Two of us went on Friday to meet Alyn Smith, the Scottish Nationalist MEP, who has just got back from a European Parliament fact-finding mission to Israel and Palestine. The mission was announced on a Europa website (a link at the bottom leads to the mission’s programme, which was pretty good, but subsequent news about it seems to have been relayed only through an Iranian news agency, Electronic Intifada, Al-Jazeerah, etc). This may be because the conclusions that the MEPs brought back are uncomfortable, though unfortunately not surprising. Alyn Smith seems to have been brought up to speed on the situation by the five days of meetings and visits, and has come back with an admirable determination to try to find a positive Scottish contribution to the situation. First the very uncomfortable main points that he has brought back:
- The mission saw for themselves what the Palestinian solidarity movement has been saying for months: that the humanitarian situation on the West Bank, and especially in Gaza, is catastrophic. About Gaza they said:
Due to economic sanctions, almost all public institutions have shut down. The hospitals are overcrowded and receive neither money nor sufficient medicine. The public employees have not been paid for months. The doctors told us that some deadly injuries are not caused by traditional weapons but most likely by new experimental chemical weapons. More amputations than ever are necessary. They have not had the time to examine the dead bodies yet as they are busy dealing with the wounds of those who have survived.
(It’s not only economic sanctions that are strangling the PA. Probably more important is the large amount of customs revenue that the Israeli government is still “withholding”.) It’s impossible to imagine a situation so bad continuing indefinitely. But the MEPs didn’t forecast any success for the hopes of the Israeli government and the “international community” that the Palestinians will rise up and throw off the Hamas government. They believe that it is more likely that the situation will solidify support behind Hamas, which they acknowledge as the elected government. More likely is the prospect of civil war or a coup by Abbas, who is importing large quantities of arms into the Gaza strip, a situation that the US is “completely relaxed” about (to quote Alyn). You can’t imagine anything more likely to please Olmert and Bush.
- We couldn’t take any encouragement from his assessment of the political leadership on either (or, more accurately, any) side of the conflict.
- His opinion of EU policy was scathing. The attempt to route part of the PA payroll as aid through Abbas’s office makes no sense at all, either in the context of the Hamas boycott (which it undermines, as far as it is effective at all), or in the context of helping the PA continue to operate (which it is completely ineffective at doing, since the amounts involved are so small). I was particularly struck by his opinion about the Rafah checkpoint, the only route into Gaza that is (supposedly) not under Israeli control. Rafah is open under the supervision of EU monitors, which means that when they can’t reach it it stays closed (this happens often). And where are the monitors living–remember, this is a checkpoint between Gaza and Egypt? Why, in Ashkelon, of course! That way, their access to Rafah is entirely under the control of the IDF. According to Alyn, the head of the EU “Border Assistance Mission” didn’t bother even to try to justify this arrangement to the MEPs
Alyn hopes to call a meeting of “stakeholders” in the Scottish community very soon. I know that before he went he discussed the situation with at least the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities. He plans on a meeting in early December, at which he hopes to be an honest broker in starting a dialogue between the different stakeholders, in the hope that a distinctive Scottish position will emerge. It’s a conscientious and constructive move, but I can’t say I’m wildly optimistic about the chances of the dialogue being very helpful.