Amnesty International’s Kristyan Benedict was visiting Hebron in the West Bank, when he saw an Israeli army patrol approaching as some Palestinians were walking down the street. One of the soldiers turned to a woman in the group and hissed: ‘Sharmuta’, which means bitch in Arabic. The soldier looked at the Palestinian men accompanying her – challenging them to do something about the insult, he had a gun and 10 of his co-soldiers with him. That time they walked away…
This kind of incident is just a microcosm of the Israeli occupation that Amnesty International’s Kristyan Benedict, 36, witnessed earlier this year with his own eyes and caught on film. Benedict is the Crisis Response & Country Priorities Campaigns Manager for Amnesty International UK – a significant amount of his time is as an advocate for the human rights of Palestinians and Israelis caught up in the long running conflict.
Benedict has worked for Amnesty for seven years and as the organisation’s Campaigns Manager for over four years. Despite the difficulties in the job so far, Benedict gives the impression that his experiences have taught him how the two peoples and religions of the Holy Land are intertwined; and that one day the apartheid wall separating the Muslims and Jews can and will fall.
Human Rights- for Everyone?
I meet Kristyan at the Amnesty International UK’s HQ in Shoreditch, East London; we sit in a conference room, the wall covered in racks of Amnesty pamphlets promoting activism around the world. A Lancashire-born man of Indian and Trinidadian descent, Benedict’s face has a couple of day’s stubble and he is wearing a simple top. He gives the impression of someone who frequently works overtime in dedication to the job. And he doesn’t pull any punches on his opinion of the injustice of the treatment of the Palestinians by the Israeli government.
Benedict said: “Israel is now included in the list of stupid dictatorial regimes who abuse peoples’ basic universal rights – along with Burma, North Korea, Iran and Sudan, its government has the same wanton attitude to human beings. This club is less of an alternative security council but more an ‘insecurity council’. Also, it seems that many in the current coalition are driven by a feeling of ‘ethnic supremacy’.
Benedict disclosed that on his last tour of the region he noticed how much the place was marred by discrimination and tension: “One thing I really felt in the air was the blatant racism; the worst place for this was in Hebron – the racism is really in your face. Everywhere there were Graffiti tags on walls saying things like, ‘Die, sand nigger’. You could compare the attitude to that of the BNP members in the north of England.
Hebron – Cages & Urine
Hebron is in the occupied West Bank and nestled in the Judean Mountains. It’s home to 165,000 Palestinians but around 800 Jewish settlers are concentrated in the old centre and on the outskirts of Hebron, surrounded by a heavy Israeli Security presence.
Benedict recalled: “When on my tour of Hebron to a Palestinian market and walking through the city’s winding alleyways, I noticed there was caging above our heads. I asked my Palestinian guide why those cages were there and what those bags were doing on them. He said: ‘Oh we have to put them there because the settlers living in the houses above us keep throwing down stuff on our heads like bottles, sticks and bags filled with liquid – sometimes their own urine.”
This kind of expression of hate does not faze Benedict. He is going back to Israel and Palestine by the end of 2010; he will meet a diverse range of Israeli and Palestinian civil society contacts, UN and NGO personnel and ordinary citizens. Together they will conduct meetings, briefings, research, filming and interviews. He broods on how the situation may have become worse; it will be his third trip to the occupied territories. He scoffs at the possibility of the Israeli government allowing him to visit the Gaza Strip. But he is definite about staying with people in Israel and the West Bank again:
“They don’t want international people or the media to see what is going on in the Gaza Strip. They wouldn’t even let the UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague, go there. ” he said.
Gaza – Surviving in the Strip
The most populated of the Occupied Areas, approximately 1.4 million people live in Gaza; they share land just 40 kilometres long and 9.5 kilometres wide. The blockade of Gaza has been in place since 2007, with five crossings between Gaza and Israel and one between Gaza and Egypt, now closed or partially closed. The blockade not only restricts movement of people, some needing urgent medical care, but also prohibits exports and restricts the entry of basic goods such as food, fuel and building and educational material.
According to an Amnesty report, more than half the population of Gaza is under 18 years old. During Operation Cast Lead in 2008/09, 1,417 Palestinians were killed, including 300 children, 13 Israelis were also killed during the fighting. The Israeli military operations destroyed 18 schools and damaged 280. In addition, around 700 private enterprises from the industrial, agricultural and business sectors have been damaged or destroyed. The blockade stifles re-growth by limiting imports and virtually banning exports, which makes it difficult to repair or rebuild the infrastructure.
