Like many people, I’ve made a commitment to stop flying. Yet as I write I am sitting in a cafe in Bethlehem, in the occupied Palestinian territories, a long very way from the house on the Isle of Wight I call home.
I’m here working as a human rights witness with the Ecumenical Accompanier Programme in Palestine and Israeli (EAPPI). My work here involves monitoring checkpoints, supporting Israeli and Palestinian activists in their nonviolent actions, providing protective presence to vulnerable communities, and reporting abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law. EAPPI is an initiative run by the World Council of Churches, who ten years ago responded to a call from church leaders in Jerusalem, asking for a force of international observers to come to the West Bank and witness the impacts of the Israeli occupation.
It is World Water Day today, and in the sweltering heat I am pondering the difference in access to water between some Palestinian communities I have visited, and Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Israeli settlements are illegal under international law. Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states that in occupied territories (such as the West Bank, which has been occupied by Israel since 1967) “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” Yet there are 500,000 Israeli citizens living in settlement blocs around the West Bank.
According to the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, there is a significant disparity between water consumption of Israeli settlements, and that available to Palestinians living in some areas of the West Bank. They give the example of the average daily per capita water consumption of the 396 settlers living in Pnei Hever, in Hebron District (194 litres), compared to the figure for the 70,000 Palestinians living in the eight kilometers away in the town of Yatta (27 litres).
It’s not just the water usage that reveals the differences between these two examples of community. In the village of Wadi Fukin, a village of around 1000 people, sewerage from the nearby settlement of Beitar Illit regularly flows on to farmlands around the village. It streams over the olive and fruit trees owned by the villagers – have a look at a video here (4 minutes in). Much of Beitar Illit is built on land confiscated from these same Palestinian farmers, to build the settlement.
Sometimes the waste water is treated, sometimes it is not. But either way, word soon gets round. In a meeting with Mahmoud from the Red Cross this morning, I heard that shoppers have started to enquire about the provenance of the produce before buying: “When you see someone sitting on the side of the road in Bethlehem selling fruit and vegetables, people will not just buy, they ask first, where is this from?” If the answer is one of the villages rumoured to have problem with settlement sewerage, “people say, ‘No thank you’. They cannot sell anything”.
Yet there is also good news to be heard here. Because of the lack of employment opportunities, some Palestinians take work just over the border in Israel, often in construction. One of the towns they’ve worked in is Tzur Hadassah. Whilst building the houses of these Israelis, some friendships sprung up. Now, the residents of Tzur Hadassah visit Wadi Fukin on a monthly basis, sometimes buying their crops. They have also complained to the Israeli authorities about the sewerage problem from Beitar Illit. It had little impact, but Adel, a member of Wadi Fukin’s village council, told me he appreciated their efforts, “even though it didn’t make any difference”.
A significant part of my work with EAPPI is advocacy. Whilst I’m here and when I get home, it’s my job to tell people what I am witnessing – the general public, church leaders, decision-makers and the media – so that they may in turn lobby their representatives to end the occupation, and build a just peace in Israel/Palestine, based on respect for international law and the implementation of UN resolutions. I feel this is some of the most valuable work we do, and it will mostly happen when I get home, from the comfort of my living room with my laptop. But it could not happen unless I had first come here in person, and witnessed these things.
I felt rubbish approaching Heathrow a month ago, and many climate justice activist friends will tell me I didn’t make the right choice. However the dilemma of whether to prioritize environmental concerns over responding to calls for an international, nonviolent, protective presence here (and indeed in other areas) won’t be going away in a hurry. Perhaps I better stop calling my commitment to stop flying a ‘promise’, and start calling it an aspiration to which I sadly don’t always live up to, for good reasons.
Hannah Brock is serving for three months with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). EAPPI brings internationals to the West Bank to experience life under occupation. Ecumenical Accompaniers (EAs) provide protective presence to vulnerable communities, monitor and report human rights abuses and support Palestinians and Israelis working together for peace. When they return home, EAs campaign for a just and peaceful resolution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict through an end to the occupation, respect for international law and implementation of UN resolutions.