Asian Sunday hears a first hand account of Kauser Jan’s trip to the West Bank
BY Alison Bellamy
What is really going on in Palestine? It is one of those subjects that I might read about if I see an interesting article or catch the news on Channel 4. I know the basic situation, but it is not something I feel informed about.
I recently saw a protest in Yorkshire urging people to boycott Israeli goods and it made me think about the wider Arab Israeli conflict. How long has this been going on for? It must be decades? Is there an end in sight?
A fact finding mission led me to the door of Bradford born Kauser Jan, an assistant head teacher at an inner-city school, who has just returned from a week-long visit to the heart of the West Bank.
What she saw was something she could not have prepared for nor imagined. It has been life-changing.
She flew to Tel Aviv as part of a National Union of Teachers delegation, who visited Palestinian schools, met dignitaries such as the Mayor of Bethlehem, toured the sights and saw a destructive regime still talking place, almost 70 years since it began in 1948.
They met Palestinians whose homes had been ‘occupied’ and others whose children had been ‘taken’ in the night and never seen again. As it is not a place that tourists visit and is deemed a security risk, the NUT group attracted a lot of attention.
Determined Kauser Jan, who is the NUT’s international solidarity officer and works at multi-cultural Bankside Primary in Leeds, has one thing on her mind: She wants to tell their story. In fact, she must tell their story as she promised she would.
It is the story of how the Palestinian people are suffering. It is hard for her to put into words what she has seen. I can see she struggles to express all she wants to say during our meeting and how best to summarise her experience. I ask her to say what she saw:
“Nothing could have prepared me for what we saw. I feel the media is selective in what it says. The overwhelming feeling I have now is injustice. It was shocking, appalling and the trip has been life-changing.
“Arriving at the airport we were warned to couple up as one white person, one Asian, and before we knew what was happening a man of Indian origin, who had been on our flight was pounced upon by customs he was man-handled as they searched his suitcase. Two of our group were also questioned, it was frightening.”
Grandmother Kauser, 50, whose parents are of Indian origin, tells how they were met by guides who escorted them in a mini-bus to their hotel.
“The scenery was indeed beautiful. I saw extremely plush houses with swimming pools and land and right next to them were run down homes, with black water tanks on top. I realised those with water tanks, or no running water, were the Palestinian homes. This was the first clue of the division.
“Later, it was shocking to see the huge concrete wall or the West Bank Barrier. It is very high and there are checkpoints dotted along. What struck me most was the ‘watch towers’ which reminded me of the concentration camps in WW2 Germany.”
The wall separates the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, including 1.5 million refugees, who will eventually be encircled. In some parts the wall is up to 8 metres high and when finished, it will stretch for 400 miles.
Kauser continues: “How can the persecuted become the persecutors? I am not sure how it has happened.
“When people want to get to work or school there are huge queues with some leaving home at 2.30am as security checks take so long. And say for example, if a young boy slightly misbehaves, or throws a stone, he will be marked out and the military will descend on his home, maybe in the middle of the night, and take him to prison. Nothing will
be explained. It is completely de-humanising.”
She recalls meeting an elderly Palestinian man called Nabeel: “He told us that he had just finished building his house and was taking his wife and mother to look around for the first time – when the military appeared and ‘occupied’ his house, just like that. He now lives in a shed in his own back garden, while someone from Brooklyn in the US, lives in his home. People are given incentives to come and live and work there. Before the last election Jack Straw met him and had promised to help. But his ordeal has gone on for years, it is horrendous.
“The worst thing I heard was about was what happens to children. They are innocent in all this. Many are shot or taken on a daily basis. We went to visit a girls’ school in east Jerusalem where staff have to deal with the aftermath when children are killed. There is no official counselling but they give comfort and simply talk.
“We met the Defence of Children International charity which works against the imprisonment of the Palestinian children by the Israeli military. Many Human Rights laws are broken, where children are restrained using plastic ties, they are kept for 30-45 days in solitary confinement when no crime has been committed, and are forced to sign papers they don’t understand.
“What struck me was the strength of the Palestinian women. One told me ‘we do
n’t want your dried milk, or dried eggs or even your tears, we want justice’. She asked me to tell their story. A woman warned me to be careful, saying ‘don’t go out on your own as you are a visitor, be very careful, and take care’. After all she goes through on a daily basis; she was trying to look after me.
“We visited Damascus Gate and I saw three soldiers from the Israeli Military Forces standing next to a boy aged 15, they jostled him, searched him and pushed him around. He never said a thing. The next day I heard that two people had been shot dead, they blamed a risk to security.
“The Israeli leaders want to get rid of the Palestinian people, and have 8 per cent of them remaining so they can carry out all the menial jobs no one else wants to do.”
Kauser also visited the Aida Refugee Camp, but she said the eerie silence was disturbing, and on the floor, there were grenade pins, bullets and debris from weapons scattered around.
In July 2014, authorities said over 2,200 people were killed – most of them Palestinians – and many more injured, during 50 days of violence. A ceasefire was agreed between Israel and Hamas on 26 August.
“I asked someone ‘How do you get through this?’ They said ‘this is our land; we cannot give up.’ You will never see a Palestinian homeless, there is lots of poverty but they care for each other. Importantly, they have hope.”
Why are Israel and the Palestinians fighting over Gaza?
Israelis and Arabs have been fighting over Gaza on and off, for decades. It’s part of the wider Arab Israeli conflict.
After World War II and the Holocaust in which six million Jewish people were killed, more Jewish people wanted their own country.
They were given a large part of Palestine, which they considered their traditional home but the Arabs who already lived there and in neighbouring countries felt that was unfair and didn’t accept the new country.
In 1948, the two sides went to war. When it ended, Gaza was controlled by Egypt and another area, the West Bank, by Jordan. They contained thousands of Palestinians who fled what was now the new Jewish home, Israel.
But then, in 1967, after another war, Israel occupied these Palestinian areas and Israeli troops stayed there for years. Israelis hoped they might exchange the land they won for Arab countries recognising Israel’s right to exist and an end to the fighting.
Israel finally left Gaza in 2005 but soon after; a group called Hamas won elections and took control there. Much of the world calls Hamas a terrorist organisation. It refuses to recognise Israel as a country and wants Palestinians to be able to return to their old home – and will use violence to achieve its aims.
Since then, Israel has held Gaza under a blockade, which means it controls its borders and limits who can get in and out.
Life for the many of the 1.5 million Palestinians who live in the Gaza Strip is difficult with restrictions on jobs and access to food and essentials necessary for everyday life. Israel controls its coastline and all the entry and exit crossings into Israel.