“We can hear them crying out from under the rubble. There are more than a thousand buried now. Rescue teams are being bombed as they try to get to them.” The words of Palestine’s Ambassador Husam Zomlot as he briefed a packed meeting of MPs at Westminster on Wednesday.
As he described the hell on earth being created in Gaza, the mood was sombre. He told us 2,700 children had been killed so far in the Israeli bombardment. That figure must be more than 3,000 now. We learned earlier in the week from Christian Aid workers that mothers were writing their children’s names on their bodies with marker pens so that they could be identified.
The health service has all but collapsed. As we met, desperate efforts were underway to get fuel to keep hospital generators going. The lives of 130 premature babies in incubators hung in the balance.
More than 50% of Gazan homes have been razed to the ground. There is no power. No medicines. In desperation, people are drinking dirty water as fresh supplies have run out. Health agencies now fear the outbreak of cholera and other serious disease.
Still the bombs rain down. Still the world watches.
Many of us have spent the last two weeks demanding the UK government joins growing international calls for a ceasefire. We have been met with the grotesque dissembling from Sunak and silence from Keir Starmer. They keep repeating the mantra that Israel has the right to defend itself, adding the codicil “within international law” as a seemingly disposable afterthought. The British Foreign Secretary as good as told MPs that Israel’s war on Gazan civilians was justified by the Hamas attack on 7th October.
Undoubtedly the Hamas attack was an horrific outrage, rightly condemned on all sides. The people responsible for this barbaric terror against innocent civilians must be held accountable. And all hostages must be released immediately.
But the carpet bombing of residential areas and the mass slaughter of innocent women and children can never be a legitimate act of self-defence. Israeli leaders demean themselves by claiming otherwise. This is self-evidently in breach of international law.
So too is the continued siege of the Gaza strip, an area smaller than Arran. This is collective punishment being visited upon more than two million Palestinians. It is illegal.
The blanket refusal to acknowledge this means that the UK government’s position is to support Israel without criticism or condition. No matter what. The platitudes about international law are insincere in the mouths of Tory ministers. None of this is a surprise to Palestinians. They have been misled, lied to and betrayed for 106 years by this country and many others.
Three quarters of a million people have been displaced so far in this carnage. They have fled south on foot, hoping in vain to escape the bombardment. Some in Israel intend that they should go further, into Egypt, to be banished from Palestine forever.
Meanwhile in the occupied West Bank attacks on Palestinian villagers by armed settler groups have tripled in recent weeks. More than a hundred have been killed. This violence is encouraged by the Interior Minister who was proudly filmed handing a machine gun to a settler paramilitary.
As Israel now prepares a ground invasion of Gaza, there are serious concerns that the situation could spiral out of control and spread across the entire Middle East.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all of this is that it won’t work. Many thousands more Palestinians may die. Many more Israelis too. And for what? Israel will be less secure as a result, not more. There are many people in Israel and in the wider Jewish diaspora who know this only too well and have spoken out against the mass bombing of Gaza. You will rarely hear their voices on British media.
There is no military solution to this problem. Israel deludes itself that it can eradicate Hamas. Perhaps it can. But in doing so, it will only create the conditions for another similar group to emerge.
The situation demands immediate action. A ceasefire on all sides. The creation of humanitarian corridors to allow people out and food, water and medicine in. This is now supported by mostpeople in Britain and throughout the world. I’ve had more contact, over 1,300 emails, on this catastrophe from constituents than on any issue. They want it to stop.
The devastation in such a small area is so vast that simply finding the bodies will take weeks. Only the UN has the authority and capacity to coordinate and oversee this urgent work and we should be supporting it to the hilt.
But what then? How can we escape the cycle of violence? How can we avoid a temporary cessation simply being used by each side to regroup, re-arm and repeat?
We start by understanding why these things have come about in the first place. This story didn’t begin on 7th October this year. And yet when the UN Secretary General Antonio Gutteres made the fairly obvious statement that we needed to look at the Hamas attacks against the history of the Israeli occupation, he was accused by Israel of justifying the attack and met with a complete overreaction of UN officials being banned from Israel.
Gutteres is correct. Hamas exists and grows because of the continued failure to provide any political solution to the denial of Palestinian rights. If we want to defeat Hamas, and I do, we need to address the decades of dispossession and displacement suffered by Palestinians. Over the last year the actions of Israel’s extreme right-wing government in expanding settlements, strengthening the occupation and hinting at annexation have done the opposite – acting as Hamas’ recruiting sergeant.
In the middle of the last century there was no such thing as the Gaza strip. Gaza city was a thriving Mediterranean seaport with a mixed population. In 1948, Israel was born out of the Arab-Israeli war and the armistice agreement that followed demarcated Palestinian territories including the West Bank and a strip of land along the Mediterranean 25-miles long and four to six miles wide.
Into this area poured over half a million Palestinian refugees from the north who had been displaced in the war, making it even then the most densely population area in the region. The 1967 war saw Israel occupy the Palestinian territories. After the Oslo Accords, Israel withdrew to allow the strip to elect its own administration. But after Hamas won the election in 2006, Israel blockaded Gaza, beginning a 17-year siege. Nothing moves in or out without their say so, and almost everything is in short supply.
There is a public sector. There is some commerce and industry. But most people eke out a hand- to-mouth existence made possible only by funds provided to support refugees through the UN. Ordinary Palestinians feel forgotten by the world, and largely they have been. Despair, poverty, alienation. Exactly the conditions required for groups like Hamas to take root and grow. And the continued refusal by Israel, backed by the west, to negotiate a better deal for Palestinians drives ordinary people into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists.
There are only two ways to avoid another four decades of war, terror and bloodshed. Either we allow the evolution of a Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel and have a negotiated UN-backed agreement between the two states; or the State of Israel is transformed by giving Palestinian the same rights as today’s Israelis enjoy.