Why should we be twinning now? The Gaza “disengagement” plan has offered very little to the Palestinians. Gaza itself is effectively an open air prison stringently controlled by Israel, with many of the old restrictions on the Palestinians still remaining. The ‘disengagement’ has been nothing but a smokescreen diverting attention away from the plans to consolidate and further occupation on the West Bank, as well as the extension of the apartheid wall. The wall was declared illegal last year by the International Court of Justice, but Israel has continued to flout international law by building a separation barrier which, far from separating Palestine from Israel, separates the Palestinians from Palestine. This ‘disengagement’ has been widely hailed as an unilateral step on the part of Israel, and offers nothing of substance to the Palestinians. It is, in the words of Sabby Sagall, Palestine Solidarity Campaign exec member, writing in a personal capacity, “a further nail in the coffin of a [viable] Palestinian state”. The current situation faced by the Palestinians under occupation means that our efforts at showing solidarity now should be doubled, and twinning is one of the primary ways of doing so.
Who should we be twining with? Three is a long tradition of British towns twinning with others around the world. Dundee twinned itself with Nablus in the West Bank over two decades ago, and the campaign to twin towns with Palestine is now stronger than ever before. Towns such as Oxford and Birmingham are campaigning to twin themselves with besieged Ramallah. Bristol aims to twin with with Bethlehem, Tower Hamlets with Jenin, and Camden with Abu Dis.
As students we can campaign to twin our universities with those in Palestine such as Al Quds or Bir Zeit. Bir Zeit University runs a highly commendable “Right 2 Education” campaign to defend the Palestinians’ right to an education, which is severely undermined by Israel building walls through Palestinian universities and otherwise preventing them from functioning, despite international condemnation. Even if we don’t succeed on the first attempt at twinning our university with one in Palestine, it would still give us a great opportunity to raise the issue of Palestine and make our case, highlighting the problems faced by students and staff alike in Palestinian universities under occupation.
If we do manage to twin our university with a Palestinian one, we should not stop there. Twinning should be more than a piece of paper and a headline. Whilst that may show Palestinians that the world is indeed listening, which in itself is very important, twinning can help the Palestinians in many other practical ways. Setting up a regular video link or other way of communicating with students at a Palestinian university would help to strengthen the connection. This would foster friendships and understanding, enabling people to see the impact of the occupation upon the day-to-day lives of students in Palestine. Setting up academic links between departments at UK and Palestinian universities can help foster the growth of higher education amongst an oppressed people, especially as many of these universities often require additional resources and help that British universities may be able to provide.
And of course, twinning activities doesn’t all have to be academic: there can be room for fun and play too! Madison in Wisconsin, America is a prime example. After twinning with Rafah in Gaza, the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project (MRSCP) organised the successful Playgrounds for Rafah campaign in partnership with Playgrounds for Palestine to rebuild a playground in Rafah that was destroyed by Israel in January 2004. This project enabled them “to create a new recreation area in Rafah where children living under military occupation can meet, play with friends, and simply enjoy being kids”. After completion of this project, MRSCP embarked on the Milk for Rafah campaign to raise funds to deliver milk packets and nutritional supplements to malnourished Palestinian children. Through projects such as these, we not only show our solidarity and help the Palestinians on a practical basis, but we also raise awareness of the problems suffered by Palestinians living under occupation.
Quite often forgotten are millions of Palestinian refugees who are denied their right of return, a basic human right demanded by UN resolution 194 and reaffirmed innumerable times. We should also look at twinning with Palestinian refugee camps such the Balata refugee camp. This can help develop human bonds with the Palestinian refugees as well as sending out a strong political statement.
A show of solidarity with the Palestinians through twinning is a great way forward, but in itself may not be enough. An integrated approach is needed, and twinning should ideally be part of a wider campaign such as divestments, boycotts and general awareness campaigns to highlight the suffering of the Palestinians each day. Thanks to the efforts of many, especially Sue Blackwell, a lecturer at the University of Birmingham, an “academic intifada” -- a boycott of Israeli universities that are complicit in the occupation -- was tabled last Easter. Despite it being sadly overturned, the efforts of this campaign sparked immense debate and raised awareness across the world on the Palestinian issue. Let’s hope we can repeat this success through twinning.