I’d like to make a rather lengthy comment on Gaza that goes beyond the “It’s all very worrying” even-handedness adopted by most Western governments, and I’d like to invite you to a meeting organised by Broxtowe Labour Party to discuss my comments and alternative views. I’m not perfectly informed and am open to correction and argument.
Before I do that, I should probably say something about my background, since everyone who expresses an opinion on this is suspected of bad faith. I don’t have any connection to the Middle East; I’m neither Jewish nor Muslim (or indeed religious at all – I should like to believe in a kindly god, but have so far not managed it). My late mother was heavily involved in UNRRA, the relief organisation that helped survivors of the Nazi concentration camps and other refugees, and she felt very strongly about Jewish people needing a safe home. Partly in her memory, I joined the Parliamentary group Labour Friends of Israel, and indeed served on the executive.
Increasingly, however, I felt that the debate in Britain was oversimplified and unbalanced. Because Israel is a multi-party democracy with lots of highly-educated English-speakers, we tend to hear the Israeli side of issues more often. We tend to see other countries like football teams – we pick a side and indulgently back them. And over the years, we have broadly accepted, with mild regret, a situation where Israel is militarily dominant and Palestinians live in a mixture of occupied territories and the hellhole of Gaza, where 1.8 million people live in an area the size of the Isle of Wight, blockaded by Israel on one side and alternately exploited and obstructed by Egypt on the other. So I helped organise a new group, Labour Friends of Palestine, and spoke at its launch. As long as I was in Parliament, I was the only MP who was a member of both groups. It seemed to me that a decent future could only be imagined for both people through peaceful agreement, and there was no contradiction in being a friend of both. I hope, then, that readers will accept that I am neither anti-Semitic nor anti-Muslim.
For those who haven’t followed it closely, I’ll try to give a brief balanced overview. Israel is led by what I’d describe as militant nationalists; the occupied West Bank is run by the largely ineffective and partly corrupt Palestinian Authority; Gaza is run by the autocratic dictatorship of Hamas.
Throughout Israel’s history, they have felt threatened by their neighbours, often with good reason: indeed, Hamas’s constitution still calls for the end of Israel, and Hamas intermittently encourages or tolerates the firing of missiles over the border, which sometimes cause deaths and injuries. Hamas builds tunnels under the borders, partly to get military and other supplies in and partly to try to infiltrate Israel. In retaliation, Israel blocks the import of concrete, which impedes the building of tunnels but also impedes any civilian construction. Gaza has neither a port nor an airport and is totally dependent on what its neighbours allow in – enough to live on, but not enough to live a decent life and develop a better future.
The current operation is in retaliation against some missile attacks which caused several casualties near the border. UN estimates of the death toll from the operation are [source: Evening Standard]:
1,400 adult Palestinians, the majority civilians
Just under 400 Palestinian children
61 Israeli soldiers
3 Israeli civilians.
This is, in my view, so grossly disproportionate as to be an offence to humanity. It is, effectively, collective punishment of thousands of people in the already-suffering population of Gaza for their government allowing small border raids.
And for what? Do we suppose that the operation will encourage compromise and moderation? A glance at history shows the opposite: this is not the first Gazan operation, and as things stand it will not be the last. Is Hamas a dictatorial government? Yes. Do militants sometimes fire rockets from hospitals? Yes, Finnish TV has shown a case where they did. But should nearly 400 children be killed for living there? The Israeli operation is as though we had bombed Dublin or a Catholic province in Northern Ireland every time there was an IRA attack – a response so crazily disproportionate that it was never even considered.
Moderate Muslims are driven into utter despair. A friend in Bramcote writes:
“I remember the time when Jews in this country supported us against the extreme right-wing elements because many of them had arrived here 20 to 30 years before us. We knew the Jew was always on our side! I remember the time when hearing some person’s name as Abraham or David or Solomon was a note of familiarity for us in this strange land, that these people are like us Muslims.
