in the Red Crescent primary health care center in Tubas. Such positive reflections on the grinding reality of life under occupation in the West Bank are rare. But there are many stories of a resilient people who still have the energy to welcome visitors and reassure them when things become particularly heavy. Lucy was one of ten people on a delegation to Palestine from the Brighton-Tubas Friendship and Solidarity Group. The group aims to highlight Israeli war crimes against Palestinians in the region, raise awareness about life under occupation and create practical solidarity links between grassroots organizations in Brighton and the Tubas region.
The Tubas region has been de facto annexed by Israel. Land expropriation, house demolitions, water shortages, curfews, militarization of vast swathes of land and a system of pass laws reminiscent of apartheid South Africa are forcing the indigenous Palestinians out. Those who remain provide an exploitable workforce for Israeli agricultural companies such as Carmel Agrexco. Ninety-five percent of the agricultural land is now in the hands of the Israeli settlers or military.
Sarah Cobham, a member of the delegation who managed to get inside an agricultural packing house in the illegal settlement of Tomer explains, “We saw box upon box of dates, labeled “Made in Israel,” but grown on Palestinian land, packed by Palestinians, sold in British supermarkets such as Tescos. This trade is lining the pockets of settlers that illegally occupy the Jordan Valley. In the factories Palestinians, including children of 12 years old, work for a pittance as modern day slaves. Their message: “Don’t support the occupation: boycott Israeli Apartheid goods.”
The Brighton group first made contact with the region in 2005 through campaigning against Carmel-Agrexco. Seven British activists were taken to court for blockading Agrexco’s UK depot. They argued that the company was complicit in crimes committed by Israel and called witnesses from the Tubas region.
Many on the delegation are involved in solidarity activities back home, but as Cobham commented, “Although I have read hundreds of accounts of everything I am now experiencing, nothing had quite prepared me for the reality behind the words.”
Even by Palestinian standards the events of this week could be described as heavy. The delegation visited a school that was built in August in Upper Fasayil, with the help of two volunteers from Brighton. They discovered that it had already received a demolition order. All building work, including repairs, is prohibited without a permit from the Israeli authorities. Palestinians in 95 percent of the Jordan Valley have been prohibited from building anything at all since 1967. The school building project was an act of defiance by people who would not accept the gradual destruction of their community. The people of Fasayil say if the school is demolished they will simply build it again.
The delegation had planned to help farmers harvest their olives. Seventy-five percent of Palestinians are economically dependent on this crop, but again this week the army refused anyone to cross the apartheid wall and so they all waited in vain. By denying access the Israeli state can then deem land to be “uncultivated,” which results in further annexation of land by illegal Israeli settlements.
Later in the week, the delegation joined a demonstration against a land seizure in al-Masra’a, where settlers have recently planted vines on villagers’ fields. Israeli settlers and soldiers shot at the demonstrators as they ran from the demonstration. Three were arrested and held for over thirty hours in the “punishment block” of Ramla women’s prison, Tel Aviv. Sarah Cobham, 42, amongst those arrested, said:
“A settler pointed a gun at us and threatened to kill us and then we were taken away. During my time in Palestine I have seen the heartache on the faces of the families of many Palestinian ex-prisoners and the hollow looks in the eyes of those who have been incarcerated. Sitting in a cell, with no way of contacting the outside world, I began to grasp the enormity of what they had been telling me.”
The following day, al-Masra’a suffered a violent reprisal for the demonstration. Settlers uprooted and burnt olive trees, destroyed crops, attacked houses and beat villagers. The next day thirty people from the village were rounded up and arrested.
How can a small group of UK citizens make sense of what they have experienced in the occupied territories? “At a school in Tubas the children asked us if we had an occupation in London, whether there was a wall in Brighton and why we [the UK] exported arms to Israel.” Such questions, and bearing witness to the myriad of daily brutalities, brings the need for real solidarity action into sharp focus. Several of those in Palestine this week are involved with a long running, determined and innovative campaign to shut down a Brighton company, EDO-MBM, which makes components for missiles used in the region. What greater motivation to continue their struggle here than seeing with their own eyes the results of the arms trade. Lucy Collins explains, “When a delegation from Tubas came to Brighton earlier this year they were amazed and happy when we took them to our weekly demonstration outside the factory. Rather than feel helpless in the face of what we have seen, or just raise money for a charity we are more determined than ever to continue with the ‘Boycott Israel’ campaign and with exposing companies like Carmel Agrexco and EDO-MBM.”
On their return the group will be giving talks on their experiences and the many ways to struggle in solidarity with the Palestinian people.
Alice Cutler is a freelance writer from Brighton and can be reached at email@example.com.