JALAZONE CAMP, West Bank (Reuters) - Prince William paid the first official British royal visit to the Palestinian Territories on Wednesday, touring a refugee camp and telling Palestinians “you have not been forgotten.”
It was one of the most politically sensitive visits yet undertaken by the prince, on a day which took him from the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv to the hilltop offices of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the occupied West Bank.
William, who is second in line to the throne, received red-carpet treatment as he inspected an honour guard at the Muqata, Abbas’s headquarters.
“My sentiments are the same as yours in hoping that there is a lasting peace in the region,” the prince told Abbas.
Later, at a speech at the residence of the British Consul-General in Jerusalem, he told a gathering of Palestinian civil society, business and religious leaders:
“My message tonight is that you have not been forgotten. It has been a very powerful experience to meet you and other Palestinians living in the West Bank, and to hear your stories.”
He added: “I hope that through my being here and understanding the challenges you face, the links of friendship and mutual respect between the Palestinian and British people will grow stronger.”
After his meeting with Abbas, the prince drove to Jalazone refugee camp to visit a health centre and a school, both run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).
More than 9,000 Palestinian refugees live in Jalazone, a crowded cluster of cinderblock and concrete buildings that borders a large Israeli settlement.
Security was tight along the route, with armed Palestinian security men along the road, and standing on rooftops.
A sign banning weapons - a picture of a Kalashnikov assault rifle with a red line through it - was prominently displayed on the door of the clinic, and the cries of babies echoed through its corridors.
The prince watched as babies received checkups and vaccinations. “Is this your first child,” he asked Suhair Moussa, a camp resident holding her one-month-old daughter, Naifa. Upon hearing that the child was her fifth, he said, “So you are well used to this now.”
The mood inside the clinic was upbeat, and the prince was cheered and applauded as he left. But one Palestinian outside the clinic voiced anger at the legacy of Britain’s colonial-era involvement in the Holy Land, which ended in 1948.
He cited the 1917 Balfour Declaration, in which the then British government expressed its support for “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.
This year Israelis celebrated the 70th anniversary of their Independence Day, but Palestinians lamented what they call the the Nakba, or “Catastrophe”, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were driven from their homes or fled the violence that culminated in war between newly created Israel and its Arab neighbours in May 1948.
Nasser Migdad, 44, a refugee who was born in Jalazone, said that if he had a chance to meet the prince, “I would tell him that you are responsible for the Palestinian Nakba. Through the Balfour Declaration you brought the Jews to us.”
The prince encountered no such negative sentiments at his next engagement, a meeting with pupils at an UNRWA girls school in the camp.
They sat in a semicircle around the prince, who asked questions through a translator as men in suits with earpieces stood on the roof of the school, keeping watch.
Layan Wissam, 14, said she was happy the prince visited, “because he used his time to sit with us and listen to us. We sat with an important figure.”
Rahaf Ziyad, 15, said they told him “about the challenges that we face in our education” and that he asked what could be done to help.
“We said that the things that he could do to help were to expand the school. Our classrooms are small, and the number of students is big. Also to build a garden and call it after his mother, Princess Diana. He liked the idea,” she said.
Scott Anderson, director of UNRWA operations in the West Bank, said that Jalazone was an “emblematic” camp, situated next to a settlement and with much higher unemployment inside than outside.
“It was a good opportunity to show the prince some of the challenges and opportunities that exist in a refugee camp,” he said.
After the camp, William went to the centre of Ramallah where he watched a Palestinian dance troupe and listened to a young man sing a song “Ya Watani” - “Oh My Homeland” - made popular by the Lebanese singer Fairouz, later saying that the singing and dancing “were by turns beautiful, moving and joyful.”
He also tasted traditional local dishes such as falafel, shwarma and kanafeh and kicked a football with local boys and girls, receiving soccer shirts bearing the names of his children.
Until now it had been British policy not to make an official royal visit to Israel and the occupied territories until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was resolved.
Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians collapsed in 2014 and the divide between the two sides has widened in the years since amid bouts of violence.
Palestinians want East Jerusalem, captured by Israel along with the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 Middle East war, as the capital of an independent state they seek to establish in the two territories.
In his public remarks at the meeting with William, Abbas said: “The Palestinian side is committed to the peace process with the Israelis, so both states could live peacefully together within the borders of 1967.”
The West Bank, where Palestinians have limited self-rule, has been largely quiet in recent months, in contrast to surges of fighting along Israel’s frontier with Gaza, an enclave ruled by Abbas’s main Palestinian rival, the Hamas Islamist group.
Before his motorcade crossed into the West Bank, William strolled along a trendy Tel Aviv boulevard with Israeli Eurovision song contest winner Netta Barzilai to the delight of cheering onlookers.
But there was no “chicken-dance”, Barzilai’s signature move performed as part of her women’s empowerment hit “I’m Not Your Toy” during the 2018 song-fest.
William’s four-day tour, which ends on Thursday with a visit to holy sites, also marks the first time a member of the British royal family has paid an official visit to Israel.
Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Dan Williams in Tel AvivWriting by Jeffrey HellerEditing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Raissa Kasolowsky