My overall sense coming away from my visit to Israel is that we’re approaching a number of pivotal points, and until we see which way those go, it’s hard to get a true picture of where the region is headed, politically and in terms of the peace process. There are the Egyptian-brokered talks between Hamas and Fatah over governance in Gaza and border security. There’s the court case on the status of Palestinians in area E1, which could put a freeze on settlement building between Jerusalem and Jericho. And based on the optimism I heard from the Labour Party, there’s the obvious tipping point of the next elections, if they’re brought forward from 2019.
Now each thing could go either way, but the main lesson for me is that it’s easy to look from the outside and just see a stalemate – you think things are going nowhere, and nothing is changing for the better – but on the ground, you do see how each tipping point could make a difference.
I was also struck in many of my conversations by something very common to politics wherever you go – this sense that political elites on all sides are losing touch with younger people. Young people don’t seem to feel that politicians regard them as a priority. You can see this in the various youth protest movements that have sprung up, including young Israelis becoming very vocal about the need for more affordable housing.
So one of the things I tried to offer in my conversations with politicians was a sense of how Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party began to buck that trend here in Britain at the last election, and the difference it made to the outcome.
The briefings I received on the security situation, not just the domestic terror threat but the wider regional picture, just confirmed for me what a long way there is to go before Israeli citizens can feel safe in their homes and on their streets. None of it was unfamiliar to me – the tunnels, the random stabbings, the car rammings, the air raids, and so on – but I do think that if more people in Britain understood what it’s like for ordinary Israelis to have to live with that constant undercurrent of fear, there would be better understanding of why the security situation is so fundamental to any progress.
But at the same time, in the refugee camps I spent a lot of time with a young teenage girl who was quite severely traumatised by her experience with the security forces, being arrested and held for a number of days just for writing something on Facebook. She was just weeping, withdrawn, monosyllabic, and I came away thinking: ‘There’s got to be a better way than this’.
I’ve obviously been to Yad Vashem before on my previous visits but it always has a very emotional impact on me and I always come away with some new insight or some new horror at something I’ve learned. This time, more than anything, it was my tour guide who affected me most: a man in his 80s, such an incredible source of humanity and wisdom, with that kind of profound understanding of the human soul which is impossible to teach or learn. He moved me very, very deeply.
I greatly enjoyed visiting the Kibbutz Nir Oz, near the border with Gaza. I think most people in Britain associate kibbutzim with younger people, but I was shown round by two older gentlemen. I was struck by the lovely attitude that they had to their nation and their unwavering faith that, despite its challenges, Israel could deliver a better society; really visionary men, who want to have an opportunity to continue their lives but who are also very concerned about their neighbours in Gaza.
I wasn’t able to go into Gaza but I received a briefing on the humanitarian situation, which sounded utterly dreadful: the sewage flowing into the sea; the electricity crisis; the lack of medicine in the hospitals; the fears of malnutrition and even cholera. Hopefully the Fatah-Hamas talks will get somewhere and at least they can get the water desalination plant up and running, and if the security situation can be improved it would allow Israel to loosen the restrictions on goods and humanitarian aid going into Gaza and people coming out to get medical help. But something clearly needs to be done. I was told if nothing improves, Gaza will simply become uninhabitable by 2020, and that cannot be allowed to happen.
Emily Thornberry is Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary