Wednesday August 16, 2006
In 1985, after completing a tropical nursing course, and galvanised by my earlier travelling experiences in the occupied West Bank, I found the London office of Medical Aid for Palestinians and Dr Swee Chai Ang, a surgeon who had survived the massacre of Sabra and Shatila. Her commitment to the Palestinian cause, along with that of Major Derek Cooper and his late wife Pamela, was inspirational. Her bravery in travelling to Israel to testify against Ariel Sharon for complicity in the Sabra and Shatila massacres was breathtaking.
The Palestinian medical staff in Beirut were again being slaughtered in 1985 and 1986. They were dragged - along with their patients - from the hospital, which was on the edges of the Sabra and Shatila camps, and shot by militiamen.
Health volunteers were required, and I ended up in Bourj al-Barajneh camp in Beirut. The Palestinian refugee population there had arrived from all over Palestine in 1948, mainly from the Galilee. They had left everything behind, locked their front doors, and moved over the border to wait for the fighting to end so they could return to their homes. They still haven't been able to. Tents were replaced by corrugated tin shelters in which babies died sometimes of the heat and sometimes of the cold. Six weeks after I arrived, the war of the camps restarted, and I stayed for six months in the besieged camp.
In recent weeks many of my friends from those Beirut days have been in Ain el-Helweh camp in Sidon, or have moved from Tyre to Beirut, from east Beirut to west Beirut, or from Bourj al-Barajneh to Sidon and back again, under aerial bombardment from Israel, hosting Lebanese refugees in the Palestinian refugee camps. The Lebanese people I met in the south of the country have been on our television screens, displaced or dead. The same destruction and despair has been revisited upon my friends, both Palestinian and Lebanese. All have been targets of massive military attacks in civilian areas. Bombarded for existing, bombarded for daring to show defiance to bigger global plans for them.
For me this is a moment for action, and for making whatever gestures we can here in Britain to show our solidarity with the Lebanese and Palestinian people, who have been under siege both in Lebanon and Gaza.
On returning from Beirut after the siege of the refugee camps - having been saved from assassination on leaving the camps by the efforts of Canadian, Irish and Greek envoys - we international medical volunteers were given numerous awards. Our Palestinian and Lebanese counterparts received nothing. Their bravery and steadfastness went unnoticed. I was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire for services to the Palestinian people - a people who live still under occupation and in refugee camps in exile, as UN resolutions that would solve their plight are ignored.
I accepted my MBE on behalf of all my unsung Palestinian and Lebanese colleagues and comrades. I have now returned it, also in their name. It is an utter disgrace that the British prime minister refused to press for a ceasefire, remained on holiday while these war crimes were being carried out and that parliament has not been recalled. It is a disgrace that the US ambassador to the UN described a call for a three-day truce to assist in humanitarian relief and evacuation of the wounded as "unhelpful". It is a disgrace that this government ignored the concerns of the electorate and all other forms of lawful protest. I have therefore come to the conclusion that to continue to hold on to my MBE, for which I was nominated by the parliamentary Labour party, is also a disgrace.
I have returned my MBE to St James Palace, with regret, in protest at the government's complicity in the prosecution of illegal wars and occupations. And I am returning it, above all, in the hope that this small gesture will add to the swell of support for action for the people of Lebanon and Palestine, and to those who wish to see peace in Israel and other nations.
I would urge others who also hold honours, and who feel the same powerlessness in the face of Tony Blair's foreign policy, to do as I am doing. In the history of quiet British protest, the return of honours has always had its place. And so it should now, in the name of the Lebanese and Palestinian people.