August 31, 2009
Rosalynn and I arrived in Jerusalem before the other Elders, and on Monday we met with Ahmed Tiki, an Arab-Israeli who is a member–and deputy speaker–of the Knesset. He reminded us that 20 percent of Israeli citizens are Arabs: they hold about 10 percent of the legislative seats, are severely restricted from acquiring additional property or traveling to Palestine, have only six percent of government jobs, and no Arab is among the 600 employees of the Central Bank.
Hagit Ofran, director of Settlement Watch, and her associates in Peace Now, monitor the building of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the demolition and confiscation of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem. She reported that, despite talks about a "freeze," settlement expansion was continuing apace, which we later observed ourselves.
Former High Court Justice Michel Chesin gave us an interesting analysis of lawsuits and rulings regarding confiscation of Palestinian land and routing of the segregation wall and fence. Some rulings are not honored.
Egyptian Consul General Yasser Othman reported on recent activities of his nation in pursuing an exchange of Israeli Corporal Shalit for a number of Palestinian prisoners, and of efforts to reconcile Fatah and Hamas political factions. He helped to schedule a meeting by the Elders with President Mahmoud Abbas.
Emily Schaeffer, a young American-Israeli human rights lawyer, described some of her firm's efforts to protect Palestinian families from confiscation of their property and other abuses. She especially described a four-year, nonviolent protest in the small village of Bil'in, in which thousands of demonstrators have been involved – Palestinians, Israelis, and people from other nations.
That evening we joined Elders Desmond Tutu, Fernando Cardoso, Ela Bhatt, Mary Robinson, and Gro Brundtland, and CEO Mabel van Oranje. Our purpose was to learn as much as possible about the complex region in order to use our influence to promote human rights and the ongoing peace process.
During the next few days we met with Israeli President Peres, Palestinian President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, youth groups and civic leaders from Israel and Palestine (with a video conference with Gazans), top officials of the World Bank and U.N. agencies, religious leaders, ambassadors, Israelis suffering from the conflict, experts on Palestinian-Israeli relations, and Israeli business and professional leaders. It was interesting that the most forceful comment from these leaders was "Israel's worst mistake is establishing settlements in the West Bank."
In addition, we visited Yad Vashem (holocaust museum), Qalandia (one of the largest of 600 checkpoints that restrict Palestinian movement), and two villages in Palestine: Bil'in and Wadi Fukin. At the former, about half the town has been cut off by the segregation fence, which remains in place two years after the High Court ordered that it be moved. Across the barrier is an enormous illegal settlement, obviously under continuing expansion. A nonviolent demonstration is conducted every Friday, and we visited the grave of one of the young demonstrators killed by a teargas canister fired into his chest at close range.
The Palestinian citizens of Wadi Fukin and the nearby Israeli village of Tsur Hadassah are working in close harmony to protect their small, shared valley from the ravages of rock spill, sewage, and loss of land from a huge settlement on the cliff above, where 26,000 Israelis are rapidly expanding their confiscated area. It was heartwarming to see the interracial harmony with which the villagers faced common challenges and opportunities.
Our final event was a lively televised roundtable discussion among the Elders and some of the people with whom we had become acquainted during the week. It will be shown on The Elders Web site.
Three of us (Tutu, Robinson, and I) had visited Gaza, and we received current information on the abysmal situation there. The stranglehold has created a walled-in ghetto inhabited by 1.6 million Palestinians, 1.1 million of whom are refugees and receive basic humanitarian assistance from UNRWA. Israelis prevent any cement, lumber, panes of glass, seeds, fertilizer, and hundreds of other needed materials from entering through the gates. This means that no repairs can be made on schools, hospitals, business establishments, or the 50,000 homes that were destroyed or heavily damaged by the assault during January of this year.
However, some supplies come through a large number of tunnels connecting Gaza with Egypt in the south. One of our most intriguing discussions was with a young man who leads 24 workers in digging the tunnels. All of them are at least 20 meters deep, just 55 inches high and 40 inches wide, and up to a half-mile in length. The work is extremely uncomfortable and dangerous, but he said, "They are the only jobs we could find."
The all-pervasive abuse of Palestinians throughout the West Bank and Gaza was very disturbing to all of us, but perhaps the most disgusting examples are in East Jerusalem, also part of Palestine. Three months ago I visited with a family who had lived for four generations in their small, recently-condemned home, and were laboring to destroy it themselves to avoid much higher costs if Israeli contractors carried out the demolition order. On Thursday night we took a gift of food to 18 members of the Hanoun family, who had been recently evicted from their home of 65 years. The Hanouns, including six children, are living on the street, while Israeli settlers now occupy their confiscated dwelling.
The Elders do not represent any government or official agency, and the group is not involved as mediators or negotiators. Before leaving our hotel in East Jerusalem, we sent a brief report of our observations to President Barack Obama, who has assumed the difficult role of leading the peace effort in the region. We pray that someday the harmonious example of Wadi Fukin and Tsur Hadassah can prevail along the peaceful border between the two sovereign nations.