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Human Rights

new internationalist
issue 226 - December 1991

Seeking truth in Palestine
As a teenager Elizabeth Graham-Yooll visited a land called Palestine.
This year, aged 77, she returned to the same place - now the Israeli
Occupied Territories. Her motive - to find out what the press
and the politicians were not telling her.

Elizabeth Graham-Yooll with a baby imprisoned for a year with his mother. The crime: possession of an offensive weapon - a needle. I have never written for a magazine before but I feel I must express my deep concern about what is going on in the West Bank and Gaza - and the apparent indifference of both the press and politicians in the West.

I feel that there will be no peace settlement in the Middle East unless the human rights abuses that are happening now are addressed - and that means bringing the truth out into the open.

It's easier said than done. United Nations observers who wanted to look at the human rights situation were refused entry to the Occupied Territories last year. Organizations like Amnesty International find it difficult to operate in Israel, while journalists leaving the country are interrogated at the airport and often have their notebooks seized if they are found to contain critical material.

After speaking with a journalist acquaintance I became even more infuriated by the lack of information coming through the media. I got a vague sense of what was going on from women I had come into contact with in the Women's Organization for Political Prisoners. So I decided there was only one thing for it - I would have to go back to Palestine and see for myself.

It was 60 years since I had last visited the area, to stay with my aunt who was working there to improve conditions for women prisoners. Most people I knew strongly advised me against returning. A 77-year-old woman should not be travelling on her own in such dangerous parts. I ignored their advice.

I encountered difficulties with soldiers and guns and curfews, of course. On one occasion I had to furtively climb over the eight-foot wall of a refugee camp in Bethlehem in order to talk to a 14-year-old girl who had been imprisoned for wearing Palestinian colours on her dress.

But wherever I went I was greeted warmly by Palestinians. The families I visited said they wished more people would visit them. In the refugee camps in Gaza I heard no self-pity - not even hostility towards Israelis. I found courage and resilience and a determination to make the best of things. For example, the single 10-foot-square room in which a refugee family was expected to live was kept spotlessly clean.

I learned that there are 800,000 refugees in Gaza and that since 1987 nearly 400 Palestinian homes have been demolished and 261 sealed. This is the general practice in the Occupied Territories. The homes are demolished at night without warning, the soldiers arriving with bulldozers and leaving the family sitting by the roadside or scrabbling in the rubble to retrieve a prized possession. There is nothing anyone can do to help them. And the land, tenderly cultivated with olive and orange groves, may also be bulldozed to create new settlements to house foreigners.

But far worse are the physical abuses. I discovered that almost everyone goes to prison at one time or the other. It is an accepted fact of life. Most people are held without charge, with no recourse to law or medical help. To be arrested all they have to do is to be seen in a group talking, or wear Palestinian colours on their clothes.

On arriving at prison they are usually prevented from sleeping for several days. The prisoners are made to stand against a wall with hands manacled behind them and with a hood over their heads. If they fall or faint they are clubbed, or their heads banged against the wall. Before being released they are asked to sign a form declaring they are terrorists. Refusal to do so means a longer period in prison.

At the end of their imprisonment they have to pay a fine. Since most have no jobs they are assigned employment with Israeli firms, for which they get minimum payment. Two young men I met - who had been at university before it had been closed down - told me that to help them pay their fine they had to sew garments for an Israeli business person. These young men would be working for three years to pay off their fine.

I heard of so many abuses - and so many mechanisms for abuse. But it was in the Al Alhi hospital that I became most painfully aware of how bad things are. There I was shown the rubber and plastic bullets, which often contain sharp metal pellets that travel around the body so fast they cannot be located or removed. I saw huge gas canisters that were thrown into the small homes causing enormous suffering, sometimes death.

Hospital staff - among them several young British doctors and nurses - gave me the appalling statistics. In 1990 alone the hospital dealt with 705 live gunshot wounds, 375 wounds from rubber and plastic bullets, 1,551 beatings, and 281 victims of gas attacks. And so many of the victims - 979 - were children. The average age of children killed by Israeli soldiers was 12 years old and 40 per cent of the children killed died less than 10 metres away from their homes. In 39 per cent of the cases medical help to the dying children was delayed and obstructed by soldiers.

This is a terrible record. I have just set down what I saw and heard during my visit to Gaza and the West Bank. And I have to conclude that I fear very greatly for the safety of all Palestinians in any peace agreement.

Elizabeth Graham-Yooll lives in Salisbury, UK.

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New Internationalist issue 226 magazine cover This article is from the December 1991 issue of New Internationalist.
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