LONDON // It was a quintessentially British scene: 40 or so adults and children out for a Sunday morning hike, chatting happily as they strode across the magnificent scenery of England's Peak District. Almost perversely, though, what brought this disparate group of people together on a recent summer's day was their mutual concern over the miseries being suffered by the Palestinian people.
The weekend walk was a fund-raising event organised by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, an organisation formed just over a quarter of a century ago. The stated aim of the group was, and still is, to counter what it calls Zionist propaganda by providing people in Britain with a better understanding of the fate of Palestinians in the occupied territories, in the diaspora and within Israel itself. It is not an easy task. The group has three full-time staff members working in a small office in central London and, apart from very limited funding from the trade unions, is financed entirely by donations.
But, according to Jenny Najar, 36, who became the group's first full-time director 18 months ago, progress is being made. "When I was a student, the word Palestinian was synonymous with terrorism," she said. "Now, there seems to be much more understanding in Britain of the situation of Palestinians. "People you meet are now interested in the historical wrongs that have been inflicted on Palestinians and the way they are being treated today by Israel. We still have a long way to go, but at least people are much more ready to listen to us these days."
Mrs Najar, who is English and owes her Arabic surname to a Palestinian she fell in love with and married after meeting him at a PSC rally, first became interested in the Palestinian territories as a theology student at university. She went on a backpacking trip to the Holy Land and found herself appalled at the treatment being meted out to locals in the occupied territories. Later, she went on to teach English in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and to work with an anti-land mine charity in Iraq.
"I survived a suicide bombing in Baghdad," she recalled, "so it makes me smile when people come up to me at demonstrations and accuse me of supporting suicide bombers. I tell them that that's the very last thing I support ? and for very good reason." The PSC has three basic goals - to support self-determination for Palestinians, though it advocates neither a one- nor two-state solution; to press for the end of the occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza; and to campaign for the right of return for Palestinians.
With about 3,000 members, the group also tries to highlight the plight of Palestinians spending their lives in the camps of Lebanon and of the way Palestinians in Israel are treated as second-class citizens. Formed 26 years ago, the group became almost moribund after the 1993 Oslo Accords appeared to provide the basis of a solution to one of the most intractable problems. "Oslo, of course, proved a false dawn," Mrs Najar said, "and the PSC and other groups realised that there was still an awful lot to be done after the second intifada in 2000.
"There have been setbacks: 9/11 did our cause no good at all, for instance. But similar groups to ourselves have been springing up, including Jewish organisations. We have a lot of contact with Jews for Justice for Palestinians, for example." PSC is now hoping to expand its activities, but is limited by a lack of funds. "Our immediate aim is to get a communications officer," Mrs Najar said. "Not only can we not cope with the volume of e-mails we receive, but we also need to be much more active in our press relations.
"It can be disheartening when you see the way the pro-Israeli media machine swings into action when anything happens. Our resources are so limited that we have no chance of matching it. "The bulldozer attack in Jerusalem last week, for instance, was dreadful, of course. But when something like that happens and three Israelis are killed, it gets front-page treatment. When three Palestinians are killed, it gets not a mention."
Things, though, are changing slowly. At least, as Mrs Najar accepted, the BBC mentioned at the end of its TV and radio reports on the bulldozer rampage that, so far this year, 29 Israelis had been killed as a result of Palestinian violence, whereas about 400 Palestinians had died because of Israeli attacks. Supporters of the PSC, which has about 40 autonomous chapters, know there is still some way to go. But every little helps - even if it means tramping across the hills of an English beauty spot on a summer's weekend.