“What has happened to us on both sides and why is it out of control? My religion requires me to stand outside a synagogue and stop attacks upon it and defend the right of Jews to enter it freely to worship. Maybe if we did that, it would shame the Israeli government.”
A constituent in Nuthall writes:
“It breaks my heart each time I hear of the loss of life in particular of
innocent women and children. How can children playing on the beach and in public parks, and women and children sheltering in UN administered / controlled schools (the closest thing to a safe haven) and patients in recognised hospitals (in many cases already fighting for lives) face consequences of death due to the overwhelming, disproportionate and in many apparent cases indiscriminate use of force by an occupying power?
“If this current and previous one sided wars and the permanent military occupation, imprisonment and human rights violations of an occupied land and it’s people isn’t seen to be inhumane and unjust in the eyes of the so called civilised world then in my opinion there is no hope left for the oppressed people of this world wherever they may be.”
I think they’re correct. And that brings us to Britain and the other Western countries. First, consider that we are making money out of all this. We are long-standing major arms suppliers to Israel; the United States is specifically resupplying Israel for weaponry used in the offensive. A conflict is good business for us. Faced with the slaughter, Mr Cameron has said he will “review” the arms export licences. What does he want to review? Arms exports to Israel should halt immediately and should not be resumed as long as they are used for this type of operation.
Second, our ostentatious neutrality is an insult to the intelligence of everyone concerned. Certainly Israel is a longstanding friend of the West, but if a friend goes berserk it’s our duty to restrain him, not indulge him. Moreover, we are not really neutral at all – we don’t sell arms to Gaza – nor should we – and we rarely attempt a serious dialogue with the Palestinian side.
Is it any business of ours? Yes. It’s a small world, and if we openly tolerate and assist abuses by our supposed allies we are deeply implicated. The European Union has refused to deepen trade links with Israel in view of all this; it should go further and start to reduce them until the policy changes. The Israeli government believes that the West is not really going to do anything except express mild concern and a wish that “both sides sit together”. Of course we hope for a peaceful dialogue, but one of the cornerstones of that is to oppose extremism in all its forms.
And we could play a very different role. Our experience in Northern Ireland has taught us a great deal about resolving conflicts. Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness had no doubts about each others’ backgrounds, but with British mediation, cajoling and assistance we eventually brought the conflict of centuries to an end (in my opinion the most important achievement of the last 20 years of British government). Did it mean not prosecuting some extremists? Are there still some nutters trying to cause trouble? Sure. But visit Belfast and you’ll see a community largely at peace.
Gaza, in my view, needs United Nations protection, of the same kind that has kept the peace in Cyprus for two generations. It needs to be allowed peaceful reconstruction and – as in Cyprus – protection by a buffer force against invasion; in return, Israel can reasonably ask that it is not used as a base for attacks. And instead of adopting a pose of detached mock-neutrality, we should work actively to promote the two-state solution that most reasonable politicians on all sides has supported for the last 40 years. Will it be easy? Hell, no. Was the Northern Ireland peace process easy? But is that a reason to sit back and watch, like spectators at a murderous football game.
If I’m elected back to Parliament next year, I hope to promote these arguments, and will rejoin the Parliamentary Labour Friends of Palestine parliamentary group that I helped to found. Until the Israeli government changes, I don’t, sadly, feel able to rejoin its Israeli counterpart.
Our MP appears to suggest in her latest blog that saying that we should criticise the invasion is to play party politics. I think this is a superficial view, but she is welcome to the meeting to put her viewpoint, and I hope she will be heard with respect if she comes. The same applies to you, however right or wrong you may think my comments. It will be held in Sunday August 17 at 7pm (I am away on business in Asia from tomorrow until the 16th), and I’ll post details nearer the time. We shall take a collection to cover the cost of organising it and any surplus will go to the Red Cross and Red Crescent (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Red_Cross_and_Red_Crescent_Movement). No money will go to help any political party’s campaigns and you are welcome whatever your views, as long as you express them peacefully.