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20 March 2006

“You won’t be going to Jericho“

Rachel Aspden was one of the Britons rapidly evacuated from Jerusalem following the Israeli army's p

By Rachel Aspden

We were following the Stations of the Cross down the Via Dolo-rosa in Old Jerusalem when the call came through. British Council officers herded us quickly through the narrow stone streets, weaving around evangelical tour groups, knots of black-hatted Orthodox Jews, Catholic priests with video cameras and Arab street traders, and into a waiting 4×4.

Ten minutes later, at the British Council offices in East Jerusalem, the director, Ken Churchill, gathered us for a security briefing. The news from Jericho was bad. Early that morning US and UK prison monitors had withdrawn, leaving the West Bank town open to a massive Israeli raid aimed at capturing senior Palestinian militants – described as “Israel’s Most Wanted” – held in the jail. The swiftness of the changeover proved, Palestinian officials claimed, that the US and UK had co-ordinated events with Israel. Factions led by al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades immediately declared their intention to launch revenge attacks on British interests in the Palestinian territories. “This changes everything for you,” said Ken, adding drily: “For a start, you won’t be going to Jericho on Friday.”

I was in East Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories as a guest of the British Council, which is working to build links between young British and Palestinian arts critics. In a British group of five, we had spent two days touring foreign-funded arts foundations and cultural centres in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Ramallah – and were due to move further into the West Bank the next day. That morning, we spent time with a press officer, crafting platitudes about the distance between Palestine’s violent image in the western media and our experience of the fragile, growing cultural life of the West Bank.

But events in Jericho were changing all that. As al-Jazeera flickered in the corner, showing looped images of IDF (Israel Defence Forces) soldiers rounding up half-naked prisoners, Ken’s phones began to ring with more bad news. British Council Gaza was under attack from masked gunmen. British Council Ramallah was surrounded by demonstrators and shots had been fired. Two Britons had been kidnapped in the Gaza Strip. The consul general came on the line warning that the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, was about to make an inflammatory statement to the House. British Council Gaza was ablaze.

“Get them out,” Ken told a staff member quietly, and to us: “You’re leaving for the airport in five minutes.” In half an hour we had been transformed from delegates into evacuees: we were disoriented and shock-ed. With a sense of unreality I ran out into the sun, where an armoured Landcruiser was waiting under the lemon trees. Racing along the secure Israeli road to Tel Aviv, past hilltops crowned with the white towers of new settlements, our diplomatic plates exempted us from checkpoints and speed limits. At check-in I met a group of British Council contractors who had been in Jerusalem for two years. They had been given two hours to leave the country.

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The speed and scale of the evacuation hinted that the crisis had been, if not orchestrated, at least expected. The US and UK governments had delivered a letter warning of their dissatisfaction with the monitors’ security arrangements to Mahmoud Abbas on 8 March, though they insisted the withdrawal had not been planned, or co-ordinated with Israel. But the timing of the event – two days before Hamas was due to form a government, two weeks before critical Israeli elections – along with the Foreign Office minister Lord Triesman’s statement that the Palestinian Authority had “consistently failed to meet its obligations” to the monitors, was certainly stage-managed: this was a warning shot across Hamas’s bows.

The Palestinian territories can seem little more than a backdrop for the exchange of such political gestures. Most of the “cultural centres” we visited in the West Bank were western PR exercises dedicated to the agenda of whichever body – the Lutheran Church, the Danish government, the European Commission, Usaid – provided their copious funding. They were largely divorced from the needs of the Palestinians they were meant to serve: the multimillion-dollar Swedish Peace Centre in Bethlehem, for instance, is empty apart from an array of immaculate Ikea three-piece suites in blue and yellow.

Though less gratuitously wasteful, our visit existed in a similar space of plentiful foreign aid and well-intentioned rhetoric about “supporting civil society” and “creating Palestinian identity”. But the Jericho incident shows how fragile, and duplicitous, this space is. The minute the UK joined the US in withdrawing its monitors from Jericho, our expensive arts initiative was doomed.

We were on the first plane home, and the young Palestinian writers were largely back where they started: confined in the West Bank with unviable cultural aspirations and no western support. What one arm of government gives, via the British Council, another takes away.

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