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Saturday, 20 December 2014

I love the BBC, but...

I am passionately pro-BBC (and the licence fee) and I am not a party to the cheesy cynicism of those right-wing campaigners who are convinced that the corporation is endemically anti-Israel. It isn't. Nor is it improperly pro-Israel, as alleged by some of the sillier elements on the pro-Palestinian left.

But when I see the headline "Israel launches Gaza air strike", I despair - because the story actually begins: "Israeli aircraft have bombed a site in Gaza, in the first such action since the declaration of a truce in August. The air strike was carried out on a Hamas facility in response to a rocket fired earlier from Gaza, a statement from the Israeli military said."

This is on the digital teletext on the red button on BBC TV, and as I used to actually write news stories for the teletext on the BBC World channel, I can say that I would have headlined the story "Israeli air strike follows Gaza rocket fire" and would have written:

"Israeli aircraft have bombed an alleged Hamas facility in Gaza in response to a missile reportedly fired into Israel earlier from Gaza, a statement from the Israeli military said. This is the first such exchange of fire between Hamas and Israel to be reported since the declaration of a truce in August."

My version makes it clear that the Israelis are claiming that Hamas acted and Israel reacted; the BBC's version reports that the Israelis acted and points out that it was the first such Israeli action since the truce started - without explicitly saying that it was a Hamas missile that appears to have triggered this latest chain of events, and allowing the reader to infer that Israel started this latest escalation of hostilities, when the reality is that if Hamas had not fired its missile, then none of this would have happened today and you wouldn't be reading this post now, as I would never have written it.

In terms of news, the BBC seems to think that the story is: "Why has Israel bombed a site in Gaza?"; I would argue that the story actually is: "What is Hamas hoping to gain by firing missiles at Israel again in the middle of a truce - and what will the Israeli response be?"

Some explanations for how and why various news organisations can get the Israel story wrong were offered in this very interesting piece here: http://m.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/11/how-the-media-makes-the-israel-story/383262/

Friday, 31 October 2014

A hopeful Lib Dem speech on Israel/Palestine

Pleased as I am to see a de-escalation of tensions in Jerusalem (and I thought that Judaism itself prohibited religious Jews from entering the Temple Mount until after the fulfillment of their prophecy that the Messiah has come?), I was also pleased to see a great speech by Lord (Monroe) Palmer in yesterday's House of Lords debate on the Middle East and North Africa. I have rarely seen a better Liberal Democrat re-statement of the pro-Israeli, pro-peace argument. You can watch the speech here and read it here; I was struck in particular by:
Another fact that is completely overlooked is the amount of aid and goods of different types that Israel pumps into Gaza, as well as the amount of aid and goods that Israel allows others to pump in...What makes me despair is the absence of reporting in the media on the support that Israel has consistently given to the people of Gaza. Some formidable forces are lobbying against Israel in the British public arena. It is perhaps the unrelenting campaigns of such formidable forces that drown out the truth about what Israel is doing to help Gaza, even during hostilities.
I would like to give some examples. On 25 August this year, in the middle of a war in which a bombardment of Hamas missiles was forcing many thousands of Israeli men, women and children to run for cover whenever an air raid siren sounded - even in the middle of such a bombardment - 111 trucks entered Gaza through the Kerem Shalom crossing from Israel carrying 2,190 tonnes of food. On that same day, three trucks entered Gaza through the same crossing from Israel, carrying 8 tonnes of humanitarian supplies. 
On 24 August, one day earlier, three Israeli taxi drivers were waiting to pick up some residents of Gaza to bring them into hospital in Israel from Gaza through the Erez crossing. And what happened? Mortar shells fired by Palestinian groups wounded the taxi drivers, with two of them being seriously hurt. Israeli soldiers had to evacuate the wounded under Palestinian fire, as Palestinian mortars continued to fall on the Israeli crossing specifically designated for the passage of Palestinians in need of medical and humanitarian assistance. These three Israeli taxi drivers, who were doing their job taking sick people to hospital, were not Jewish, but Arab citizens of Israel - Israeli Arabs being bombed by Palestinian terrorists while attempting to take Palestinians to hospital in Israel.
To paraphrase Tom Lehrer's reaction to the news that Henry Kissinger had won the Nobel Peace Prize, the world is now so satirical that it is impossible to satirise it any more. 

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Don't lump "Oxbridge" in with fee-paying schools

Re:- Alan Milburn's report on social mobility (http://m.bbc.co.uk/news/education-28953881;) can we please not lump "Oxbridge" in with fee-paying schools? Private schools are institutions at which parents buy places for their offspring; Oxford and Cambridge aren't. I have blogged on this previously at http://m.huffpost.com/uk/entry/894432 and http://matthewfharris.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/ending-futures-market-in-education.html.

