Eyewitness Account in Gaza

The no-man's land separating Israel from the Gaza Strip gives way to what can only be described asdesecrated 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 huge Israeli tanks block our path. Behind us, although we don't know it, the border will shortly be sealed to prevent Palestinian reprisals for the helicopter attack launched against a militant leader hours earlier.

The Hamas leader, Rantissi, is still alive. A Palestinian woman and her young child, on their way to hospital, are dead, and 35 injured. Within hours demonstrations grip Gaza. Later that afternoon we hurriedly leave the building we are in when the dull thud of a missile lands nearby.

As two BritishMPs traveling with Christian Aid, myself and Jenny Tonge are faintly alarmed. For residents of Gaza this is business as usual. Over 1 million Palestinians live here. In some areas of this tiny piece of land - smaller than the Isle of Wight - more than three quarters of the population live on less than 1.30 [sterling] a day. Life below the poverty line for these Palestinians contrasts starkley to the 5,000 Israeli settlers who occupy one third of the land and enjoy well-watered gardens, first-world housing, and protection at all times from the Israeli army.

This protection means Palestinians wait for hours - sometimes days - at Israeli checkpoints, whether trying to find work or access essential services such as medical care.

The sun is setting on Gaza. From my hotel balcony I hear demonstrations in the street below. It suddenly 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.

On the street I follow the sound. It leads me to the hospital where the Hamas leader Rantissi is being treated. He is a particularly odious extremist. A Palestinian reporter surrounded by a crowd speaks to a camera crew. Cars rush into the compound, horns blaring, men hanging out of the windows. A man carries an injured girl into the hospital. But most of the Palestinians just stand waiting. It is what they are used to. They wait for Israelis to stamp their permits, and they wait for a Palestinian state.

Like Jews I suspect they will wait thousands of years, if necessary, for their homeland. They are no different to 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 abhore the terrorism that ruins their lives today. Israelis must be freed from terrorism. All terrorism, not least Palestinian terrorism, is utterly unacceptable. But it is also predictable. As someone who visited numerous holocaust museums as a child, I now realize that perhaps Israeli treatment of Palestinians is also predictable. Those who are abused and brutalized with cruelty beyond imagination, often perpetuate the cycle, and become the abuser.

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 from the outside world and live under curfew; the authorities view torture as acceptable and use collective punishment as a means of control; soldiers arrive at any moment and drive families from their homes, confiscate property, and demolish whole neighbourhoods; unemployment runs in places at 80%, and basic utilities such as water are witheld; the economy has 'client' status, and is subservient in every way to the needs of the occupying power; and last but not least, as Primo Levi showed brilliantly in 'If This Is A Man', and Roman Polanski showed poignantly in 'The Pianist', the devil is in the detail. The simplest task requires a bureaucracy that is both dehumanising and endless.

So what can be done? For a start, Israel must 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.

In the past few days Ariel Sharon has announced the closure of 8 illegal settlements. But 7 were uninhabited, and only involved removing a flag from illegal outposts. Repair of water, sewage, and other essential infrastructure must take place immediately. Just under 80% of all water resources in the West Bank & Gaza Strip are redirected from Palestinians to Israelis.

The international community must recognize the scale of the humanitarian disaster facing Palestinians. George Bush must place greater pressure on Sharon to give meaning to the Road Map. And the Jewish community must recognise our responsibility - as the more powerful side - to pursue peace. 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 the humiliations suffered by the Jews.

Finally, I must sadly conclude 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.

END 12th June 2003