Europal Forum and MEMO held a joint event yesterday afternoon to welcome a delegation of four Palestinian activists and community leaders from Jerusalem. The event was the first of many for the group, none of whom have been in Britain before. They are scheduled to meet with policymakers and Palestinian support groups throughout the week to raise awareness of the ongoing Israeli occupation.
The meeting was chaired by Europal Forum Project Manager Ragad Altikriti, who welcomed the guests and highlighted the importance of listening to voices from Palestine. She then handed the floor to MEMO Director Dr Daud Abdullah, who emphasised the importance of the event, given the continued violations of Palestinian security; security, he reminded the audience, is something which those in the West take for granted.
Dr Abdullah cited the recent case of the Shamasna family in Sheikh Jarrah, who were evicted from their home of 54 years, after a claim of ownership prior to 1948 was made by a Jewish family. He described vividly the eviction of the 84 year-old grandfather who cried as he was removed from the property, still sitting in his chair. He also referred to the demolition of a school in Bethlehem, stressing how even the most basic right of education was being denied to Palestinian children. "This is not a normal situation," he insisted. "This is not a dignified situation. This does not lend itself to any kind of reason."
Yet he emphasised the resilience and bravery of the Palestinian people who have not allowed such circumstances to hinder them. He cited as an example Hanan Al-Hroub, who won the Global Teacher Prize last year despite working in a Bethlehem refugee camp.
Abdullah's conclusion was hopeful as he reflected on the way in which public perception regarding Palestine is changing, but stressed that British government policy must move faster.
The next panellist to speak was Ferras Sabah, a lawyer based in Jerusalem who witnesses first-hand the rampant discrimination by Jews against the Arabs in the city. Speaking via Altikriti, who translated, he spoke of the policies of Judaisation implemented by Israel's occupation authorities, namely outright deportation, home demolitions and racial discrimination. He evidenced his claim with numerous statistics: 185 Palestinian buildings were demolished in 2016 alone, and thousands of Palestinians have been expelled from Jerusalem since the 1967 Six Day War.
Sabah also spoke of the restrictions on freedom of worship for Muslims, as best demonstrated during the recent crisis surrounding access to Al-Aqsa Mosque, where Jewish settlers were allowed to storm the Noble Sanctuary whilst Palestinian worshippers were denied entry. He concluded by referencing his trip to Britain, during which he hopes that the group will be able to raise awareness of the daily incursions by Israel.
The second speaker, Archimandrite Abdallah Giulio Brunella, the Greek Melkite Catholic Patriarchate of Jerusalem, echoed Sabah's sentiments, informing the audience that his role in this delegation was to be "the voice for the voiceless". He condemned the attempts by Israel and the media to present the conflict as a religious one, and instead emphasised the unity of the Palestinians, regardless of faith. He also cited the closure of Al-Aqsa Mosque in July, highlighting how Muslims and Christians stood together in defence of the Holy Site and against the Israeli occupation. He ended on a light but determined note as he quoted the Lebanese singer Fayrouz: "This home is ours, Jerusalem is ours and we shall restore the glory of Jerusalem with our own hands."
Jerusalem based activist Iyad Misk continued the theme of Israeli violations against Palestinians, particularly with regard to the mass detentions to which they are vulnerable. He spoke of how no one has immunity against being arrested, and whilst on paper the law treats Jews and Arabs the same, in practice Palestinians are clearly discriminated against. Whilst Israelis are given advance warning that they are to be charged, for example, Palestinians are detained only after raiding and destroying their property. Many times Arabs are refused legal representation, and in the rare cases that they are released, face heavy fines, house arrests or evictions. Misk spoke of a 13-year-old boy who was sentenced to 13 years in prison just six months ago, a common occurrence for many minors. He concluded by arguing that the democracy Israel claims to maintain is only for the Jewish population, which thus renders the Zionist state entirely undemocratic.
The last guest to speak was lawyer Khaled Zbarga, who is also defending Sheikh Raed Salah following his re-arrest last month. Throughout his speech he referenced Britain's role in creating Israel, including the 1917 Balfour Declaration which gave official blessing to a "national home for the Jews". After speaking of Israel's crimes he asked the audience repeatedly, "Was this the kind of state you wanted to see established in the Middle East?"
Although Zbarga carries Israeli nationality, he spoke of the discrimination entrenched within the practice of the law and the different way in which Arabs are perceived. "I am an authorised lawyer, authorised by the state of Israel to practice law. Yet do you know what it is like to have law practiced differently on Israelis and Arabs? How does a state justify seeing some of its citizens as an existential risk to its state?"
He referred to his work on Salah's upcoming case, informing the audience that the arrest was brought about at the request of members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet, although there were little grounds to charge him. He also spoke of the conditions of Salah's imprisonment, which were designed to humiliate him by giving him no private access to sanitation facilities, such that he is under constant CCTV observation. When his legal team approached the court to rectify this, they were told that the orders to hold him in such a fashion "came from above".
He ended his statement by once again calling on Britain to take responsibility for the nation that it nurtured and asking, "Was this the kind of state you wanted to see in the Middle East?"
As the event opened up the floor for questions, many of the audience expressed support and gratitude to the delegation for carrying the stories of the Palestinian people. Some Irish attendees asked particularly for their best wishes to be carried to Sheikh Raed Salah and expressed support for his ongoing case.
One question directed at the Patriarch asked whether part of the delegation's objective was to obtain support from British religious leaders to stand with the Palestinian cause. He responded that whilst it would be a positive outcome, the West does not recognise the Arab church and so gaining any kind of support has been difficult. However, he reinforced the fact that Palestinian Christians are not willing to give up on their identity even though Israel views it as an obstacle to the occupation.
The final comment came from a pro-Palestine activist in the audience. He thanked the attendees and said he was humbled by the speeches they had given. He spoke of the way in which the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration would be commemorated by pro-Palestine groups this year, promising that they would not celebrate Britain's imperial history. He ended the afternoon on a positive note, observing that understanding for the Palestinian cause had increased whilst Zionist supporters had resorted merely to name-calling. He hoped that the delegation's visit will increase support for the displaced people in the region.
The Jerusalem delegation left the event and journeyed directly to the airport to catch their flight to Belfast, where they will also be meeting civil society activists and parliamentarians to generate further awareness about Palestine.