John Kerry needs to understand day-to-day life in the West Bank is there is to be any hope of peace

The state of roads in the West Bank tells you everything you need to know about the possibility of Middle East peace, writes Nabila Ramdani.

 The state of the roads in the West Bank gives a good idea of where the resumed Palestinian-Israeli talks are heading – and it certainly isn’t in the direction of peace. You can see a number of them from the hilltop town of al-Khader, just outside Bethlehem – from modern highways to rockstrewn dirt tracks. The best are designed for vehicles with registration plates bearing the Israeli flag and the country’s name written in Hebrew. Poor and dispossessed Arabs, whose transport is easily identified by green-numbered plates, have to stick to the back roads.
The US secretary of state, John Kerry, who is leading resumed diplomatic efforts in Jerusalem, would certainly be advised to check out the view from the heights of al-Khader. This week I saw constant Israeli army convoys heading off to strengthen Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian lands. The military will be even busier over the next few months after Tel Aviv approved the building of 3,100 new settler homes, many in East Jerusalem – the very place that Palestinian peacemakers want to be their capital city. On 12 August Kerry said the new Israeli colonies would not halt talks, explaining: “We have known there was going to be a continuation of some building.”
In fact, “some building” is by far the biggest stumbling block. Construction on land occupied by the Israelis following the 1967 Six Day War has been condemned by the United Nations and the International Court of Justice; no foreign government in the world officially supports it. 
The unbridled expansion of Jewish settlements in the very areas where Palestinians are supposed to have a state will add to the almost 700,000 illegal settlers in about 120 communities in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights – all in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Beyond the segregated roads – the fast, slick ones for Israelis and the slow, potholed ones for Palestinians – there is barbed wire, machine-gun posts and, most sinister of all, the West Bank Barrier. This is a 430-milelong wall keeping Palestinians out of their lands, which have diminished to less than 20 per cent of historic Palestine. Crossings, many of which I negotiated on foot, are like cattle grids, with only a very few people herded through following stringent security checks.
Israel claims that the barrier exists solely to protect civilians from attack, but it is undeniably the concrete symbol of the annexation of Palestinian territory. Attempts to reinforce the wall over the past few months have led to Arab farmland being cut off from al-Khader, leaving the already desperate agricultural workers with no living at all. When they complain, everything from tear gas and batons to live ammunition is used against them.
All of this is day-to-day life in the occupied territories. Unless Kerry can appreciate that, the road to peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict will be going nowhere. 
This is our land: peeking at a new settlers' commune in East Jerusalem. Photograph: Lior MIzrahi/Getty Images/

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.