UK towns to twin with Palestine in show of support

A network of friendship associations will meet on Saturday to discuss new ways of helping Palestinians

Al Mawasi, in southern Gaza, and Hastings, on England's south coast, have formed a friendship. Getty Images
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New twinning and friendship initiatives between British and Palestinian cities are expected to be formed, as awareness of the Palestinian issue becomes more widely discussed in the UK.

Dozens of groups currently exist across the UK, twinning cities like Glasgow with Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, and forming friendships between towns like Hastings, on England's south coast, and Al Mawasi in southern Gaza.

An annual conference, organised by the Britain and Palestine Twinning and Friendship Network will bring together these groups that have been forming since the 1980s – and encourage the creation of new ones.

Organisers expect fresh interest in twinning British cities this year, as the ongoing war and humanitarian crisis in Gaza gives the Palestinian issue new momentum.

“The war brings Palestine back to the forefront of the political and social agenda here in the UK. It’s a side effect of a very tragic situation,” said Sir Vincent Fean, a retired British diplomat and a patron of the network.

“A lot more people are curious about the culture of Palestine and how to offer more tangible support in a time of need.

“At a time when Palestinians feel they’re the centre of attention, is their voice being heard? These groups offer support and a platform for Palestinian reality to be shared,” said Mr Fean.

Twinned cities often have university and educational exchanges, while friendship groups are more informal, hosting cake sales and coffee mornings to fundraise for their Palestinian counterparts. Palestinians regularly update their friends through group Zoom calls.

“It’s localised and it’s small, but it informs the other activities of people who want to march, or who want to support other groups,” Mr Fean said.

“The network itself is not remarkably political. It's about friendship, about getting to know each other. But the people who are involved in the UK, they have their own voice, their own MP and their own lobbying ability,” he said.

Karen Howell, a former nurse a co-chairwoman of the network, said the event on Saturday will be thinking ahead about healthcare initiatives that would benefit Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank in the long term.

The situations in Gaza and the West Bank had “made it more difficult for a lot of our groups, things are under far more tension”, she said.

Groups will also discuss how best to debate or talk about the war in public events – owing to the sensitive nature of the topic in the UK. “Language has become so important. It’s about making sure one is correct in what you’re saying,” Ms Howell said.

“But also, to not be dissuaded by the language or rhetoric that exists, that Palestinians are second class citizens,” she added.

Speakers at the event will include Dr Sameer Shah, of UK charity Medical Aid for Palestinians, ambassador Dr Husam Zomlot of the Palestinian Mission to the UK, and Baptist minister Helen Paynter, of the Centre for the Study of the Bible and Violence.

Every year, students from the An-Najah National University in Nablus are invited to study at the University of Dundee as part of a scholarship programme.

The cities of Dundee and Nablus were the first to establish a twinning network in 1980, after the mayor of Nablus lost his leg in a car bomb and went to Dundee for treatment.

A member-led association works to promote the twinning at the community level, organising events in local venues and schools.

Mike Whitehead, the association’s treasurer, said the months after October 7 had them put more focus on their campaigns. “It’s been keeping us busy, we’re trying to tell people what is going on in the West Bank,” he said.

The group has been raising money to support student nurses and midwives at Najah, and have sent immediate help to NGOs supporting families affected by the sweeping Israeli restrictions on the West Bank’s economy since October 7.

The association’s visits to Nablus for locals from Dundee had been paused, owing to the latest foreign office guidance which advises against all travel to the West Bank.

The Scottish Trades Union Congress, taking place this week in Dundee, praised the twinning as a Palestinian flag flew from the city’s Caird Hall.

The University of Glasgow organises medical teaching visits and nursing courses with the Bethlehem University, as the cities are twinned.

One more recent trip was six Palestinians from Tubas in the West Bank, who came to meet their counterparts in Bradford on Avon, in south-west England, in February.

The delegation included Mayor of Tubas Husam Daraghmeh, who met the mayor of Bradford on Avon, at a reception in the town hall.

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They were invited to speak at a local secondary school about life in the West Bank, and the challenges they endured on their journey to the UK.

Sana Al Omary, a women’s football coach from Tubas, was invited to play with the Easton Cowgirls, a local women’s football team that has been to Palestine.

Friendship groups with Gaza have been more difficult to establish, Mr Fean explained, owing to Israel’s blockade.

In Hastings, members of the friendship group with Al Mawasi – which saw an influx of refugees after it was designated a safe zone – have been able send money directly to Palestinian members there to procure tents.

Looking back on her involvement with the Stafford and Beit Liqya friendship group, Ms Howell said that local residents were often drawn into the network through exhibits on Palestinian culture, such as embroidery or food.

One of the most memorable projects she has been involved in was bringing olive oil from the West Bank to the UK during the pandemic – when unsold olive oil risked being thrown away.

“We sell it locally. People go mad for it. It’s generated interest from people who wouldn’t normally be aware or show that level of interest,” she said.

Updated: April 19, 2024, 3:31 PM