A Necessary Journey – Four days in East Jerusalem and the West Bank with Yachad

1. By way of Introduction

How much does anyone, who is not directly involved with the Occupation, know about the situation in the West Bank? Especially amongst those in the Jewish diaspora, very little indeed. The mainstream Jewish media is content to ignore the daily life of Palestinians, and very few Jewish visitors to Israel venture into the West Bank due to decades of hearing only about Palestinian terrorism. This was the background against which a group from the UK, led by Hannah Weisfeld of Yachad, spent four days in mid-November 2022, focusing on East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Yachad is a British Jewish organisation which promotes (i) an end to the Occupation and (ii) a two-state political resolution to the conflict. Much of what I learned on this trip was both shocking and upsetting, although for many readers of Palestine-Israel Journal, perhaps nothing will be revelatory or surprising. For the avoidance of doubt, my personal outlook is unambiguously both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine and I’m indebted to 
the PIJ Editorial Team for suggesting that I might like to write up a brief description of the trip. We met some remarkable people, both Jewish and Palestinian who, despite the difficulties, struggle daily to defend human rights and to shed light on some very dark realities.

2. Breaking the Silence; Issa Amro; International Spokesperson, Gush Etzion Bloc; Mossi Raz

We began on Sunday evening by meeting Yehuda Shaul over dinner. Currently Co-Director at Ofek (The Israeli Center for Public Affairs), Yehuda is perhaps better known as one of the founders of “Breaking the Silence” (BTS). In a wide-ranging introduction for our visit, he outlined many issues which will be familiar to readers of PIJ. For example, in relation to the West Bank, he talked about how a “facts on the ground” policy of increasing settlement and road-building activity is leading to fragmentation of a future Palestinian state; indeed that, in some ways, the situation in the West Bank is more difficult than in Gaza which is one entity, whereas the West Bank is split between areas A, B and C. He mentioned that many young Palestinians are disenchanted with their leadership because of the consequences of the1993 “Oslo Accord” (between the Israeli government and the PLO); the Oslo Accord “temporary” areas A, B and C, which were supposed to exist for only five years, have not improved the situation to the point where all human rights organisations agree that there is a system of apartheid in the West Bank.

On Monday morning we made a trip to Hebron, escorted by a Breaking the Silence guide. Our minibus drove quickly into the West Bank, on an excellent road. Naively, I had expected to see some sign of a border. We passed a checkpoint some way into the West Bank, which I barely noticed. 

Our first stop in Hebron was at the small, but significant, Meir Kahane Tourist Park in Kiryat Arba. A few feet outside the boundary of the park is the grave and tombstone of Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 Palestinians in the Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994 (three more died subsequently, making the total 32). Welcome to Hebron! A drone, quite high in the sky, comes to investigate our party. It was on the shuttered streets of Israeli-controlled area H2 in Hebron that we experienced a relatively minor, but none-theless disturbing incident, which led, a few days later, to a meeting with the IDF International Spokesperson. We witnessed two Palestinians, who were selling embroidered purses on the street, being roughly shoved by a soldier, one almost being pushed over. Quite by chance, one of the street-sellers was a Facebook friend of one of our group, a journalist on a UK national Jewish newspaper. The journalist took photographs of the incident on his phone. Further along the road, the same soldier appeared together with a second soldier, who appeared to be his superior, and they demanded that the journalist hand over his phone. He refused, a standoff ensued, which was only resolved by the intervention of a BTS lawyer who must have telephoned someone in the IDF. Later that day, incensed by the incident, the journalist used his personal Twitter account to publish some of the photographs and to report witnessing “unacceptable intimidation of two Palestinian men…” Remarkably quickly, our group was invited to a meeting later in the week with the IDF International Spokesperson.

We had lunch at the home of Hebron-based Palestinian human rights activist, Issa Amro. He was arrested in 2017 by the Palestinian Authority for criticising the PA on Facebook, and in early November 2022, his home was declared a closed military zone by the IDF for a short period after he complained about settler violence. Over lunch, Issa provided a glimpse of some of the difficulties for Palestinians living in area H2 (for example, complications for ambulances regarding travel on “sterile” roads; permit requirements for plumbers and builders). Awed by the bravery of someone who challenges human rights abuses wherever he sees them, we made our way down Tel Rumeida to the waiting minibus, and on to the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, for an alternative perspective. 

In the Judaean Hills, close to the Path of the Patriarchs, the International Spokesperson for the Gush Etzion settlement bloc outlined the biblical connection of Jews to the land and the close connection he and his family feel (although his birthplace is America). A personable, articulate spokesperson, he was somewhat non-plussed by our group’s inability to understand why he feels that Jews have more of a right to land in the West Bank than Palestinian families already living there.

We returned to our hotel in Jerusalem in time for a quick refresh before meeting outgoing Meretz MK, Mossi Raz, over a meal at a local restaurant. This was just two weeks after the November elections when Meretz lost its six seats in the Knesset. Although Meretz gained 158,000 votes, it required another 4,000 votes to pass the threshold for returning to the Knesset. Raz explained how the average Israeli doesn’t “feel” the Occupation, as if it has nothing to do with them. A convivial speaker, we nonetheless ended a difficult day on a low-note. But much worse was to come the following day.