More than 20,000 people were made homeless and continue to live in temporary accommodation, sometimes living in tents or staying with relatives in overcrowded homes. In addition, up to 95 percent of the water supply is contaminated and unfit for human consumption.
Israel claims the tightening of the blockade is a response to the indiscriminate rockets fired from Gaza into southern Israel in 2009. Hamas has since declared a unilateral cessation of rocket fire. But it has been breached on several occasions by Palestinian armed groups.
Benedict says that barriers to adequate living conditions are suffocating the Palestinian economy, destroying the society’s infrastructure and attempting to make the Palestinians a defeated population; and this creation of despair is no recipe for peace. As we head into 2011 Amnesty will be increasing its campaigning for all the victims of the Gaza conflict, against the Gaza blockade, against discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel and for justice and accountability.
The main campaign issues of 2010 that Amnesty has already published in booklets* available to the public; are the following: 1) an end to the Gaza blockade, 2) access to decent water supply and 3) for an end to house demolitions.
Homes – Determination and Destruction
Benedict stressed that it is ordinary and innocent civilians who get caught up in the fighting and remembers one man who made a deep impression on him:
“ Living in Anata, the West Bank, Salim is a friendly man in his mid forties with a mass of curly black hair and a neat moustache. The Israeli army has demolished his house four times and each time he has rebuilt it – that is pure defiance. Salim has five children, from toddlers to aged 11 years; his young family are dependent on aid to survive.”
What happens to Salim is not uncommon; Amnesty conducted a study into the demolition of Palestinian homes in the Occupied Territories of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The Israeli authorities condemn many homes as illegal because they do not have the permits that Israel grants; therefore they order demolition crews to bulldoze down the properties.
Under the military law, evicted families in the West Bank are not entitled to be re-housed or compensated, so many families become homeless and reliant on extended families, friends and charities. In 2009 the UN reported 270 structures were demolished in the West Bank in that year alone, displacing 600 Palestinians. Half of the displaced were children. The UN estimates there are currently 4, 800 demolition orders pending against more families.
Injustice – Ignoring International Law
Benedict affirms that Amnesty also raises awareness of human rights violations by Palestinians, but that that the scale of suffering is different on one side compared to the other. For example, Amnesty has campaigned from day one on behalf of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who is, as far as is known, still held hostage by Palestinian militants. However, Benedict also points out that there are thousands of Palestinians being held captive as well. He said: “Men, women and young children are being held as political prisoners.”
When probed about how he defends himself against accusations of being one-sided or anti-Semitic, Benedict replies that Amnesty International’s stance is taken from the pillar of international human rights law. The organisation works with a range of NGOs, including Oxfam, Save the Children, Physicians for Human Rights, Rabbis for Human Rights, B’Tselem and most recently, Combatants for Peace – former fighters on both sides who have relinquished violence and now campaign for peaceful dialogue.
Benedict explained: “Amnesty is not worried about being accused of bias in the face of obvious atrocious human rights violations. We have a passion against all forms of injustice in the world. As for those who loosely throw about the term anti-Semitism as an attempt to gag us, we tell them to take their concerns to the Israeli government. The real delegitimising of Israel is its government’s behaviour when they act outside of the law.”
“I think those in the Israeli government who are fanatical, think that if they can make life miserable enough then the Palestinians will leave. The blockade of Gaza has turned it into an outdoor prison; our PM Cameron even said this. In each of the ways I’ve explained, Palestinians are being provoked. Benedict then added: “There is even deliberate denial of water as a means of expelling them from the land.”
Water Shortages – the Disparity
In a study by Amnesty called ‘Thirsting for Justice’, statistics show a clear disparity between the Israelis and Palestinians’ access to water. In parts of the West Bank, Israeli settlers use up to 20 times more water per capita than neighbouring Palestinian communities. In the Israeli settlements, which are violating international law, there are swimming pools, well-watered lawns and large irrigated farms.
In contrast, Palestinian villagers struggle to meet their essential domestic water needs. The Israeli army controls water-mains and destroys rain water harvesting cisterns, wells and pipelines that do not have Israeli permits. There has been a deterioration of water and sanitation in the Occupied Territories, which have also been used as a dumping ground for Israel’s sewage.
Benedict said: “The political strategy of Israel needs to be held accountable. The country needs to ask what it is they are doing to create peace and harmony? The only visible policies involve stirring up more resistance. I’d like to know if the government is doing this on purpose or is it stupidity?”
