Lord (Tariq) Ahmad is a Conservative Peer in House of Lords and former Vice Chairman (Cities) of the Conservative Party and also a Director of Sucden Financial, a commodities trading firm in the City of London.
Together with colleagues from the British Parliament I have just returned from a most informative and revealing trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories organised under the auspices of the Conservative Middle East Forum (CMEC). The delegation was led by CMEC’s Chairman, Baroness Morris of Bolton and facilitated by the CMEC Director, Leo Docherty.
During the course of this visit the delegation had the opportunity to witness, share and learn from the experiences of the communities of Israel and Palestine. More significantly, we gained a most meaningful and constructive insight into the current conflict through meeting representatives from across the political and religious spectrum. Key meetings included those with the Head of the settler movement in Hebron, the witness testimonies of retired young Israeli officers, Palestinian businessman and officials, as well as Israeli Government representatives, prominent amongst which was our most constructive meeting with the Deputy Prime Minister, Dan Meridor.
Both individually and collectively, the delegation was encouraged by the positive examples of hope, aspiration and constructive progress. I was taken by the dynamism of Tel Aviv in Israel and Ramallah in the West Bank. Two contrasting, yet progressive cities of the region. We also saw the ambition of the Palestinian communities encapsulated through DFID funded farming projects in the West Bank and the new emerging city of Rawabi.
However, these examples pale into insignificance when we look at the destructive influences of the current conflict which is damaging to both communities, perhaps best reflected in the beautiful and historic old city of Jerusalem and indeed as some Israelis termed it the “ghost town “of Hebron where the Centre’s bustling vibrant street markets, have been replaced by shuttered shop fronts and an eerie silence.
Let me be clear, Israel has an absolute right to exist and to address the security concerns of its citizens. Those who reject this principle cannot be part of any negotiation process. However, Israel’s existence cannot be to the cost of suppression of a 5 million strong Palestinian population. The examples we saw of segregation and division in Hebron was heart wrenching for it embeds division, fear and ultimately and most tragically, hate between future generations. We saw examples of the restrictions on rights of access to education and housing and the challenges imposed by zoning and checkpoints. Perhaps, the most vivid example was the Security “Fence” which is in fact, in parts, a concrete barrier akin to the Berlin Wall, dividing two people who share a common heritage, history and foundation to their respective Abrahamic faiths. In Jerusalem, this constitutes a de facto annexing of the Eastern part of the City which breeds contempt, not only amongst the Palestinian communities, but also the wider Arab and Muslim World as well as amongst some Israelis.
The issues are complex and deep rooted and there are major gaps to bridge. At the extreme we have Hamas who reject the state of Israel, yet we also met settlers in the Occupied Territories who universally reject the existence of the Palestinians. These are not sustainable positions. We were therefore greatly encouraged by the positive attitude of the Deputy Prime Minister of Israel in recognising the key challenges and the urgent need for a pragmatic and lasting solution to the conflict. Yes, it may be argued that the security barrier is working, demonstrable by the reduction of attacks on Israel, yet there is also a wide spread acknowledgment by Israeli officials that this physical barrier is complemented by the efforts of the Ramallah based Palestinian National Authority in curbing and reducing the extremist threat to Israel. There can be cooperation, indeed there is cooperation between security forces. Let us not forget the cost of the conflict weighs heavily against the Palestinian Arab population, yet there is also a significant cost to Israel both nationally and globally.
There remains a real hope and a genuine desire amongst the mainstream of both Israeli and Palestinian society to live a life of peace. Whilst we saw examples of oppression, inequality and injustice of the Palestinians and heard of the fear of Israelis terrorised by threats and rockets out of Gaza, we also witnessed positive attitudes and actions on the ground.
There is an acceptance that difficult decisions will need to be taken, but before any decision is taken there needs to be trust between both sides. Any resolution therefore has to be based on mutual respect and equal rights not just to exist as neighbours, but ultimately as equal people, with all minority rights fully protected and enshrined in respective constitutions, within whatever defined political and national borders are agreed.
History in the region has shown that to establish this trust often involves a leap of faith and a display of incredible courage from leaders. The “spirit of Sadat and Rabin” as one Israeli commentator put it to me, needs to be revived. Courageous and brave leadership which ultimately cost both these historical figures their lives, but they left behind a legacy of progress and a vision of hope.
Our visit coincided with the Palestinian’s bid of statehood at the UN. The UN decision whatever form it takes, whilst significant in its symbolism should not derail a process which has stumbled and faltered for far too long. In this regard Britain’s’ role as friend to both communities with our related ties of history and commerce is significant. Too often we look across the pond for a solution; it is time for Britain to facilitate the bilateral negotiations necessary to achieve a lasting solution.
As a closing thought let me return to the fence, the wall or barrier. Whatever name we give it, whatever descriptive we attribute, it is a division.. To Israel it is a necessary security step to curb terror; to the Palestinians a sign of oppression and annexation of territories. A very physical and visual example of a divide between two people. Whatever view you take, you cannot dispute it tarnishes a beautiful, historical and religious landscape. The hope? well in the words of the man who designed this physical divide .. “When we have peace ..I shall be first in line to remove the first block.”. For me… to achieve peace you must first remove the blocks.
“Intolerance lies at the core of evil.
Not the intolerance that results
from any threat or danger.
But intolerance of another being who dares to exist.
Intolerance without cause. It is so deep within us,
because every human being secretly desires
the entire universe to himself.
Our only way out is to learn
compassion without cause. To care for each other
simple because that ‘other’ exists.” Rabbi Menachem Mendle