Everybody on the ground wants peace

About the author
Rosemary Bechler is openDemocracy Editor. She chaired the National Peace Council and Peaceworkers UK and edited New Times before joining openDemocracy in 2000. For the British Council, she has edited four volumes of Britain and Ireland: Lives Entwined (2003 – 2012) and written Unbounded Freedom – a guide to Creative Commons thinking for cultural organizations (2006). Her compiled volume on the Convention on Modern Liberty was published by Imprint Academic in 2010. Her PhD was on Samuel Richardson: she has reviewed literature for the TLS and politics for Political Quarterly.

"Everybody on the ground wants peace"

Mairead Maguire is currently travelling on board the MV Rachel Corrie delivering aid to Gaza. Read the Nobel Women's initiative call for the safe passage of MV Rachel Corrie.

During the 2009 Nobel Women's Initiative event in Guatemala, Mairead Maguire spoke about her involvement with the peace boat that sailed to Gaza to help break the blockade. This article was first published May 21st 2009. You can also listen to the podcast of Mairead Maguire talking to Jane Gabriel about her peacework in Building deep democracy also originally published in May 2009.)

I was invited to Israel and Palestine almost ten years ago by the Rabbis for Human Rights and I was really shocked when I saw how the Palestinian homes were being demolished. I have always been committed to nuclear disarmament and a friend of mine lent me a biography of Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli nuclear whistle-blower, imprisoned at the time to read on the flight home. Ever since then, I have made a point of going back to Palestine and Israel at least once a year.

Why am I so interested in the situation? It is very different of course from that of Northern Ireland, but there are also many similarities to our own experiences. I wanted to support people working on the ground with the non-violent alternative, because I do believe that is the way to go.

Four years ago, I was invited by the village committee of Bil'in, outside Ramallah, to come and speak at their annual non-violent conference. It is always in April, and I did a little bit of research into the history of non-violent action within Palestine in order to go and speak there. I was very interested to know that in the first intifada, so much non-violent action had been used to protest at the annexation and occupation of their land. But going to Bil'in village what was so impressive was that there were Israeli non-violent activists, Palestinian activists and internationals - all working together to end the Occupation of Palestine through non-violent civil disobedience and resistance.

Every Friday, they have a protest walk up to the Wall, and this Friday after the conference I was able to join several hundred of them. I call it ‘the apartheid wall' because that is what it is - illegal under international law and it must be demolished. Israel continues to build this wall to the present day in complete disregard of the UN resolutions. When you get up there - you don't even get anywhere near the wall, but Israeli soldiers on the other side open up with CS gas and sometimes live ammunition.  A lot of people get hurt.

The second time I joined the villagers and their supporters on this walk, we had hardly proceeded down the road when the Israeli soldiers came right into the village, on Palestinian land, and started throwing gas containers. I tried to help this French woman get offside, and as we were trying to get away from the situation, I was shot in the hip with a plastic rubber-tipped bullet. To this day I get pain in my thigh from it. We were completely unarmed. Here were young Israelis targeting us. People have a right to non-violent dissent - this was completely illegal.

I go every year to Bil'in, because we have to be prepared to take risks for peace, and to challenge what's wrong. It used to be the case, up to last year, that none of the Muslim village women would go - only the men. Now the women are beginning to come out too, and they are encouraging the young people to keep the protest non-violent and peaceful. We can do very little, but we can at least stand in solidarity with the non-violent movement in Palestine, and we can support the Israeli peace activists who are saying very clearly - "There is a solution here: end the Occupation and let the Palestinians have their right to self-determination." That is the way forward, and the UN has 64 resolutions on Israel that Israel should be upholding.

