By Ron Taylor
Dear Tony Blair,
I think even you would admit your appointment, in 2007, as Special Envoy to the Middle East Quartet was not met with unfettered joy in occupied Palestine. In fact, to be quite honest, the announcement was greeted with a mixture of dismay, derision and not a little anger.
It’s not too difficult to imagine the reasons. After all, you had been Prime Minister of a country which is seen as a right-or-wrong supporter of Israel. You are an avowed ‘Friend of Israel’. And, the party you once led receives large donations from well-known Zionists.
Probably even more damning though is that you danced to George W Bush’s tune and enlisted your country in the disastrous invasion of Iraq – widely seen by many in the Middle East as an Israeli war waged by the West. Yet another reminder to Palestinians, if one were needed, that Western policy in the region seems permanently set to favour Israel.
But appointed you were, and some Palestinians may have even been pleasantly surprised when you were said to be shocked by the level of discrimination you had witnessed in the West Bank. (The Independent October,2007).And it is this issue and a recent visit to Palestine which has prompted this letter to you.
In March of 2009 you visited At-Tuwani, a small West Bank community in the South Hebron Hills. Under the Oslo Accords of 1993, At-Tuwani, like many other rural Palestinian communities, found itself in that part of the West Bank which was designated as Area C. (Sixty per cent of the West Bank is classed as Area C which means it is under full Israeli civil and military control.)
As you know, life for Palestinians in Area C is particularly difficult. Firstly, in most instances the Israeli government refuses to grant building permission to Palestinians living in places like At-Tuwani and any structure built after 1967 is considered to be built illegally. Consequently they face the threat of the demolition of their homes, mosques, schools, clinics and wells. They are not even allowed to build infrastructure for mains electricity and water supplies.
Secondly, many communities in Area C are subject to attacks by violent Jewish settlers who, incidentally, do not have problems regarding building permits, despite the fact that under international law they are considered to be there illegally.
At-Tuwani is particularly troubled in this respect. Over a period of several years settlers from the nearby settlement of Ma’on and its outpost Havat Ma’on (illegal even under Israeli law) have, amongst other things, poisoned water sources, killed livestock, destroyed crops and, worst of all, attacked Palestinian children as they make their way to and from school. The situation in the village is so bad that international peace activists from the Christian Peacemaker Teams and Operation Dove have a permanent presence there to protect Palestinians. I understand that you were briefed in detail about these attacks.
You acknowledged the problems faced by villages such as At-Tuwani and told the press that, “The reason for coming here today is to draw attention to the fact that without a new and different system applying in Area C, it is very hard for Palestinians to enjoy the standard of living they should be able to enjoy and develop their land as they should be able to develop it.”
You also learned that, aside from violent settlers, one of the biggest obstacles in the way of an improved standard of living is the lack of an adequate electricity supply. A diesel-powered generator only operates for 4 to 5 hours per day. A mains supply, just like the one enjoyed by the settlers who attack them, would make an enormous difference to their lives. Children would be able to do their homework in the evenings, fridges would become useful, the few streetlights would work.
But as Saber Hreini, At-Tuwani’s mayor, pointed out the provision of mains electricity would involve the building of permanent structures on village land. Permits would be needed but would not be forthcoming from the Israeli military.
In trying to be fair to you, I imagine that you were moved by At-Tuwani’s plight and wanted to make a difference. Presumably that is why you later told Mr Hereini that you had received an assurance, unwritten, from the Israelis that the construction of the necessary infrastructure would be permitted.
On the basis of this assurance, shortly after your visit work started. Two rows of pylons began to spring up. One, starting in the centre of the village, would meet the other, snaking south from the nearby Palestinian town of Yatta, by Route 317 – a modern road built to allow settlers easy access to Jerusalem and Israel.
But on May 25th 2009 the Israeli military ordered a halt to the work. No written orders were presented at that time. The following day Mr Hreini wrote to you saying, “We hope that in your role as envoy to the Quartet, you can be of assistance to us in contacting the Israeli Government with the hopes of procuring written permission for these projects. We fear that without written permission our problems will continue.” He did not receive a reply.
Work continued, but on July 28th written orders for the demolition of the pylons were issued by the military. The orders were once again ignored. But, just as the project was nearing completion, on October 30th Israeli soldiers entered the village and forcibly stopped the work, confiscating materials and tools in the process. Then, on November 25th soldiers and border police arrived and, despite protests from villagers and their international supporters, the area was declared a closed military zone. The two pylons nearest to Route 317 were demolished. There would be no mains electricity for At-Tuwani.
A few weeks ago I visited At-Tuwani and saw for myself where the pylons used to be. I also saw power cables hanging uselessly waiting to be connected. I spoke to people from the village. They were angry with the Israeli authorities, of course; but also with you, Tony, angry that you had made a promise you could not keep.
During your visit of March 2009 you were asked what you would do about the situation there. “It’s got to be stopped, hasn’t it? This is what should happen. But it needs to be done in a systematic way so that the whole way the area is looked at and administered is changed to make it fair.”
But I am afraid, Tony, that your analysis of the situation is flawed. It is the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestine which allows these things to happen. The occupation is not fair and never will be. It is not meant to be fair and no amount of tinkering with a system designed to oppress can make it so. For Palestinians currently living under occupation the only way they will be able “to enjoy the standard of living they should enjoy and be able to develop their land as they should be able to develop it” is for the occupation to be brought to an end.
One final point. The people of At-Tuwani and members of the Christian Peacemaker Team have tried to contact you since the work to provide electricity was stopped. They have not been successful. Can I urge you to respond?
– Ron Taylor contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.