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Saturday, 28 May 2011

Gaza: new thinking on this total mess

There's a great tradition of big things happening in the Middle East in the middle of the Liberal Democrat party conference, nicely timed to disrupt the best laid conference plans of Lib Dem Friends of Israel. Good to think that there's nothing much likely to happen in the region this September, then...Well do I remember being sat writing this piece in 2007, when I saw this news story on the BBC website, about Israel declaring "the Gaza Strip a "hostile entity" in response to the continued rocket attacks by Palestinian militants there." Although I very much doubt that this news made any difference to Conference's debate that day on the Middle East.

So, four years on from that Israeli declaration, Egypt has permanently opened its Rafah border with Gaza. Israel's main opposition party, Kadima, has called this a "national failure" for Israel, as: "Netanyahu's government talks a hard line against Hamas, but in reality during the time of its leadership, Hamas has become stronger than it has ever been in the past." I don't know how best Israel should deal with the very real security challenges posed by Hamas. I don't know - if you do know, then I congratulate you on your certainty and would be interested to hear what you would do. The current situation in Gaza gives neither security to Israelis nor economic freedom to Palestinians (not to mention Hamas' own disgusting treatment of Palestinians living under its rule in Gaza). 

Palestinians in Gaza are not starving, but you don't have to be starving to be having a very bad time of it economically; a Palestinian Hamas rocket recently hit an Israeli school bus and killed an Israeli schoolboy who, as it happened, also held British nationality. So a British schoolboy was recently killed by a missile fired at his school bus. If that doesn't underline the urgency of sorting this out, I'm not sure what does. 

And that's before you get into the whole business of the flotilla, the complicated story of which was well told by the BBC on Panorama, which deserves to be watched by anyone who wants to have an informed opinion about what really happened. I read about efforts to send a flotilla of toys through the blockade to the children of Gaza, only to then read that toys are not subject to the blockade anyway, and are, already, ordinarily allowed in - so what's really going on? It's like sending flood relief to someone who hasn't actually been flooded and it is deeply political. 

When the UN voted to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states in 1947, Gaza was allocated to the proposed Arab state, which was never actually created. Egypt instead occupied Gaza in 1948, prior to Israel taking it in 1967. Gaza was never part of Egypt and Egypt's occupation of Gaza was never recognised under international law, so the status of Gaza prior to 1967 is disputed and unclear. Israel clearly occupied Gaza from 1967 until 2005, when Israel pulled its settlers and soldiers out of Gaza; Israel argues that it therefore no longer rules or occupies Gaza. Hamas seized power in Gaza in a coup in 2007, so even the Palestinian Authority (PA) no longer rules Gaza. The PA's much-vaunted Hamas/Fatah unity agreement is merely an agreement for Hamas and Fatah to start talks on how they might create a unity government for Gaza and the West Bank; no such unity government yet exists, and I'm not sure it ever will, especially given how deeply divided Hamas itself currently is.

As Haaretz points out, Egypt's opening of its border with Gaza: "is a violation of an agreement reached in 2005 between the United States, Israel, Egypt, and the European Union, which gives EU monitors access to the crossing. The monitors were to reassure Israel that weapons and militants wouldn't get into Gaza after its pullout from the territory in the fall of 2005." But of course, nobody cares about this agreement being violated.  The Israelis would say that this shows that such agreements are not worth the paper they are written on. Everyone tells Israel to play by the rules and work with the international community, but when it does so, as in this instance, it turns out that it might as well not have bothered. I don't blame Israelis for drawing such a conclusion. It is very frustrating. Binyamin Netanyahu the other day told Congress that: "The European observers in Gaza evaporated ovenight." That is a harsh verdict on the collapse of the EU mission, but he has a point - the observers aren't there now, are they? They can only go back if invited by both Israel and the PA;  and one has to ask Mr Netanyahu if either he (or the PA) actually today wants them there? That is an urgent question not only for the PA, but also for the Israeli government: given that the border is now open, do you or do you not want EU monitors there?

Given the enormous sums invested by the EU in trying to help Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank, and given Baroness Ashton's clear desire for the peace process to move forward, it is time for decisive action and new thinking by the EU, the UK included. The EU has just extended its monitoring mission to the Egypt/Gaza border crossing at Rafah, although the monitors have not actually, physically been there since 2007. One British activist on the pro-Israeli political scene told me a few months back that he believed that the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, wants the EU to take effective control of the running of Gaza, including policing its borders and controlling security. Given that, in legal terms, nobody now controls Gaza, this would be an imaginative and constructive proposal, the difficulties of which cannot be over-estimated, especially given the international community's tough experience of nation-building in the former Yugoslavia. It has got to be worth exploring as an idea. Could a Gaza solution bear some resemblance to what was achieved in East Timor?

"Yes," people will say, "It's easy for you to say. You don't live under rocket fire in Sderot. You don't live in poverty in Gaza." Well, yes, as someone who lives in the relative safety and comfort of London, it is indeed easy for me to say, and that's why I'm saying it. I'm suggesting things that will not solve all problems (the West Bank is a whole set of other issues, long before you even get all Palestinians to accept the right of Israel to exist in peace and security alongside a Palestinian state), but any problem can become less insoluble if imagination and intelligence are applied by the leaders of the world.

UPDATE on Monday 20 June 2011: Well, the Hamas/Fatah unity talks seem to be going about as smoothly as the Liberal/SDP merger talks did in 1988...It seems to be something of a moot point as to whether or not any unity government will emerge.


  1. Of course, the ideal solution would be to move the offices of everyone who wants to impose a simplistic solution on the Israelis, like Ashton and Hague and Obama to Sderot, along with their families, and let them spend 6 months 'getting the feel of the place', before finalising their decisions.

    As if.

  2. Thank you. I have been to Sderot. I stood in a devastated house that was structurally unsound, having been hit by a Palestinian missile. The sirens did not sound while I was there, but they easily could have done. It is an intolerable situation for the people who live there.

    Incidentally, an office that I used to work at in London had its windows blown out by an IRA bomb a few weeks after I had stopped working there. That same explosion murdered two men who were working as news vendors nearby, and I have always assumed that they might have been the news vendors from whom I bought a paper every day when I was working there. I was at work in another office one day when I heard the explosion of the Far Right nail bomber's Brixton bomb not far from where I was, and I could easily have been with friends in Soho on the day on which the same bomber blew up a pub called the Admiral Duncan. A friend of mine was on one of the very trains that was blown up by the murderous 7/7 suicide bombers in London, although fortunately he was uninjured.

    Why am I telling you all of this? To remind you that terrorism is an evil that exists in many parts of then world and which must always be fought.

    The situation faced by Londoners is different from the situation faced by people living in Sderot. I agree that simplistic solutions will get us nowhere, especially if they are imposed,rather than negotiated.

    How about, therefore, we try not the imposition of simplistic solutions, but the negotiation of complicated solutions?

  3. Matthew, if you think you can negotiate an agreement with Hamas, whose charter specifically and totally transparently posits its aims as the elimination of the Jewish state and Jews everywhere, I wish you luck.

  4. Thank you. You'll have seen on my blog that I have previously said that Hamas is to Palestinian politics what the Ku Klux Klan is to American politics. Until Hamas changes, and becomes a very different organisation, it has nothing to contribute towards the peace process. I have written nothing about negotiating an agreement with Hamas.

    So, what do you think of the suggestion that the UN and/or the EU could set up an administration to govern Gaza, with troops on the ground, policing the borders (to prevent arms smuggling) and responsible for security (including to prevent the firing of rockets)?