Last year, they started the blockade of Gaza, and I was invited by the Free Gaza movement to go into Gaza. We had to go on a fourteen-hour boat journey from Larnaca in Cyprus to the port of Gaza which has been cut off for 41 years. When Israeli government spokesmen say they no longer occupy Gaza, that is by no means the truth: they bombed the airport in Gaza, having closed the port 41 years ago; they closed off the borders and they control what goes in and what goes out - total control of every aspect of Palestinian lives. So when we went it we brought in some medicines and foods. This was in October before the bombing started. The situation was very bad then: in hospitals they were running out of machine parts and people were dying because they couldn't get proper treatment and couldn't get out to get treated. We talked to the doctors about the 70% of children now suffering from malnutrition. A big percentage of the population is children under 18: there is no work; no materials for building homes - no wood, no cement, no nothing. The policy of ‘collective punishment' against the 1.4 million Gazan people by the Israeli Government - that is what it is - is against the Geneva Convention - it is illegal.

I was shocked, but one thing I did take hope from was that we were invited to go and address the Hamas Parliament - which we did. I called for the release of Corporal Gilad Shalit - the Israeli soldier who has been imprisoned by Hamas for two years now. I also called on Israel to release some of the political prisoners because they are holding over 1100 Palestinian people imprisoned, some of whom are very old, some children, some very sick with cancer, some elected parliamentarian representatives - all held without due process. It's absolutely dreadful! And we called for an end to all the violence including that of Hamas. I was really hopeful, because we met all the political representatives of the various parties - Hamas, Fateh - and they were all talking about going to Cairo the following week for peace talks. Everybody wants peace - on the ground there is such a passionate desire for peace. People are so tired.

The day after we were there, Hamas released all of its political prisoners and we were hopeful that things might now be on the move for the talks in Cairo. But what happened in early November? Israel bombed Gaza, breaking the ceasefire and killed six Palestinians. What a lot of double-speke we had then! Israel then bombed Gaza from the sky killing over a thousand people, mostly women and children, and destroying the infrastructure all over again. That was a full-out, one-sided war, by the sixth most powerful army in the world against a few home-made rockets and an unarmed people. That is totally immoral.

The borders are still not open. The last two boats that tried to go in were rammed by the Israeli navy and had to be taken to Lebanon. One of the first boats, the Dignity, was so badly damaged that it sank last week. The Free Gaza movement are trying to raise the funds, and another boat, to take generators in for the hospitals in Gaza which only have electricity for a few hours a day now, since Israel bombed their generator plant. It's quite ruthless.

Israel keeps saying we have no partner for peace. Today, the Palestinians want dialogue more than anything, and an end to the occupation and the siege lifted. But Israel keeps demolishing homes, building the wall, and the apartheid-type system which is against international law, and the international community is doing nothing about it.

It's like Northern Ireland. We must have a multidimensional approach to this. There isn't only one way forward. And we must all do what we can do in our own areas. Lobbying the new Obama administration in the United States - saying very clearly that all the Palestinians want is basic human rights, international law to be upheld, and to have a level playing field - not to be treated like second class citizens - could really lead to immense change. Ten million US taxpayers' dollars every day goes into shoring up Israeli policy unconditionally. Israel couldn't have an occupation if it wasn't being paid for by American taxpayers. So I think this is an educational challenge. We say to Obama, if we don't solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem in the Middle East, we won't be able to deal with the other problems there. It has poisoned the politics. Young Arabs and Muslims see what has happened in Iraq, what is happening in Afghanistan, in Palestine - and they say, ‘America is supporting the Occupation of Palestine by funding Israel.' That creates a lot of bad feeling, so it really must be dealt with if we want to build peace in the Middle East as a whole. We are also liberating Israel, because if it makes peace with the Arab states around it - they could build the equivalent of the European Union in the Middle East.  You could backtrack on the nuclear race that Israel started in the Middle East, begin to demilitarise the Middle East starting with weapons of mass destruction, build the economic links and then the friendships and progress would follow, just as they did in Europe when all the countries were fighting one against the other. Now, thank God, we don't have war in Europe.

That would be a tremendous example, and it must be to Israel's benefit to do this because you really cannot keep  depending on building walls and trying to claim more and more Palestinian lands. The world is becoming more conscious now of what is happening in Palestine. Will you come on the next boat with us?