UK student officials visited illegal settlements during Israel trip

#Occupation

Geotagged social media posts show NUS officers visited Golan Heights and used settler roads during trip organised by Union of Jewish Students

Soldiers man the heavily militarised border in the Golan Heights which has been illegally occupied by Israel since 1967(AFP)
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Friday 27 January 2017 9:50 UTC
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Senior officials from the UK's National Union of Students were taken to illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied Golan Heights, as part of a trip organised by the pro-Israeli Union of Jewish Students (UJS). 

The trip, which took place earlier this month and just days after an Al Jazeera undercover investigation alleged links between the UJS and the Israeli embassy, has been condemned as "one-sided" by pro-Palestine student activists. 

NUS officials who attended the trip, which is organised by the UJS every year, included Shakira Martin, the NUS vice-president for further education; Fergal McFerran, the president of the NUS in Northern Ireland and the Union of Students of Ireland (NUS-USI); and Angela Alexander, the women's officer for NUS Scotland.

Updates posted on Facebook by Martin and McFerran showed that the group visited religious sites in east Jerusalem and Ramallah in the occupied West Bank during the trip.

Middle East Eye, however, is able to reveal that the three NUS officials also visited the illegal Israeli settlements of Kidmat Tzvi and Merom Golan in the occupied Golan Heights, territory captured by Israel from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War that is still internationally recognised as Syrian territory.

Both McFerran and Alexander posted Facebook statuses unrelated to the trip on 20 January which were geo-tagged to the settlements.

Despite writing about the trip in other posts on Facebook, McFerran subsequently deleted the post he wrote which geo-tagged his location as being in the settlement of Kidmat Tzvi. 

MEE tried to contact McFerran directly to ask why the post had been deleted but he did not respond. 

Alexander also posted a status unrelated to the trip that was geotagged to the settlement of Merom Golan.

The participants also appear to have travelled on settler roads, which Palestinians are banned from using, to visit parts of the occupied West Bank according to social media updates posted by the NUS officials.

A Facebook status posted by Martin was geotagged near the Mitzpe Yericho settlement deep inside the West Bank.



Screengrab from Shakira Martin's Facebook page

An NUS spokesperson confirmed to MEE that its officers were regularly invited on trips to Israel by the UJS.

In a statement, the NUS said: “The Union of Jewish Students organises regular trips to Israel on which NUS officers are often invited to attend. NUS officers are held accountable for their decisions in this regard by NUS’s national democratic structures.”

The UJS also confirmed to MEE that it took participants to Israeli settlements or "controversial areas" to present a variety of "views on who will hold sovereignty over these areas in any future agreement".

Before attending the trip, the three NUS officials wrote lengthy Facebook statuses publicly declaring their intention to visit Israel and parts of the occupied Palestinian territories with the UJS.

Alexander wrote that it would be "beneficial" to "experience the situation first hand" and that it was a "once in a lifetime opportunity".



Status written by NUS Woman's officer Angela Alexander (screenshot: FB)

Martin, who voted for the NUS to endorse the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel in 2014, wrote on Facebook that she intended to get a deeper "understanding of the longstanding issues between the Israelis and Palestinians".

"I want to ensure that I am completely transparent about going on this trip and I am willing and happy to answer any questions people may have," she said.

Backlash

The post prompted criticism online with some NUS members telling her that she had made a mistake and acted undemocratically after being elected on a pro-Palestine platform. Others said they respected her for undertaking the trip.

Rahman Mohammadi, a college student from London who started a petition against Martin, told MEE: "A lot of college and sixth form students are angry that Shakira decided to go on this trip which is biased and one-sided."

"This comes across as nothing more than a token gesture taken by Shakira to shore up support from the UJS for upcoming elections," said Mohammadi. 

Martin hit back at criticism of the trip by saying she would welcome a trip to the West Bank if invited to attend by a pro-Palestinian group.

MEE reached out repeatedly for comment to all three student officers both directly and via the NUS press office but none were prepared to discuss details of the trip.

The UJS told MEE that "it takes student leaders on trips to Israel and Palestine that engage with a range of perspectives on the conflict, and explores the impact of Israel-Palestine on Jewish students welfare and campus relations between students of many backgrounds".

A UJS spokesperson, said: "The itinerary and logistics are adapted to suit the current situation, topics of heightened interest, and security considerations."

They also added: "UJS rejects any insidious suggestion that our democratic, cross-communal and student-led union delivers work in pursuit of anything other than providing for and protecting Jewish students, or seeking to create cohesive campus communities which provide for and welcome everyone."

UJS has come under close scrutiny in the last few weeks after an Al Jazeera alleged it had close links to the Israeli embassy in London.

Josh Nagil, UJS's campaigns director, said in a statement that his organisation had a "productive working relationship with the Israeli embassy" but denied it was "funded or directed by the embassy".

The UJS told MEE that the student leaders' trip had not been funded by the Israeli government.

'Not beneficial'

Previous participants in UJS-organised trips to Israel told MEE that they were introduced to settlers involved in dialogue initiatives with Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank. 

Omar Raii, who attended a previous UJS trip and is a national executive councillor for the NUS, told MEE that it was "not beneficial or anything to meet a settler but I would happily meet one and tell them that I think they are on illegally occupied land".

Students associated with the Labour Students group, the youth wing of the British Labour Party, came under fire after accepting a trip to Israel by the Union of Jewish Students in 2012.

Former NUS vice president Joe Vinson defended the trip and admitted to the pro-Palestinian Electronic Intifada that the participants had no control of the agenda set by UJS.

Participants from the 2012 trip claimed to have been shown the Palestinian perspective and met notable dignitaries including former British prime minister Tony Blair and Israeli army spokesman Barak Raz.