Last week I visited the occupied West Bank, as part of a trip organised by Camden-Abu Dis Friendship Association, meeting with Palestinian activists, teachers and others in several different cities and towns. One day was devoted to the district of Qalqilya which we in Tyneside have an embryonic link with (one I hope we can develop and strengthen in the months and years ahead).
All of us in the group responded very warmly to Qalqilya – there's something about the mix of welcoming locals, a lively atmosphere, tree-lined roads in the city centre, and admiration for the incredible stoicism and determination of people living there. They are faced with many of the worst elements of life under Israeli occupation.
If you look at any map showing the location of settlements and the separation wall you will see what I mean. There’s a particular concentration of illegal Israeli settlements around Qalqilya. This is one reason, too, why the wall is so remorselessly dominant in the area – it totally encircles Qalqilya, designed to ‘protect’ the Israeli settlers and to enforce strict segregation between relatively privileged settlers and the local Palestinian population.
The wall carves up the land, often separating Palestinians from their own farms or fields, splitting up families, or making it arduous for people to reach where they work or study every day. Even a brief visit to the West Bank makes it abundantly clear why many people talk of ‘Israeli apartheid’, and why the wall and the settlements are together regarded as a process of colonisation, encroaching deep into Palestinian territory.
A lot of Palestinian land has been stolen to build the settlements, which loomed over us in the hills as we approached. We passed roads that Palestinians could once travel on, but are now reserved exclusively for settlers. We saw fields where olive trees had been hacked down by settlers, damaging Palestinians' agriculture (and deliberately insulting the farmers who depend on the land).
There are two further factors at work here. Firstly, Israel wants control of the plentiful water supplies in the area. It has set about systematically controlling and re-directing water so it supplies the settlements, while Palestinians lose much of their access to what should be their natural resources. This makes Qalqilya economically significant for Israel.
Secondly, it is a frontier town, located on the border between Israel and the West Bank. This reinforces Israel’s desire to tightly control it – and some of those we met locally speculated that Israeli authorities ultimately want to shift the border so it is in fact absorbed as part of Israel itself.
Traditionally many local Palestinians have travelled across the border to work. There was a time when the large majority of the local population worked for Israeli companies. The local economy is weak, but people have previously benefited from access to jobs in Israel.
But this has become tougher, partly as a result of discrimination and partly because workers must walk through a horribly intimidating military checkpoint to get to work. Sometimes the Israeli army make Palestinians wait… and wait. We went to two major border checkpoints and they are a vivid, sometimes humiliating, reminder of Israeli control and power, as well as a source of practical inconvenience.
The people talked to us of Qalqilya as an open (or not so open) prison, an indiscriminate collective punishment of a whole population. In our group we observed a higher security presence than anywhere else we visited, frequently seeing Israeli soldiers and Palestian police (who in reality are powerless, except as compliant agents of the occupation). It is a place dominated by checkpoints, terminals and the ever-present wall. It captures so much of what is grotesque and unjust about Israel’s occupation.
There are also high levels of poverty and unemployment. Generally, a high proportion of the West Bank’s young people go to university, but a large number of them struggle to find work. High graduate unemployment is a problem in Qalqilya as elsewhere.
It’s an area where people are so desperate to find work, an estimated 2000 Palestinians locally – according to a trade union official we met – currently work on settlements (primarily in construction). The union council said they may hate doing a job that serves the Israeli colonisation of their land – and they get treated poorly, with no rights and often appalling health and safety – but they feel there’s no alternative.
None of this means the situation is hopeless. A good example was the local response, in a small town nearby, to the army’s brutal killing of a 16 year old boy around two years ago, when they intervened in support of settlers who had an altercation with the boy. A health union organiser who lives there told us that since the killing the local population has prevented any of the settlers from entering their town centre, swiftly gathering to collectively rebuff them if they dare try to enter the town.
We met a young graduate who can't find work, but who has just started getting organised with other recent graduates. They set up a Facebook group on life in Qalqilya, calling for jobs, opportunities and justice, which attracted several hundred mainly local young people in the space of a week. The union activists we met are evidently struggling, but they still represent thousands of workers and are admirably determined.
A number of people fiercely criticised the Palestinian Authority - its corruption, its political impotence, its collaboration with Israeli occupation. One aspect of this is the way Ramallah, home of the PA and thousands of its employees, has drawn people towards it, away from places like Qalqilya which suffer the worst effects of segregation and colonisation policies. Economic desperation, combined with restrictions on movement and freedom, has led some people to leave.
This long-running disastisfaction was largely responsible for Hamas doing especially well in the 2006 elections. The Palestinian Authority is perceived as complying meekly with occupation policies, a consequence of the rotten deal that resulted from the Oslo negotiations in the 1990s and the reluctance of Fatah - the dominant force in the PA - to think beyond its imposed limitations.
What we can do, meanwhile, is to let people know what's really happening in this corner of the world, promote solidarity actions like the continuing boycott campaign, and establish connections (in whatever way possible) between ourselves and the people of Qalqilya who are fighting to get by, persisting with the struggle for freedom and continuing to believe - despite relentless Israeli attrition - that justice for Palestine is possible.
Also see my 'Letter from Palestine: life under occupation'