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Meg’s thoughts on her visit to Israel

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Sheffield Telegraph July 2003




Recently I visited Israel and Palestine and was able to meet people engaged in furthering the peace process. The extra security at Heathrow was not unexpected but happily my visit coincided with the most hopeful period in a long time. The Roadmap for Peace had met with significant positive responses just days before. Indeed on the first day the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met the Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmood Abbas following a declaration of a cease fire by Palestinian groups. The TV pictures showed their obvious rapport and both Israeli and Palestinian politicians were positive about the future.


I was able to talk with leading Israeli and Palestinian politicians and officials about the peace process and what Britain could do to help. I gained a sense from a number of Israeli politicians that there is an urgency to move to a peaceful settlement. After three years of terror the population are mentally exhausted and the economy is in tatters. Likewise, Palestinian politicians are eager for a just settlement giving them not only their own land but a proper parliament. Meeting Shimon Peres, the 79 year old leader of the Labour Party, and Abu Ala, the speaker of the Palestinian parliament, I found politicians who have been involved in attempts at peace over many years, know the pitfalls and problems but who believe in the importance of the process.


Travelling around the region it is impossible not to be conscious of history. Sites of biblical and Islamic significance mix with the consequences of a divided and war torn society. Visiting the old city of Jerusalem there was the place where it is believed Jesus was crucified and I walked down streets with Roman paving from the 3rd and 4th centuries. However there are always reminders of today’s conflict. Young men and women soldiers doing their national service were learning of their history by being shown round the historical sites, still carrying their rifles.


I came to understand something of the pervasive fear. Throughout Jerusalem and Tel Aviv I saw sites where there had been suicide bombs - any caf?, any night club, and any bus could be blown up at any time. There are few obvious signs, as efforts are made to repair the damage quickly. The economy has been severely hit over the last 3 years and businesses can’t afford to lose custom. Visiting the Northern border with Lebanon I was amazed and shocked to see a Hezbollah post only 440 metres away with a United Nations base nearby.


The visit to Ramallah was like seeing a poor country set in the middle of a westernised one. Passing through Israeli check points is such a long process for vehicles that we walked the last quarter of a mile. For Palestinians the imposition of controls is an encroachment on liberty and has severe effects on a population who already earned significantly less than their Israeli counterparts. Many Palestinians live on less than $2 a day and the conditions they live in are a scandal. The ruins of Yasser Arafat’s bulldozed headquarters remain as a constant reminder of what Israeli forces can do. As we stood in the blazing sunshine for over 20 minutes waiting to leave Ramallah I felt that the children who stood along side us, squashed in the crowds, would remember this indignity for many years to come.


Trust is vital to any peace process, yet the very nature of this conflict means it is in short supply. The experience of many Palestinians is summarised by a view that I heard expressed that the Jewish people want to take their land and get rid of them. I also heard heart breaking stories from Israelis who had family members killed by suicide bombings - small children killed and orphaned in a horrifyingly random way. It was hard for them to contemplate reducing security to allow freedom of movement for Palestinians. However I also saw co-operation between the two peoples with a joint community and arts project in Haifa.


I am left with so many images of a beautiful and historic land; the pain of the Jewish and Palestinian people affected by terror and poverty and the injustice of years. I will also remember one evening by the Sea of Galilee, may be it was partly its religious significance, but as a warm evening wind blew and the sun began to set it felt so peaceful.  As we know so well from Northern Ireland, a peace process will suffer setbacks, there will be difficult compromises and people are called upon to put behind them the injustices of years in order to move forward. We should do all we can to help and support those engaged in this difficult and dangerous work to make a just peace a reality.


Meg Munn MP



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