Oh, and if only 24% of MPs went to Oxbridge, then I have to say that that means that not enough of the UK's most academically able graduates are going into politics and that is a problem; I'd like to see comparable figures for other good universities and a report on how to persuade more of the brightest and the best to consider a career in politics. And I'd seriously like to know what percentage of MPs tried for Oxbridge, but didn't get in...

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

My Minute of Rage for Gaza and Israel

Israel's opponents regularly proclaim a Day of Rage against Israel. I am on the Tube to work and (even allowing for possible delays on the Northern Line), I therefore don't have day today to devote to rage. I only have a minute.

So, with even The Guardian (hardly a pro-Israeli newspaper) having reported yesterday (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/19/israel-launches-air-strikes-gaza-ceasefire) that: "The temporary ceasefire between Israel and Hamas was in jeopardy on Tuesday after rockets were fired from Gaza, triggering a swift military and political response from Israel", that clear, and simple reality (that, in the middle of a ceasefire - in the middle, indeed of actual peace talks - Hamas had started firing missiles at people living in Israel, prompting Israel to respond by firing back, as what country wouldn't) had been lost by yesterday evening (http://m.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-28857012) and even further lost by this morning (http://m.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-28862595).

We are now, already, back to "as hostilities resumed, both sides blamed the other", with parts of the media sounding like a parent saying to two children: "I don't care who started it. Just both stop it at once. And Israel, even if Hamas DID hit you, there was no need for you to hit him back so hard, especially as you're his big brother and you know you're stronger than him."

This idea that it doesn't matter who started a conflict and that doubtless both sides are to blame, with a lot of right and wrong on both sides, is well-intentioned but can be nonsense. I posted a piece by someone else saying Don't Take Sides a few weeks ago and an eminent Lib Dem colleague, one with great experience of conflict-resolution, gently pointed out that, sometimes, it actually is necessary to take sides in a conflict, on occasions when one side is clearly in the right and the other is clearly in the wrong. He was right. It is when people on each side genuinely seek peace from the perspective of their side that both sides can actually make peace.

There are three approaches that don't help. One is to say: "You're both right." Another is to say: "You're both wrong." A third is to say to one side: "You are completely wrong and the other is completely right and I condemn you."

Surely the better approach is to say to the two sides: "You have competing claims. You each accuse the other of perpetrating injustices, and some of those accusations are justified. It is possible that one of you has a bigger grievance than the other, and commentators disagree as to which of you that is. One side might claim that its arguments do not get a fair hearing and that the world is biased against it. The only way for you to resolve your competing claims is for you to find some way to negotiate an agreement based each side getting some of the things that matter most to it, with painful compromises from both sides."
That is not the same as refusing to take sides and the politics of "I don't care who started it - just both stop." I DO care who started it. The venting of anger about who started it is part of the process of encouraging the parties to make peace. So, returning to my Minute of Rage, why - why - did Hamas end the ceasefire by firing missiles at Israel? Given that Hamas knew what the Israeli response to be, why did they do it? Was it because they see a continuation of the war as being likely to bring them greater prizes than were available under the terms of the deal that was being agreed at the talks? Having started this new phase of the conflict by firing missiles at people living in Israel, Hamas bears responsibility for the deaths of anyone killed in the consequent Israeli response.

In firing its missiles, Hamas is aiming to kill as many people in Israel as possible; the fact that the missiles rarely hurt or kill anyone (partly because of good missile-defence and air-raid shelters) is beside the point. In firing its missiles and so inviting a defensive response from Israel, Hamas knows that it is prompting the deaths of so many Palestinian civilians, and that is an absolute tragedy - and it is a tragedy that, in my Minute of Rage, I lay at the door of Hamas.

I rage also at the fact that thousands if not millions of people living in Israel (including members of my own family) are now again hearing sirens and running for shelter. I've been receiving emails from people in Israel who cannot stray far from the house when out walking for fear of not being close to an air-raid shelter when a Hamas bomb falls. Thousands, if not millions, of people are living through this in Israel. Try sparing them a thought when you see pictures of the Palestinian people killed and wounded in Israel's response to the missiles fired by Hamas. And yes of course I call for Israel to continue to do what it can to minimise civilian casualties - Israel, unlike Hamas, is not deliberately aiming to kill civilians when it fires.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel - a great statement on Gaza

