IT’S 8am near Bethlehem and the field of olive trees is suffused with dappled sunlight.
It should be an idyllic scene. But we are with the farmer who owns the field, and his story is tragic. Coming down the hill towards him is a massive Israeli settlement (illegal under international law, and condemned by the International Court of Justice in 2004).
It has already led to the confiscation of half of his land. Sewage water is polluting his remaining fields. He points to the shrunken, dehydrated olives with tears in his eyes. He has no water for irrigating the fields, and his whole village exists in a threatened zone. Houses can be demolished for “security reasons” at any time.
His freedom of movement is curtailed by roadblocks and the Israeli-built Separation Wall, which snakes across the land, and divides him from his neighbours and friends. Then he smiles the warmest smile.
“Thank you for coming here to talk to us,” he says. “We won’t ever give up, while there are good people in the world supporting us.”
We are a group of international visitors from 13 countries around the globe who have come on a fact finding trip with the Bethlehem YMCA. (Our group includes a Presbyterian minister from the US who has brought a church group, a solidarity organiser from Munich, a group of young workers with the homeless from Birmingham, two lapsed Catholics from Ireland, a lovely vicar’s wife from Oxford, and a chatty group of Austrian Methodists.)
My interest is in the human rights area, as a member of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. What we are all sharing is a profound sense of shock at the effect of the Israeli military occupation on ordinary Palestinian’s lives.
From the moment they wake up, until they close their eyes at night, every man, woman and child in the West Bank of Palestine is under the control of the Israeli army and government.
Staying with Palestinian families, the first thing you notice is the rationing of water.
Palestinian houses only have their water supplied for three days a month, and they try to fill water cannisters on their roofs for the other days.
Water is at a premium, although we are told to shower as often as we need to. We try to splash quickly and dry off. I am therefore amazed, when we are taken to an Israeli settlement, to discover water in abundance there.
There are sprinklers on the gardens, and even an aqua park. Water is available 24/7. International organisations state that one Israeli uses as much water as eight Palestinians.
Freedom of movement is seriously compromised for Palestinians. None of the family I stayed with were free to travel to Jerusalem, just 10km down the road. (Given that they were Palestinian Christians, they would have really enjoyed seeing the historic sites of old Jerusalem, including the Via Dolorosa and the Garden of Gethsemene.)
The only West Bank Palestinians who have permission to go there, are people with work permits which allow them access, like South African black people under apartheid, who similarly were allowed permits for work, but not to live in certain parts of the city.
A friend of our family worked as a labourer in Jerusalem. He left at 3.30 in the morning to get to the checkpoint, leaving himself three hours waiting time.
Sometimes he got through more quickly, but he had to be sure, or he would lose his job if he arrived later than 7.30am.
Every day he is searched, stopped, has guns pointed at him, waits again, and finally if he’s lucky makes it to his workplace on time to start work.
By contrast, the settlers have their own roads and distinctive yellow number plates, which allow them to zip quickly into Jerusalem in 15 minutes.
The Palestinians, with their white number plates are restricted to circuitous, road blocked roads, which can be closed off at any time by the military for “security reasons”.
As we travelled around the West Bank area, which is supposedly the “half” of Palestine under Palestinian Authority control, it seemed the Israeli military was everywhere.
We went to Hebron, a Palestinian town of 45,000 people, which has become a ghost town since the “settling” of 500 Israelis there.
Under the guise of “security considerations”, many streets have been emptied of Palestinian families, and in the Old Town, the Palestinian shopkeepers have had their market stalls closed.
Meanwhile, the settlements, which Israel has been repeatedly asked to dismantle by the UN, are growing apace. On every piece of high land, initially a few mobile homes appear. This is a settlement outpost.
Then the army moves in to support house-building.
Next nearby houses and farms are cleared for “security reasons”. And then the settlement grows, and is linked by special road to the settlement on the next hill.
There are now 700,000 Israeli settlers in the Palestinian West Bank and East Jerusalem.
They become “facts on the ground”, making a two-state solution a practical impossibility.
These settlers are aggressive and heavily armed. In Hebron, they throw rubbish down on the Palestinian street sellers who have managed to remain open.
Near Bethlehem, they have quick and easy access to the modern hospitals of Jerusalem, while Palestinian women are limited to the Bethlehem maternity hospital, lacking in doctors and equipment.
The Separation Wall has gobbled up further Palestinian land, and one farmer we met had to walk 6km each day to his olive trees on the other side of the Wall.
Some days the checkpoint is closed for no apparent reason. The Wall is built in the West Bank, and when it is completed will annex a further 47% of West Bank territory.
This is not the action of a state which genuinely wishes to live in peace with its neighbours.
In a short visit, I saw so much hardship and oppression, that even a week after returning home, I find it hard not to be depressed.
But that would not do justice to the brave and kind Palestinian families we were honoured to meet on our trip. They deserve nothing less than equal treatment in a fair democratic society.
Only the international community can deliver that for them, by supporting their call for the isolation and boycott of Israel, until it agrees to a settlement that is fair and just for all.