Just before Christmas I went on a fact finding visit to the Middle East with Dame Tessa Jowell. It was a remarkable opportunity to get a better understanding of one of humankind's most challenging conflicts.
We spent time in Jerusalem, East Jerusalem (where the majority of non-Jewish Israelis live), the West Bank, and in the south at the boarder with Gaza. I know you Facebook friends are busy people but this post will be a little longer than usual...I'm sure you'll understand why!
The visit was inspiring, frustrating, and at times emotional. I met senior politicians on both sides of the dispute and civilians too. And I spent an evening in the company of a holocaust survivor, listening about his childhood as Europe descended into war and, at the age of eleven, his capture and transit to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
For my generation WWII is still evocative, but can seem distant. So to listen, learn, and shake hands with someone who tells first hand what happened to him, his friends, and family, is hauntingly powerful. The story he told me is one he has not yet even told his own sons because he does not think any child should know that a parent endured so much pain and humiliation. I didn't sleep that night after just listening, so I can only imagine how such experiences impact a person and family's daily lives forever.
The first thing that struck me about Jerusalem, aside from its beauty, was how tightly knitted it is. We forget just how interwoven the communities at the heart of this conflict are. Standing atop a tower by the King David entrance to the old city, you gaze across at Jerusalem and see two of the holiest places of worship to Muslim and Jewish people, Temple Mount, East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Jordan. All these in one vista. The geographical claustrophobia must add to the sense of anxiety at times of tension.
We met a senior political aid to the Israeli Prime Minister. He explained from a political perspective the pervasive sense of fear that Israelis have and we had a very frank exchange about the merits, or otherwise, of international moves to grant Palestinian statehood. They believe it will not change the facts on the ground. My own belief, that I explained, is that these moves are a logical result of the lack of political progress in the region. Military action has crowded out politics and the international community will fill the political void unless regional leaders do.
Many of you contacted me with concerns about Israeli settlements. I put them directly to Israeli politicians. Their response is that they will only take the politically difficult decision to dismantle some of them once they 'look into our counterparts eyes and know with certainty that they won't be used to launch military offensives into Israel'. This I can understand. What I do not understand is the continued construction of new settlements which is highly provocative.
The Israeli government collapsed while I was there, there will be elections early in 2015. I got the sense that the governing party, Likud, has been pulled to the right in recent years due to a vocal and influential faction within it, not unlike the Conservative Party here. With Likud the issue is settlements, with the Tories its Europe. One Israeli said to me, 'the first time Netanyahu was prime minister in the 1990's he was on the right of his party, today he's on the left'. That's a worry but it is a good explanation for the way Israel has responded on some issues, like settlements, in recent years and if we're going to exert meaningful pressure we must understand the domestic challenges faced by the political parties.
In the West Bank we visited Ramallah and also an amazing development called Rawabi. Rawabi is a new town that is being built from scratch by a remarkable Palestinian developer. The town will house 25,000 people to start with, has schools, a new hospital, and a commercial district. It even has a 15,000 seat outdoor arena. I met a young woman who had just put down a deposit on an apartment - she was over the moon. She told me about the challenges of working in the occupied territory and the opportunity that Rawabi presented her. She was ambitious, optimistic, and overcoming the considerable challenges life there has. It's a side of life in Palestine that we don't often get to see. Life in occupied Palestine can be extremely difficult for civilians trying to earn a living and I don't want to understate that.
Whilst at Rawabi, we were told that they were experiencing completion delays due to an administrative dispute with an Israeli utility department. So later that day I travelled to East Jerusalem and met with Tony Blair who as the Quartet Representative is responsible for coordinating the economic development of Palestine. He agreed to raise the issue directly with Israel's prime minister. In a part of the world so filled with challenges, I hope this will be a small step towards solving just one.
We then got to meet the chief negotiator for the Palestinian authority. It was a lively meeting. Gaining statehood is of enormous importance to the Palestinian leadership, which I can understand. What I didn't understand was the downplaying of the growing economic potential the territory has, such as the Rawabi project which was dismissed with a wave of the hand. I wanted to know why he didn't see these developments as a tool that strengthened his hand at negotiations because it showed the viability of the territory and ambition of its people. It led to a rather heated exchange.
Let me explain myself further. I want Palestine to gain statehood, but I worry that unless the road to sovereignty is paved with economic and welfare development as well it will not have a meaningful impact on most citizens. And if the leadership achieve something they have made their number-one priority and most people are still faced with the same problems afterwards, it could understandably lead to disillusionment and the rise of more radical political movements.
