Israeli wall creating Palestinian ghettoes

 

Two decades ago the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote: "I have seen dew drops as bombs / when they shut the gates of my heart on me / built barricades and imposed a curfew . . .", writes Proinsias De Rossa

Recently, together with 10 other MEPs of all political shades, I visited the site of the ultimate barricade: the so-called "security" barrier being built by the Sharon government, ostensibly as part of its campaign to defeat terrorism.

The futility of such measures was demonstrated during our visit, when a suicide bomb exploded in Jerusalem killing eight people.

Like all the Palestinians I have met, I unreservedly condemn such atrocities: Palestinian freedom will not be obtained by murdering civilians. As we know on this island, terrorism destroys freedom.

Equally, however, Israeli security will not be obtained by building an "apartheid wall", which has less to do with security than with Ariel Sharon's long-standing plan to annex Palestinian territory.

Before our visit, I was in two minds about the Israeli "security barrier". Israel has an unconditional right to security and is entitled to take all steps sanctioned by international law to provide that security, even if that involves erecting a concrete wall on the border between Israel and the West Bank.

But that is not what the Sharon government is doing. The map clearly shows that the barrier does not follow the so-called "green line" of the 1949 border. Instead, around 98 per cent of the wall is on Palestinian land, snaking in and out of their territory, encircling towns and villages and severing them from their hinterland.

Local residents require a permit to leave or re-enter. The gates, by pre-arrangement with the Israeli Defence Forces, are opened thrice daily to allow farmers to tend their crops or children to attend school. "Except, of course, when the soldier with the key is not on duty that day," as Qalquilya's mayor Maa'rouf Zahran told me.

Qalquilya (pop. 43,000) lies on the western edge of the West Bank, close to the border. Qalquilya is completely surrounded by the barrier, as are many of the nearby villages. The barrier has three gates: two for farmers and one for the general public. Only the Israeli army can enter the town unhindered. Other Israeli citizens, including Arab-Israelis, are forbidden by law to enter even to visit relatives. As well as being devastating for families, the barrier is an economic garrotte. Poverty - defined by the UN as less than $2 per person per day - has risen from 20 per cent to 60 per cent.

I climbed to the top of a building in the town to get a bird's eye view of our surroundings. I was surrounded by walls 40-foot high in places, interspersed by watchtowers occupied by armed soldiers, with cameras surmounting the wall every few yards. At certain points the wall became a fence topped by barbed wire, with trenches on either side, a no-man's-land stretching up to 80 yards on each side. Notices warn residents to keep away or risk death.

That was when I realised that I was in a prison, and all the inmates - men women and children - were guilty of one crime. The crime of being Palestinian.

Looking at the watchtowers, guns and barbed wire, I thought of the Warsaw Ghetto. Growing up just after the second World War, I could not understand how the world stood by while six million Jews were gassed, burned and buried alive. I learnt the answer in Qalquilya. First, you dehumanise your victims, than you criminalise them en masse, and then you imprison them en masse. Finally, you can kill them while the world watches.

Today, the European Union stands mutely by while entire Palestinian towns are turned into internment camps. Unblushing, they admit that the erection of this barrier on Palestinian territory is illegal. while refusing to support the case being taken to the International Court to have it declared illegal. I could just about stomach this latter-day appeasement if the Sharon government was offering to enter immediate negotiations with the Palestinians' elected representatives. But there is nothing on the table from the Israelis.

And the appeasement goes further: the EU continues its special trade relationship with Israel despite the latter's flagrant breaches of the trade agreement's human rights clauses. Indeed, the EU is even now proposing to renew a research agreement with Israel. The one weapon at the EU's disposal is our economic clout as the world's largest single market. But our strength is also our weakness. Trade, it seems, must never be disrupted. For what are people's lives when set against imports and exports?

To quote Mahmoud Darwish again, the residents of Qalquilya and other Palestinian towns are "victims of a map". And the world is silently wringing its hands as they are sacrificed to geography.

Proinsias De Rossa is a Labour MEP for Dublin