An Israeli checkpoint leading to Shuhada Street and Tel Rumeida, Hebron, West Bank. Israeli forces restrict the freedom of movement of the Palestinian residents of Hebron’s old city. October 30, 2022 Photographer: Anne Paq

3. Military Court Watch; Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Daniel Seidemann; Basher Azzer

Early Tuesday morning we had a briefing from “Military Court Watch,” before our visit with them to Ofer Military Court in the West Bank. This was a particularly distressing day. The briefing outlined the work of MCW in monitoring the treatment of arrested Palestinian children (i.e. individuals below the age of 18) who come before the military courts. We learned that children who are prosecuted at Ofer are mostly 14 to 16 years-old, although children as young as 12 can also be prosecuted. Children are most frequently prosecuted for throwing stones (which can, of course, be dangerous, although there do not appear to be any statistics about injuries arising from the stone-throwing). Most of the children arrested live within 2 km of a settlement i.e. they live in area C (where all the settlements are located, with the exception of the Hebron settlements). The military authorities rely, we were told, on the Fourth Geneva Convention as the legal basis for prosecuting the children. It is ironic that the same Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits settlement construction, but that part of the convention is contested, and hence ignored, in relation to settlements. The conviction rate for children is very high (over 95%), for reasons which will become clear below.

Several issues were particularly upsetting in this briefing: the use of the permit system as a means of control of the adult population in general (a permit-holder is more susceptible to the idea of acting as an informant); the manner of the arrest of individuals, especially with regard to children (about half the arrests of children occur at night, between 12 midnight and 5.00am, typically at 2.00 am, and often both zip ties and blindfolds are used); the apparent disregard for proper legal procedure and the lack of adequate legal representation (the child, it seems, is rarely informed of the right to remain silent under questioning, and the right to be able to consult a lawyer prior to questioning apparently usually consists of a phone call of up to a minute on speakerphone, with the interrogator listening). A report entitled “Children in Military Custody” written by a delegation of British lawyers over ten years ago outlines many similar concerns. The quickest way for the child to exit the system is to plead guilty (the child meets a lawyer for the first time in court), which explains the high conviction rates. 

At Ofer itself, we met a number of distraught family members: a father who had not seen his 17-year-old son since his arrest, at 3.00 am in the morning, two weeks previously; another parent who couldn’t understand why the army had broken down his door when, as he explained, the local Security Officer has his phone number. In the court itself, the proceedings were in Hebrew, with no translation provided. In one of the two cases we observed, the defendant had not been brought from the prison to appear in court for his trial. The Palestinian Israeli lawyer, from an Israeli NGO, represented the defendant by talking to him on a mobile phone. There is no legal aid system for defendants.

Our next stop, after Ofer, was a meeting with civil servants and career diplomats, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, tasked with informing foreign citizens about Israeli affairs, and informing the Israeli government about Jewish communities around the world, via over 100 consulates. They were a little unlucky that we had just come from Ofer and it was an uncomfortable meeting. We expressed a torrent of concerns about the military rule under the Occupation and received rather predictable, diplomatic answers – this is, after all, a department of government. 

On Tuesday afternoon, we had a briefing and tour from Daniel Seidemann (founder of “Terrestrial Jerusalem”), an expert on developments in Jerusalem. We started the tour in Sheikh Jarrah, drove to the Mount of Olives, and then on to a hillside view looking out towards the proposed E1 development zone (currently stalled), with its potential for 3,500 new housing units, located between Ma’aleh Adumim and Jerusalem. As Daniel explained, if such a development goes ahead, it could provide a fatal blow to a two-state solution because it would effectively cut Palestine in two. 

A very full Tuesday was completed with a wide-ranging discussion over dinner with Palestinian activist and politician, Basher Azzeh. Unfortunately, arrangements did not permit this dinner to be held in Ramallah, as originally intended, so we met in East Jerusalem.

4. Ir Amim; Machsom Watch, Michael Manekin

Wednesday morning and we are off on a short, early-morning walking tour to the Damascus Gate with the Israeli NGO "Ir Amim” (City of Nations), an organisation which seeks an equitable and stable Jerusalem with an agreed political future. Yaniv, our guide, points out that although Jerusalem is supposed to be “united,” the reality is that people rarely cross the invisible boundary. There is effectively a separate transport system and a separate education system (except for the bilingual, i.e. Arabic/Hebrew, Yad beYad, Hand in Hand, Elementary and High Schools). Education, he pointed out, is a very significant issue in East Jerusalem because there is a large shortage of classrooms, a high drop-out rate for school students, and between 17,000 to 20,000 school age children who are not registered.