By now you may be detecting my frustration with the political powers on both sides. I'm struck by the words of a Palestinian entrepreneur in the West Bank. I asked him how he kept trading despite the turmoil. He said, 'every day I come to work and take the world as I see it as my starting point. If there are problems today that weren't there yesterday, I work around them'. Wow! But compare that to the political process which seems too mired to find workable ways forward that could benefit the welfare and security of their people.
For understandable reasons I couldn't enter Gaza but I did travel south to the boarder. We were granted access to a military representative. Dame Tessa leading the discussions with a military representative at the boarder with Gaza.
We were able to put across the strength of feeling about aspects of the action that people in Britain felt whilst also respectfully listening to the point of view of someone who served in the military at that time and I put it to him the tough comments many of you had emailed me about the use of force during the past summer, particularly around the targeting of UN schools. To his credit he was willing to listen and discuss this at length and put across his side as someone who was involved in the offensive. As a humanitarian with experience as an aid worker I was horrified by some of the footage emerging from last summer's confrontation, so it was difficult but important to be able to put my views across and respond to the views presented to me.
The region is full of contradictions and unexpected bursts of intense humanity. For example I met an Israeli family living very close to the border with Gaza. Over 41 days last summer 1,302 missiles landed in the vicinity of their home. They're not protected by the 'iron dome' and only get a 15 second warding of a mortar attack.
In August the alarm sounded, he ran, scooped up his children and crouched in a fortified room with his arms tightly wrapped around his family. The windows are bullet-proof but a small one was open. If a mortar had hit the ground and the shrapnel exploded upwards he would have been fine, but it didn't. It hit a tree, exploded, and sent shrapnel downwards through the window, through his body at his left shoulder, and into the wall in front. His children, miraculously, were unscathed.
Standing at the spot this happened, I was stunned by listening to this gentle man describe such violent horror. Considering what he had just described, it was surprising to then hear him say, 'and don't forget the same thing is happening in Gaza. I was almost killed by their rockets, for them it is our gun ships, but I got medical treatment and over there is nothing so please keep them in your thoughts'.
This is a kindergarten close to the boarder with Gaza. You can see the wooden shel of the building underneath two thick layers of concrete which act as bomb-proofing. Any building designed for children has this protection in the area.
I met other Israelis living near the boarder who were still in touch with Palestinians living in Gaza and were sending them money. It's easy to forget that in times past these two peoples who's governments are at war once grew up and worked together. I can't stress the power of this enough. Each of the people I describe here in the Gaza area have seen people they love killed in recent months due to the conflict, yet they retain a dignified caring for the plight of civilians across the boarder. Not to be confused, of course, for any sympathy for the ruling Hamas party in Gaza for which there is none. But the complexities of this conflict and the historical and emotional connections between civilians on both sides is something that has been lost as the media translates and interprets this difficult situation on our behalf.
I know that many of you have very strong views about this conflict. As a humanitarian I embarked on this trip with, and retain, a strong connection with the plight of the weaker nation.
Having spent several days meeting civilians on both sides I'm struck by the thoughtfulness and compassion of the civilians I met (I realise that I met only a handful of 'everyday' people and that there are also those with extreme views on both sides). Often their language was pragmatic and forward-thinking. This contrasted starkly with the senior governmental people I met, all of whom were hampered by political challenges within their own movements which seems to prevent the kind of pragmatism that will deliver meaningful progress.
Likud seems to be blighted with a version of 'militant' that damaged the Labour Party in the 1970's and 1980's, except in Likud's case it is dragging Israeli politics ever rightward. And the Palestinian representatives tended to express themselves through past injustice despite the ever-modernising attitudes and needs of its people. Moving from a military operation to one that administrates and nurtures economic and welfare development must be extraordinarily difficult, but I don't see the leadership keeping pace with its people in this area. I found this really quite distressing.
Military action has squeezed political progress out of this conflict and one thing we can all agree on is that it's solution, when it comes, will be a political one. This, in my opinion, is the fundamental challenge they face as two nations and we face in supporting their return to a political process that can outpace militaristic instincts.
It was a lot to take in and a lot to describe in one post, but I hope that gives you an idea of my experiences in the Middle East. These issues may feel far away from us in Hove and Portslade, but solving issues abroad prevent them from reaching us at home. It also benefits all humanity so I will maintain an active interest in this area.
I hope it also shows you that I won't shirk from the biggest of challenges or my duty to report back to you openly and truthfully. Please let me know if there's any questions I can answer from the trip or comments you'd like to make - I'm keen to hear your views.