What Next? Who With?
He explained this is why Amnesty works closely with the likes of Combatants for Peace. The movement was formed in 2005 by Palestinians and Israelis, ex-combatants who had taken an active role in the cycle of violence. They decided to drop their arms and work together to create political pressure on both governments to end the occupation.
Benedict has also joined in grassroots activism, helping to plant olive trees and joining Palestinian families for dinner and listening to their stories, as well as hearing Israeli people’s side of the story too. He noted with a smile: “ The new office of Wi’am (Palestinian Conflict Resolution Centre) , is in the shadow of the wall and the Israeli soldiers look at the office from the top of a tower.”
On the Israeli government response, Benedict stated:
“The government is now more right-wing and less tolerant of the human rights narrative we give. But they are aware of a need to step up engagement, if only to get across their side of the story, to say why the security measures are there. In reply to that, we say violating peoples’ human rights in the name of security creates more conflict. Israel has this mentality that they can’t take the risk because the Arabs just want to kill all Jews.
“It is a very complicated situation, in both Israel and Palestine you get bad people from both sides spoiling chances for peace. Amnesty thinks that chauvinistic nationalism is idiotic and counterproductive.Palestinians who try to create dialogue with Israelis are accused of being traitors or collaborators and are threatened, and there is exactly the same belligerent attitude from the Jewish side. It is an asymmetric issue, but I also agree with the sentiment of Justice Richard Goldstone in his 2009 UN fact finding mission: ‘The treatment of Palestine is meant to punish, humiliate and terrorize’ ”
Benedict insists the majority of the Palestinians he met were decent people struggling to have a respectable life, not the security threat they’re made out to be.
He recalled: “The Jahaleen community, an old nomadic Bedouin tribe, made an impact on me too. They literally live in shacks, a household toilet is a hole in the ground. But despite the poverty they have a great community spirit and they prize education – they are real thinkers. I was there when they were building the Jahaleen School… now the school has a demolition order against it.”
Theories – a Step Forward?
When asked why this conflict carries on, Benedict explained several common theories: “The USA plays both Arab and Israel sides to generate money, power and control. The main reasons are:
• The Arms Trade: The conflict makes loads of money for the ‘weapons trade’. Israel always pushes the buttons to make all the surrounding Arabic states such as Syria, Lebanon feel insecure. So they then buy weapons off other states and this is a great profit-making industry.
• Religion: You have extreme fundamentalist Zionist Christians who want to see the ‘second coming’ of Christ, a rapture they believe is chronicled in the bible, for this there must be a big war in this spot – an Armageddon.
I probed more into how Benedict visualises the enormous task of creating peace in the region tangled up in politics, religion and land. For example, should the settlers be removed from their homes in the Occupied Territories and let the Palestinians move in?
Benedict laughs at the simplicity of the idea, thinks, and then states:
“To start, under international law the Israeli settlements are illegal. Israel must abide by the law and start moving from all the illegal settlements and compensate the settlers. Then it will be up to the people what they do with the infrastructure.”
He affirmed: “We at Amnesty International advocate non-violent, direct action. Our organisation does not take a position on whether a one or two-state solution will work -we are concerned with the human rights of the people first and foremost. Amnesty International wants to see Israelis and Palestinians living together in peace, prosperity and security – with their human rights and dignity protected and respected.
“It will be civil society and not the governments that will make the Occupation fall. The Occupation regime is illegal and unsustainable. Apartheid South Africa and the Soviet Union fell and many people thought they never would. We activists have an advantage of living in times when we can organise quicker because of new media and modern communications technology. Other people might disagree with me, but for both Israelis and Palestinians, I know this mission for peace and security is not impossible.” ____________________________________________________________________________________
Groups mentioned in the article:
• Combatants for Peace: http://cfpeace.org/
• Palestinian Conflict Resolution Centre (Wiam) : http://www.alaslah.org/
• Amnesty International UK: http://www.amnesty.org.uk/
Other groups of interest:
• Jewish Voice for Peace: http://www.jewishvoiceforpeace.org/
• Young Jewish and Proud: http://www.youngjewishproud.org/
See their protest at PM Netanyahu’s speech on November 8th 2010
*Statistical information in the article from Amnesty International’s booklets:
• Thirsting for Justice , Palestinian Access to Water Restricted ( Oct 2009)
• Suffocating: the Gaza Strip Under Israeli Blockade (Jan 2010)