For the rest of the day, we were guided by “Machsom Watch” (Checkpoint Watch), an organisation of Israeli women founded in 2001, which monitors checkpoints and other aspects of the Occupation. We travelled with them to an agricultural crossing; the Separation Wall here consists of two fences with a security road in between the fences, and is not the high wall which is often seen in other areas. This Separation Wall, with its machsom, opens three times a day for about 30 or 40 minutes to allow 
Palestinians and trucks to pass from one side of the Separation Wall to the other side. A permit is required for people and goods. As a Palestinian with a permit to work on the Israeli side of the Separation Wall, if you accidentally miss the evening opening to get back home, then you have to find a dry place to sleep for the night, and risk being arrested for being on the wrong side of the Separation Wall without an appropriate permit. By coincidence, our Yachad tour leader knew the soldier in charge of the machsom, a reserve officer in his mid-twenties. After the gates were closed, he explained that he was doing this job because of a lack of staff and that, no, he didn’t want to be operating a checkpoint, but that he tried to keep things as human as possible. He also added that he couldn’t be sure how an inexperienced 18-year-old would handle it.

Back in Jerusalem, we had dinner and a discussion with Mikhael Manekin, director of the Alliance Fellowship program which is a network of Arab and Jewish leaders in Israel; a softly-spoken, kippa-wearing philosopher, he was one of the first directors of Breaking the Silence. Mikhael touched on many areas, including how modern Jewish nationalism (widespread today among both religious and secular Israeli Jews) is incompatible with traditional Jewish ethics; the importance of progressive Palestinians and Jews being able to find time and space to create effective politics out of different viewpoints; and also about the value of meeting groups like ours, prepared to engage with the issues, which gave activists encouragement.

5. British Ambassador; IDF International Spokesperson; Haaretz Deputy Editor

On the final morning, we met British Ambassador to Israel, Neil Wigan, at his residence in Tel Aviv. The topics discussed included the aborted move of the embassy to Jerusalem, and also settlement expansion and annexation of the West Bank (both of which the UK government is against). He disagreed with the suggestion that the two-state solution was now dead, but argued that it was waiting for the right Israeli and Palestinian leadership to take it forward. With regard to the Abraham Accords, a very dramatic regional shift, he argued that the views of countries in the Accords now carry more weight. He acknowledged that the Palestinians were very upset by the Accords, which had not pleased the Emiratis who feel that they should be credited with taking annexation off the table. In general, he explained, the international community is very divided over how to deal with the Israel/Palestine issue and it is hard to make any progress. After our few days of touring the West Bank, there was one particular comment from the Ambassador which resonated: using the language of international human rights law, he said, doesn’t always land with the government of Israel.

Our next appointment was with the IDF International Spokesperson as a consequence of what we had experienced in Hebron. Lt. Col Richard Hecht is an engaging personality, with a ready smile and a mellifluous Scottish accent. He was keen to reassure us that aggression towards the Palestinian street-sellers that we had witnessed in Hebron was disgraceful, that there are sometimes badly behaved soldiers, and that the incident was being dealt with (unfortunately, I don’t think we were particularly reassured that this was a rare occurrence). He also seemed to be suggesting that some issues in the military could arise because of social changes i.e. more soldiers in the fighting units stationed in the West Bank were nowadays coming from what’s called the periphery of Israel, i.e. the poorer urban areas. With regard to protecting Palestinians from what he called Jewish terrorists, he mentioned a battalion commander who had tried recently to hold off a group of Jewish terrorists, one of whom had pepper-sprayed him; the army got the Shin Bet involved and used administrative detention against the pepper-sprayer. He wanted us to understand that decisions about what was legal, and what was not (e.g. in relation to constructions by Palestinians or by settlers), were taken in the political sphere, not by the IDF. As a commander deployed in an area, he explained, you look at the threats, and if that means deploying soldiers to protect olive pickers against Jewish terrorists, or defending an illegal settlement, then yes, you put in soldiers to counter the threats. With reference to our overall discussion, he said he felt that it was important to engage with people who disagree with you. And we had disagreed in many areas. 

The final meeting I attended, before leaving to catch my flight, was with Noa Landau, the Deputy Editor of Haaretz. At that time, the shape of the new government was unclear, but she pointed out that it was going to be the most religious and far-right government so far, with the added risk of racist rhetoric against Palestinian Israelis. She also mentioned that the new government was threatening to ‘reform’ the judiciary – an observation that has proven to be painfully accurate.

6. Concluding remarks

This was a very difficult, but important trip. I’ve spent a lot of time in Israel over the past few years and managed to avoid engaging with the details surrounding the Occupation. Many thanks to Yachad for opening my eyes wider on this trip, to all the defenders of human rights who we met, and to those very many others in Israel and Palestine who we did not get a chance to meet. And thanks also to those who were prepared to engage with us even though we didn’t agree. 

7. Acknowledgements 

I am indebted to Corinne Gurvitz who very kindly sent me a copy of the copious and excellent notes she took of the meetings; any inaccuracies, however, are entirely my responsibility.


 I “Children in Military Custody,” June 2012. A report written by a delegation of British lawyers on the treatment of Palestinian children under Israeli military law. Available at