I want to report on a four-day visit I made to the occupied Palestinian territory and to Israel.
I met Palestinian and Israeli officials as well as affected Palestinians and humanitarian organizations, as well as affected Israelis in Sderot. I also visited communities in Area C of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and in Sderot in Israel.
During the mission I witnessed firsthand the impact of the Barrier on Palestinian communities in the Jerusalem governorate, and was deeply disturbed by what I saw. At 700 kilometres long, with 85 per cent of its route inside the West Bank, the Barrier cuts off communities from basic services, denies people access to their homes, and leaves thousands of people dependent on humanitarian handouts.
I recognize Israel’s concerns about security, but the impact of the Barrier is devastating.
I met families evicted from their homes to make way for settler communities in the East Jerusalem neighbourhoods of Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan. They face daily harassment and threats from neighbouring settlers. Attacks on Palestinians are rarely prosecuted.
I also learnt how thousands of East Jerusalem residents have lost their right to stay in the city, and how Palestinians from the rest of the West Bank and Gaza struggle to access specialized education or medical facilities available only in Jerusalem.
In Area C, an area under Israeli military control that makes up over 60 per cent of the total West Bank, I visited a one-room school with no windows and very few facilities – and where no improvements are permitted because of planning rules. This is just one example of the way that children’s health and wellbeing are being undermined.
I heard about yet more communities at risk of displacement, including the Bedouins of Wadi Abu Hindi and the residents of Al Walaja.
Palestinians are frustrated by the impact of planning and zoning policies on their lives. They cannot move around freely. Their homes are regularly demolished and they cannot develop their communities.
It’s clear that civilians are bearing the brunt of the continuing conflict and occupation. In my meeting with the Israeli Defence Minister I raised my concerns about the impact of Israeli policies and the need for the Government of Israel to suspend the forced eviction and displacement of civilians. It is illegal under international law and has devastating long term consequences.
One of the reasons that we need to deliver humanitarian assistance in parts of the West Bank, but particularly in Gaza, is the lack of economic development.
Freedom of movement is imperative for Palestinians to develop their economy and reduce dependence on humanitarian assistance. That is why I reiterated the importance of lifting the blockade on Gaza to facilitate economic growth and development.
Israel must ensure that access-restricted areas are kept to the minimum required for its legitimate security requirements.
Similarly, Israeli citizens have a right to live without fear of attack.
I visited Sderot, an Israeli community that faces constant fear and uncertainty as a result of rocket attacks from Gaza. At an indoor protected children’s playground, I saw the measures put in place to enable parents and children to reach safety quickly should the need arise, and was briefed on the psychosocial issues which affect large numbers of the population as a result of the threat of violence.
This indiscriminate violence must stop and the Palestinian Authority must take stronger measures to prevent security incidents affecting Israeli communities.
What struck me most was that, at heart, Palestinians and Israelis want the same thing – to live normal lives in peace, security and dignity. And the hope that we all have is that the ongoing discussions around the political process will deliver that for the people of Israel and for the Palestinians.