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Day 1: Bethlehem. There are lots of warnings to group members before we arrive: “If asked just say you are visiting the Holy Land and Israeli sites, suspend your Facebook and Twitter accounts, don’t mention divestment, boycott and sanctions.”
We catch a sherut (shared taxi) from Ben Gurion airport to Hotel Jerusalem, meet the Israeli Commission Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) group and transfer by minibus to Bethlehem, a Palestinian neighbourhood under the Palestinian Authority (PA).
From our hotel window, we can see the eight-metre-high separation wall with its barbed wire running along the top, watchtowers and cameras.
The wall is covered with graffiti and poems by local Palestinians.
The city, surrounded by two bypass roads for Israeli settlers, leaves the 170,000 inhabitants squeezed into a small area surrounded by the separation wall which cuts it off from its sister city, East Jerusalem.
Day 2: East Jerusalem. We meet Jeff Helper, ex-director of ICAHD, who explains that the Oslo II accords divided the West Bank into three administrative divisions, each with a different status.
Area A is exclusively administered by the PA, Area B by both the Palestinian and Israeli authorities and Area C — 70 per cent of the West Bank — under Israeli control.
All the land surrounding these first two areas is defined as Area C, with 300,000 Palestinians living in very restricted conditions.
After, we go on a bus tour of Greater Jerusalem to witness the growth of Israeli settlements, all illegal under international law.
The occupation is perhaps Israel’s biggest national project. The high-tech industry that develops advanced combat and surveillance devices profits many Israeli corporations and the thousands who patrol the streets, man the checkpoints and survey the wall.
There are profits too for the businesses in the West Bank.
Following land confiscation, they have developed tourist sites and settlement expansion or just about any industry that relies on cheap Palestinian labour.
Day 3: Bethlehem. We get up early to walk through checkpoint 300, the crossing through the wall which separates Bethlehem from East Jerusalem. Thousands of Palestinian workers have been queuing, some since 3am. As we go through, they show their ID card and their permission letter, which must be renewed regularly.
Digitalised thumbprints are taken before the soldier allows them through. Eight-hour shifts “dehumanise” soldiers, we are told.
There are five different kinds of ID which provide different kinds of rights separating Palestinians from each other — orange denotes West Bank, red is Gaza Strip, green denotes Palestinians barred from entering Israel.
As we cross back to Bethlehem, we buy coffee from a stallholder at the entrance of the checkpoint. He tells us he has been blacklisted for throwing stones and can’t leave the area.
We go to the Palestine Counselling Centre at Beit Hanina, where a clinical psychologist explains how Israel’s apartheid housing system operates.
The state provides infrastructure for Israeli housing but Palestinians must buy water, electricity and services at inflated prices. They have no access to mains water or electricity and install black cisterns to hold the water they have to buy. The daily house demolitions in Palestinian neighbourhoods cause homelessness and despair.
Palestinians need a permit to build a house but they are not easily obtainable. So they build illegally and very fast, sometimes in the Jewish holidays, the psychologist explains.
But, without forewarning, the Israeli army arrives in the middle of the night with bulldozers, evicts families and cordons off the area.
The demolition takes up to four hours and families are fined thousands of shekels. If they can’t pay, the father is sent to prison.
Roads are not paved, services are not provided, electricity is generated by bought solar panels and as the PA is not allowed to build new schools, Palestinian children attend schools with increasingly overcrowded classes.
The aim is to wear down Palestinians and impoverish and divide them. All families can do is survive. This apartheid regime is embedded in Israeli law. Palestinians are described as enemies, seen as Arab terrorists and denied their identity.
“We provide counselling,” the psychologist tells us, “a sort of emergency first aid to try to alleviate the trauma of Palestinians and focus on empowerment and issues of identity.
“We focus on the mother as the mother holds the family together. We visit families regularly, as soon as we have heard of a house demolition. Our volunteers work with children, helping adolescents stay in schools, preventing them from getting into difficulty with security forces.”
We drive to Aida Refugee Camp and on the way we see Palestinian houses, with the black water tanks on the roof. They’re occupied by several generations living vertically or in shacks and they’re subject to frequent incursions by the Israeli Defence Force.
At the camp we listen to three youths performing plaintive Palestinian tunes and then walk around the camp. At its entrance is a huge key, symbol of the Palestinian right to return. Israeli soldiers are not far away.
The second part of this feature series will appear on Monday. Information on ICAHD study tours to Palestine is available at icahduk.org and on the BDS movement at bdsmovement.net.
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