As a committee member of Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel (LDFI), I strongly endorse this new statement on the current situation in Israel and Gaza, on LDFI's website:
In light of the events of the past month in Israel and in Gaza, the Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel (LDFI) believe that it is important to outline our views. It should be borne in mind that LDFI is not a Jewish organisation. It is what its title says: Liberal Democrats who are friends of the State of Israel. Our membership includes people of all faiths and of none.
LDFI does not subscribe to or uncritically support the policies of every Israeli government, particularly not one led by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, whose values are quite different from that of the Liberal Democrats. We remain absolutely committed to the State of Israel and her right to live within secure borders and to supporting peace in the region. We believe that this can and will be achieved by negotiation, on the basis of an imaginative two-state solution that will benefit Palestinians and Israelis alike.
LDFI condemns Hamas as the terrorist group it is recognised to be internationally. Hamas is committed to the destruction of Israel in both word and deed, and its refusal to accept Israel’s statehood is an integral obstruction to peace. Attacks on Israel by means of both the terror tunnels and the unceasing, indiscriminate missile bombardment are without question intolerable and unacceptable, and have been rightly countered.
The level of casualties in Gaza and beyond is a human tragedy. Hamas’ policy of using the Gazan people as human shields to protect their arms caches around hospitals, schools, densely populated neighbourhoods must be understood and recognised in the UK and internationally. As Nick Clegg, has written, “[Hamas] has shown it is willing to sacrifice its own people for military advantage.” As such, Hamas must bear a heavy responsibility for the tragically high death toll in Gaza to date.
Following the absolute confirmation that Israel will cease all military responses as long as missile fire does not recommence, we call on the UK and international community to bring pressure to bear on Hamas to cease their missile fire indefinitely. This will give way to a period of calm which will allow pause for reflection on all sides. Further aggression and provocation from Hamas will not allow negotiations, led by Egypt, to conclude towards an enduring ceasefire.
What is clear is that any continuation of the situation of the past month will not deliver the Liberal Democrat dual aspiration of removal of the existential threat to Israel’s security and the creation of a viable Palestinian state. Furthermore, we call on Israel to demonstrate continued restraint in any targeting of terrorist targets in Gaza. Civilian causalities in Gaza are not just a tragedy but also give Israel’s enemies at home and abroad both political and public relations ammunition to espouse a worrying anti-Zionist and sometimes actually anti-Semitic rhetoric which LDFI finds as deplorable a consequence as the prospect of further hostilities.
The statement has been backed by a letter in The Guardian by a number of senior Liberal Democrats:
 As Liberal Democrats, we are totally committed to the state of Israel being able to live within secure borders, and wish to see the removal of the existential threat to Israel’s security by an internationally recognised terrorist group, and the creation of a viable Palestinian state.
As recorded by the UN and captured by various international media sources, Hamas’s policy of using human shields to protect its arms caches in hospitals, schools and densely populated neighbourhoods must be understood as the principal factor behind the number of Gazan civilian deaths, and condemned as such. 
Hamas’s commitment to the destruction of Israel and its refusal to recognise Israel’s right to exist is a huge obstacle to peace.
We hereby ask that the UK government and the international community call on Hamas to maintain the cessation of rocket fire beyond this current ceasefire. Israel has shown it is committed to a ceasefire subject to an end to the rocket fire; it is now incumbent on Hamas to do the same. This will allow the international community, led by Egypt, to broker an end to hostilities, involving the demilitarisation of Gaza plus recognition and adherence to the Quartet principles, which in turn will lead to the eventual opening of borders and a more enduring peace. 
Sir Alan Beith MP Chairman of the justice select committee and former deputy leader of Liberal Democrats
Lord Navnit Dholakia Deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords
Lord Monroe Palmer Liberal Democrat, joint backbench international affairs committee,
Baroness Sarah Ludford MEP for London 1999-2014 
Cllr Barry Aspinall Leader, Brentwood borough council 

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Two great Foreign Affairs articles on Israel/Gaza

The American magazine Foreign Affairs has some claim to be the world's leading foreign-policy journal and its readable, accessible style reminds me of The Economist at its best. I'm signed up to a free weekly email offering links to its best articles, and yesterday that email took me to the two (short, non-academic) pieces below. Amid the horrendous din of pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian comment, argument and propaganda by which we are all currently being so painfully overwhelmed, the two pieces below are an objective breath of fresh air, and I strongly urge you to read them:

http://m.foreignaffairs.com/articles/141834/benedetta-berti/dangerous-disarmament

http://m.foreignaffairs.com/articles/141698/mark-perry/gazas-bottle-rockets?cid=nlc-foreign_affairs_this_week-080714-gazas_bottle_rockets_5-080714&sp_mid=46659115&sp_rid=bWF0dGhldy5oYXJyaXNAaG90bWFpbC5jby51awS2

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Libya and "the Middle East Crisis"

Why must the media call the current Israel/Gaza war "the Middle East crisis"? The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is a huge region, of which Israel/Palestine is, what, less than 2% - and the Middle East has many crises, not just one. We did not use to call Northern Ireland "the Western Europe crisis"; can we not call the Israel/Palestine crisis precisely what it is - "the Israel/Palestine crisis"? It is indeed a crisis, and so (for example) is the situation in Libya (http://m.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-28616843) - is Libya not in the Middle East too? The implication that "the Middle East" is not so much region as a problem (and a problem centring on Israel, to the exclusion of all other problems) belongs far more in a secondary school debating society than it does in the world's newsrooms.