There are two sides to every story

Noel Ferguson's tour group is introduced to Australian Ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma (second from left), in Tel Aviv. Photo supplied
Noel Ferguson's tour group is introduced to Australian Ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma (second from left), in Tel Aviv. Photo supplied
Noel Ferguson meets Jack Tabash, a Christian Palestinian man who runs a shop near Bethlehem. Photo supplied

Noel Ferguson meets Jack Tabash, a Christian Palestinian man who runs a shop near Bethlehem. Photo supplied

NOEL Ferguson believes the real victims in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are not being properly heard.

After holding a long-term interest in the conflict, Noel wanted to see the affects first-hand.

The Merchant of Welby antique dealer recently returned from a study tour of Palestinian camps in Lebanon and The West Bank.

The two-week trip proved to be an eye-opener and Noel formed the opinion the conflict had been often misrepresented by the media.

"I believe the conflict between Israel and Palestine has been pivotal (because) it affects so many issues around the world," he said.

"It always bothered me that in the Australian media, we only get the Israeli perspective. I wanted to find out more, see more for myself, to see what the Palestinians had to say."

The idea for a trip became a reality after Noel spoke to Bowral resident Maree Byrne and Dr Helen McCue, following the screening of 5 Broken Cameras at the Empire Cinema last year.

Maree had taken part in a previous study tour while Helen had worked with Palestinian residents for nearly 30 years.

Noel contacted Lisa Arnold from the Australian Palestine Advocacy Network (APAN), who had organised a study tour for early 2014.

Before he left, Noel said he was surprised by the response of friends and family.

"Many said goodbye as if they expected to not see me again - there was a widespread perception of danger," he said

Noel was joined by 10 other people and the group included two politicians, one Liberal and one Labor, a couple of doctors and an 85-year-old Jewish woman from Sydney.

First stop was the Bourj Al-Barajneh camp in Beirut, Lebanon, which was roughly the size of Chevalier College and housed 35,000 people.

Noel was shocked to see the appalling living conditions with some of the stateless residents who had been there since 1948.

The group then flew to Amman in neighbouring Jordan, and encountered its first trouble while taking a bus trip to Jerusalem, West Bank.

Some members were detained and interrogated at the Allenby Bridge checkpoint, which Noel said was heavily controlled by the Israeli Defence Force.

"I was let through very quickly, probably because of my Anglo-Saxon name and appearance, while four members of our group were detained for hours of questioning," Noel said.

While waiting for the situation to defuse, he was approached by a Palestinian woman who asked him to help her find her lost luggage.

When they couldn't find it, Noel asked a young Israeli official for help, and was shocked when the official ordered him to leave the woman.

"I was stunned - I was simply trying to help - I wasn't doing anything out of the ordinary and neither was she.

"It was my first strong insight into how Israelis treat Palestinians there. It took us eight hours to get through that checkpoint."

The group's interpreter was refused entry into the West Bank at the Allenby Bridge checkpoint.

Noel visited some of Palestine's most significant towns in the West Bank, including Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

He met fascinating people from all kinds of backgrounds who had been affected by the conflict.

At Anata near Jerusalem, Noel met Salim Shawamreh, whose house had been demolished five times by Israeli authorities.

"Last week, he received news 15-year-old nephew Yusuf Abu-Akar Shawamreh was shot dead by Israeli soldiers in March," Noel said.

"That really shocked me, brought it home to me... the Israeli forces deal very violently with young Palestinians.

"The recent Four Corners program showing how harshly the Israelis treat Palestinian youth was not a surprise to me."

The group met Omar Barghouti, founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in Ramullah.

"Israel has been winning the propaganda battle hands down with regard to the West Bank and Gaza," Noel said.

"The BDS movement encourages economic and political measures in an attempt to comply with international law. BDS is one movement that has worried them."

In Bethlehem, Noel met Jack Tabash, a 75-year-old Christian Palestinian man who ran a shop near the town square.

He gave an insight into the Israeli West Bank Barrier, which made it difficult to visit his friends and relatives in Jerusalem 10km away.

The separation wall is patrolled by Israeli soldiers and features numerous security checkpoints.

Noel said the wall provided huge problems for Palestinian residents.

"There are many hundreds of checkpoints in the West Bank that daily affect Palestinians, making it difficult for them to visit their friends, go to work and live their lives," he said.

"For us, it was an inconvenience, but we were only there for two weeks and don't have to live with it."

Noel said Palestinians and Israeli settlers were treated very differently, in areas such as water restrictions, movement restrictions, forced evacuations and house demolitions.

"It's a system of apartheid - not the same as was in South Africa, but apartheid nevertheless," he said.

"I once wondered if that was an extreme description of what's happening, but after having been there, I have no doubt that's what it was."

Noel said the only time he felt in danger was in the presence of Israeli soldiers.

"The Palestinians are aware of the distorted picture of the conflict in the West," he said.

"The general response from Palestinians, who were remarkably friendly wherever we went, was 'we're not asking anything from you, except that you go back and tell our story'.

"The situation for Palestine is bad, so obviously bad. You go there and can't help but be touched by their suffering.

"I would like to share a little more of what I've seen and I encourage people to see for themselves."

Learn more

A MEETING to discuss the struggles of Palestinian people will be held in Bowral on Thursday, April 10.

Guest speaker will be French/Jewish activist Olivia Zemor at 7pm at the East Bowral Community Centre.

The event is being hosted by the Southern Highlands Palestinian Support Group.

Ms Zemor has been working with other activists on the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions program to raise awareness about the denial of rights and justice to Palestinians.

She has pushed for the need to impose sanctions on Israel in order to compel it to respect international law, group member Helen McCue said.

Admission for the April 10 meeting is free and refreshments will be provided.

Ms Zemor's Australian tour has been organised by the Australian Friends of Palestine Association.