Sat, 14 Jun 2003

The world must recognize the humanitarian disaster facing the Palestinians

Oona King Labour Member British Parliament Guardian News Service Gaza

The no man's land separating Israel from the Gaza Strip gives way to what can only be described as desecrated land. Razor wire and crushed buildings line the route. Torn slabs of concrete look like tattered cardboard on a rubbish heap. In front of us two Israeli tanks block our path.

Behind us, the border will shortly be sealed to prevent Palestinian reprisals for the helicopter attack launched hours earlier against the extremist Hamas leader, Abdul-Aziz al- Rantissi -- who is still alive. A Palestinian woman and her young child, on their way to hospital, are dead, and 35 are injured.

Later that afternoon we hurriedly leave the building we are in when a missile lands nearby. As two members of the British parliament (MPs) traveling with the charity Christian Aid, myself and Jenny Tonge are alarmed.

For Gaza residents this is business as usual. More than one million Palestinians live on this tiny piece of land -- more than three-quarters of on less than pounds Sterling 1.30 a day. Life below the poverty line for these Palestinians contrasts with the 5,000 Israeli settlers who occupy one-third of the land and enjoy watered gardens, first world housing and protection by the Israeli army.

This protection means Palestinians wait for hours -- sometimes days -- at Israeli checkpoints, trying to find work or get access to essential services such as medical care. The sun is setting on Gaza.

From my hotel balcony I hear demonstrations in the street below. It occurs to me that I can put on a headscarf and slip into the crowd as a Palestinian. No one will guess I'm Jewish, still less that I'm a British MP. The sounds lead me to the hospital where Rantissi is being treated. Cars rush into the compound, horns blaring, people hanging out of windows. A man carries an injured girl into the hospital. But most of the Palestinians just stand waiting. They wait for Israelis to stamp their permits, and they wait for a Palestinian state. They are no different from us: deny them human rights and they will respond with unacceptable terrorist violence.

That's what Jews did when they set up the Stern Gang and blew up the King David Hotel in the 1940s. Ninety-four people died. The leader of that terrorist group, on Britain's "most wanted" list, went on to be the Israeli prime minister. Many Jews revere him, even while they abhor the terrorism that ruins their lives today. Israelis must be freed from terrorism -- such as Wednesday's horrific attack in Jersualem.

All terrorism, not least Palestinian terrorism, is unacceptable. But it is also predictable. When the Israeli government chose Tuesday to launch an attack in Gaza (as it did again after yesterday's bombing), it cannot have been ignorant of its effect on the peace process and the certainty of Palestinian reprisals.

The original founders of the Jewish state could surely not imagine the irony facing Israel today: in escaping the ashes of the Holocaust, they have incarcerated another people in a hell similar in its nature -- though not its extent -- to the Warsaw ghetto.

Any visitor to the Palestinian ghetto can see the signs: residents are sealed off and live under curfew; the authorities view torture as acceptable and use collective punishment as a means of control; soldiers drive families from their homes, confiscate property and demolish neighborhoods; unemployment runs in places at 80 percent, and utilities such as water are withheld; the economy has "client" status, and is subservient to the occupiers in every way.

As the more powerful side in the dispute, Israel must break the cycle of violence, comply with UN resolution 242 and withdraw from territories occupied in 1967. As the occupying power, Israel must uphold the fourth Geneva convention and end all collective punishments. Illegal settlements must be dismantled. Repair of water, sewage, and other essential infrastructure should take place immediately.

Just under 80 percent of all water resources in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are redirected from Palestinians to Israelis. The international community has to recognize the scale of the humanitarian disaster facing Palestinians and George Bush must put greater pressure on Sharon to give meaning to the road map. Yes, there are two sides to every story. But no story should hold within it the horrors I have witnessed here, so similar in detail to humiliations suffered by the Jews.

I have sadly come to the conclusion that, given the scale of the atrocities and collective punishment waged by the Israelis against the Palestinians, I have no choice but to boycott Israeli products. On reflection, whether Jewish or not, you might decide to do the same.