Mal Tulloch, assistant NSW secretary of the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union, took part in a study tour to Palestine in March, organised by APHEDA, the aid organisation of the Australian Council of Trade Unions. The CFMEU has supported APHEDA since it was established in 1987.
As soon as Tulloch arrived in Palestine, he realised it was not going to be a holiday. He shares his impressions below.
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It was like a visit to a war zone, while also a great opportunity to witness what the Palestinian struggle has been about for the past 62 years.
The conflict between Palestinians and Israelis started when Great Britain, as the colonial power, announced its intention to withdraw from Palestine in 1947. What followed was what Israelis refer to as the War of Independence and Palestinians call al-Nakba — “the Catastrophe”.
Most of the indigenous Palestinian population was forced to flee to neighbouring countries, where the majority (4 million) continues to live as refugees.
We stopped at the Burj al-Barajneh refugee camp in south Beirut, Lebanon. The camp was established in 1948. Twenty-two thousand refugees live in 1.5 square kilometres.
The Lebanese constitution forbids Palestinians from integrating into Lebanese society. The refugees have no status under Lebanese law and can’t return to Palestine. They live in limbo; they can’t leave and they can’t move on to a new life in a new county.
This is despite United Nations Resolution 194 (1948) affirming the right of return for Palestinian refugees. The resolution has been reaffirmed every year since 1948.
We crossed into the West Bank of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. These territories were occupied by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and remain illegally occupied.
Driving through the territories, we saw illegal Israeli settlements dotting the countryside. With every new settlement, there's a military base to provide “security” for the illegal settlers.
In East Jerusalem, we saw protests against the eviction of Palestinian families from their homes. With every eviction, an Israeli security force would come to “protect” the new Israeli family, who would proudly hoist an Israeli flag.
Palestinian homes are demolished and new apartments built to house more Israeli settlers.
Moving around the West Bank was extremely difficult and time consuming, with more than 550 checkpoints scattered throughout. The wall, built through Palestinian neighbourhoods, villages and towns, has cut Palestinians off from their farming lands, employment, family and relatives.
A complex work permit system operates in the illegal Israeli settlements. In 2000, 146,000 permits were issued to Palestinian workers. In 2007, this figure dropped to 63,000. Permits for workers in Gaza ceased in 2006. Workers without permits are frequently arrested and held in administrative detention.
Palestinians seek work in Israel and the illegal settlements because there is more work available and wages are better. Most of these jobs are labouring and in the construction sector. These workers receive a daily wage of $45. Workers in the Occupied Territories earn less than half that.
At the Gaza border we were confronted with utter destruction. Israel has imposed land and sea blockades on Gaza: there has been no import or export of goods since 2007. Gaza is home to more than 1.5 million Palestinians: the blockade has allowed Israel to create an outdoor prison.
In these conditions, the Palestinian economy has collapsed. Many Palestinian trade unions have shifted their focus from organising workers to providing food and emergency relief for ex-workers and families.
Despite provocation, intimidation and oppression, the resilience of the Palestinian people was remarkable.
Israel is a very rich and powerful state and the Palestinians are very poor. Any real, lasting negotiated settlement can come only with international support for their cause — something the CFMEU is committed to generating.