(This is a report from Wednesday, August 26.)
This was a most interesting day and in many ways provided an encapsulation of the issues confronting Israelis and Palestinians. Over the course of the day, we met with Shimon Peres, crossed into Palestine via the Qalandia checkpoint, met with Palestinian refugees, had a discussion with the wife of the imprisoned Palestinian political figure, Marwan Barghouti, visited with Palestinian PM Salam Fayyad (Elders only), met with six business leaders (Richard Branson and I only), had a roundtable with Palestinian experts, and finally had dinner with approximately 40 Palestinian civil society leaders. And that was all before lunch.
In fact, it was a grueling day and only gave me more respect for how The Elders could maintain the stamina to be engaged and present and physically sound throughout the trip.
In the morning, there was some press about the trip. A somewhat critical piece in the Jerusalem Post about The Elders visit with a focus on President Carter. And a somewhat fluffy, but favorable, piece on Richard and me in Ha’Aretz.
The most surreal meeting of the day was with Shimon Peres. I’ve admired him as a formidable, intelligent, articulate person. He, in fact, is the most popular politician in Israel as he technically has a ceremonial office as President. The meeting, though, left me disheartened. Archbishop Tutu pressed President Peres about the humanitarian conditions in Gaza. Both Archbishop Tutu and President Carter were there recently and Mary Robinson was there just before the war. Many of the NGOs that I knew or met that were doing work in Gaza all told a very consistent story – food barely able to sustain needs, very unreliable electricity, and dire conditions with water, sewage and health. However, when asked about the siege of Gaza, President Peres brought out a color chart that he claimed represented the conditions on the ground in Gaza for food, water, power and health care. He said that there were no shortages of food, a few minor issues with water that would soon be fixed, few problems with power and adequate healthcare. He even referred to about 400 people per month who Israel allowed out of Gaza for health reasons, a figure that struck me as a rounding error given the population of 1.5M people in Gaza.
We then drove into the West Bank via the Qalandia checkpoint, the primary access road into the Ramallah area. The checkpoint had changed quite a lot since I last saw it in 2005, with more construction of the wall, towers and infrastructure than had been there before. We met a young student from Ramallah who recently graduated from school in Jerusalem and who passed through the crossing each day, encountering as much as a two hour wait in either direction. Much like the tour of Yad Vashem, the stop was a bit of a scrum, with the photographers, security people and Secret Service jockeying for position. I don’t think the Secret Service agents were too happy with this stop, as they more or less trampled other folks (including some of the other Elders!) in their quest to stay close to President Carter.
A quick reflection – sometimes I think The Elders group is a bit like how much of the world must work. The Americans (represented by President Carter) very quick and almost impatient to act and take a leadership position, the UN (represented by Kofi Annan) more bureaucratic and evaluating all long term possibilities, the middle-tier nations like Norway, Ireland and Brazil (represented by Gro Brundtland, Mary Robinson and Fernando Cardoso) willing to do their share in a peaceable manner, and moral leaders like Archbishop Tutu trying to make sense of it all and inspire courage in those who are seeking justice.
On the other side of the checkpoint, we met with Palestinian refugees from the region, who talked about their lives. One sobering moment occurred when the leader of the Qalandia refugee camp, a 73 year old grandmother, suggested that she would become a suicide bomber if her family had been forcibly evicted from their homes as had the families in East Jerusalem recently.
On a happier note, I had the chance to meet a young man from the Jalazon refugee camp, who had been directly affected by The Gandhi Project and now was a youth leader himself.
The rest of the day was a blur of meetings with Palestinian civil society, political and business leaders. One of the highlights for me was to see how rapidly information technology is growing in the region, as it is an industry that can get around the passage of people and goods…it seems that there might be some good opportunities to invest in this area. On the bus ride from one of meeting to the other, I was asked to describe the business meetings to the Elders, but it was a bit of a tough haul as every time I would start to talk, we would hit a bump, go around a curve, or a nearby Blackberry would buzz on the microphone.
The gist of all the meetings, though, was that the occupation of the West Bank is causing a lot of pain and anger, strangling the economy, and breeding long term animosity. The region badly needs the U.S. to step in as a mediator, compel Israel to freeze the settlements and quickly get momentum back behind the peace talks.