Occupied Palestinian Territories

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:08 pm on 29th April 2004.

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Photo of Mohammad Sarwar Mohammad Sarwar Labour, Glasgow Govan 5:08 pm, 29th April 2004

But I can say to the hon. Gentleman that this debate will make very interesting reading for President Bush, and I will be surprised if the hon. Gentleman does not get the job of special adviser on foreign relations.

I welcome the hard work done by the International Development Committee to produce this comprehensive report. While all Palestinians in the west bank and Gaza strip are adversely affected by the Israeli occupation and its accompanying violence, I would like to focus the attention of the House on the particularly desperate plight of Palestinian women. As the United Nations Development Programme says:

"It has been established that development assistance does not necessarily reach the whole population. Development literature has amply illustrated that women are often treated as though they are invisible vis-à-vis development assistance, largely because of the false assumption that the benefits accrued by men as the head of the family unit are shared by the family. This unisex vision of development neglects the fact that there are certain gender-specific factors that determine how men and women perceive and articulate their development needs, participate in contemporary development activities and determine the course of their lives."

Save the Children notes:

"Frequently absent from recent reports about violence in the Middle East are the everyday dangers facing women and children whose access to education and health care is limited or blocked, and whose nutritional and psychological needs are not being met."

Palestinian women have always been active participants in their society and the struggle to liberate their people from Israeli occupation. Since the 1920s, they have worked through social, humanitarian and political organisations. During the first intifada, women took a leading role in the boycott campaign against Israeli products in the west bank and Gaza strip. They led a campaign to reopen schools closed by the Israeli army. Palestinian mothers established underground schools that their children could attend. Women frequently confronted the occupation forces to protect children and young men. Between the creation of the Palestinian Authority in 1994 and the outbreak of the second intifada, women's organisations worked hard to enhance female participation in the anticipated Palestinian state.

Unfortunately, the situation since September 2000 has made life harder for women. Palestinian women are suffering on several levels. There is the terrorisation of everyday life. The Israeli army invades their towns, villages, camps and even homes at any time of the day or night. That produces constant feelings of fear and apprehension. There are more than 120 Israeli checkpoints on the west bank, which means that every town and village has become a sort of prison. It is difficult to move from place to place, and violence at checkpoints is common. People are killed, injured or subjected to demeaning treatment. Long delays, even for ambulances, are normal.

Since the beginning of the current intifada, 1,162 homes have been destroyed. A total of 40,415 Palestinians have been made homeless. Such events are traumatic for all families, but especially for women. Women are worried about their children's safety, which increasingly results in a decision not to send them to school. Children have been deeply traumatised by the daily Israeli aggression. The risks of bombardment or shooting are constant throughout the occupied territories, and the fear and insecurity felt by everyone contribute towards psychological problems.

Israeli forces have shelled and raided hospitals and clinics. That, together with Israeli attacks on Palestinian infrastructure and industry, has severely affected the health sector. In more than a dozen cases, women have been forced to give birth at checkpoints, resulting in at least five stillbirths. Unemployment in the occupied territories is more than 50 per cent., 60 per cent. of the population live below the poverty threshold, and 1.2 million Palestinians depend on food aid.

Since the beginning of the al-Aqsa intifada in September 2000, 134 women have been killed by Israeli forces. Clearly, the vast majority were accidental victims, killed on the streets of their towns or even in their homes. That has increased feelings of victimisation: women feel that they can do nothing to protect themselves and their families. During the same period, 558 children have been killed by Israeli soldiers or settlers. Palestinian mothers suffer the anguish of losing their children or seeing them injured. They are also forced to endure the insult of international condemnation and of being called unnatural mothers for "allowing" their children to roam the streets and confront the occupation forces. In fact, Palestinian mothers are the first to point out that no mother wants to see her child killed or harmed. The atmosphere of fear and danger permeates every aspect of daily life in the west bank and Gaza strip. Women feel powerless to protect their children; even young children are aware that their parents are unable to protect them from the Israelis.

Palestinians see their schools and hospitals attacked, men, women and children treated with violence and contempt by the Israelis, and the utter indifference of the international community. I ask the British Government to consider increasing the development assistance specifically targeted at Palestinian women.