Starvation used as a weapon of war in Gaza

Don’t take my word for it. Joseph Borrell, the EU’s foreign minister, and a man who is very careful with his words, said on Monday “This is unacceptable. Starvation is used as a weapon of war. Israel is provoking famine.”

Israeli ministers, and their apologists on the right of the Tory party, claim that they cannot allow aid to be delivered because Hamas will siphon it off for their fighters. Even if this were true to some extent, this is still an admission that starvation is being deployed for military purposes. But worse, Israel has extended the use of this tactic to attack the entire civilian population, most of whom are entirely innocent, their only crime to have been born Palestinian.

International law dictates that Israel as the occupying military power, are responsible for the wellbeing of the civilian population. Not only are they refusing to do that, they are stopping other peoples’ aid reaching Palestinians too. This is a war crime squared.

What little aid that does get in has no distribution process in place with UNRWA, the agency that could and should do it, neutered by the Israeli military. In consequence people already weak after eating grass and animal feed for weeks, scrabble over each other to fight for scraps. By definition those in most need will lose. It’s inhumane. Grotesque.

But the thing that should shame us most is that the UK government does nothing, acquiescence becoming complicity. 

I used to have some regard for Alaistair Mitchell, the minister who fronts the government’s foreign policy in the Commons since MPs are not allowed to question Lord Cameron. Not anymore. On Tuesday, questioned for nearly two hours, he repeatedly refused to call for a ceasefire, defended weapons sales to Israel, and never once uttered a word of criticism or admonishment of the Netanyahu regime. Shame on him.

Why we must recognise Palestine and ensure UK is not complicit in genocide

This week we witnessed another act in the ongoing pantomime of elected members of parliament trying to hold the UK government to account for its policy on the Middle East. The man in charge, David, now Lord, Cameron isn’t there of course, not having been elected by anyone himself. The rest of us are supposed to dutifully accept this grotesque contempt of democratic norms and make do with his platitudinous deputy Andrew Mitchell.

Mitchell, for those not too scunnered to listen, delivered a restatement of the UK’s belief in a two-state solution with Israel staying within its 1967 borders and the Palestinian territories it currently occupies transformed into a viable new state. This mantra is now so divorced from reality on the ground, and so at odds with the government’s actions, that you don’t have to be a cynic to question whether the FCDO officials who write this stuff even believe it anymore.

This matters. The horror of the last four months in Gaza has forced everyone to confront what happens when it stops. Talks about a ceasefire are underway as I write and might possibly have produced a halt in the war by now. As well as getting humanitarian aid into Gaza this could create the space for the world to intervene and assist in constructing a political solution which will remove the cause of the violence.

And if that happens Britain’s intentions are of consequence. Yet never has there been a government policy which has been pursued with such a lack of effort or sincerity. Worse, the actions of the UK government seem designed to actively undermine its own stated objectives.

To be clear, the political leadership of Israel does not want a two-state solution. Has not wanted it for some time. Has done everything it possibly could to prevent it. Has one state control of all the land in question and is deepening its foundations with every brick laid on every new illegal settlement. And for decades Israel has exercised coercive control of the occupied Palestinian communities designed to break their ability to exercise political agency. For decades.

Throughout it all successive UK governments have stood by and allowed this to happen. Worse, they have aided and abetted. Weasel words are uttered about the settlements being illegal but never a sanction has been considered. Trade agreements get signed, weapons and technology get sent, diplomats are instructed to frustrate international agencies in their criticism.

For many years, the Israeli government has been allowed to pursue a policy of expansion and suppression of the Palestinians without challenge or consequence. This has to change for the simple reason that no lasting peace is possible until it does.

We can start by recognising the State of Palestine. 139 counties have done so. Why not this one? A lot of confusion surrounds this. Recognition is not to say that Palestine exists and functions as a normal state should. It clearly doesn’t, indeed, is actively prevented by Israel from so doing. Recognition is about agreeing in law that the Palestinian people have the right to statehood, about enabling for them the same agency that the Israelis already have. Recognition is about giving Palestinians the right to a voice, a seat at the negotiating table. It is a logical nonsense to claim that you support a two-state solution, but then refuse to recognise one of the states.

Andrew Mitchell parroted the usual nonsense again last Tuesday, that Britain would recognise Palestine when “it best serves the interests of peace”. It is a meaningless statement, designed to be so. Worse, it suggests to many that a Palestinian state is not a right, but a reward to be granted in return for some undefined action, the promise used as leverage. That is what gets the UK a bad name.

If Scotland had the ability to speak for itself on the world stage, I have no doubt that we would join an increasing number of European countries in recognising Palestine. In the meantime, it is a case we will prosecute with vigour in the union parliament.

Of course, the UK can apparently move with speed and purpose when it wants to on the other side of this debate. Last week Israel alleged that 12 employees of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) were involved in the October 7th Hamas attacks. UNRWA has 13,000 workers in Gaza and provides a vast range of essential services. Within hours of the allegations the UK had announced that it would suspend funding for the whole organisation. It’s akin to closing down funding for the whole NHS because Harold Shipman was found guilty of murder.

Now of course, UNRWA employees should be held to account if they were involved the horrific attacks in early October, and these allegations must be investigated. But by any measure the response of the UK and other western funders was an overreaction. Once again, the entire civilian population of Gaza are set to be punished for the actions of a few. It is, as the SNP spokesperson Brendan O’Hara rightly observed, another round of collective punishment on a people already teetering on the brink of survival.

Britain’s speed of response is highly selective. They were not so quick off the mark when it came to dealing with the recent judgements of the International Court of Justice in respect of South Africa’s charge of genocide against Israel. Whilst it will take a year or more for the ICJ to determine the case, they announced a series of interim measures insisting that action is taken now to prevent genocide occurring in Gaza. Were the UK government really concerned about the rule of international law they ought to have immediately reviewed policy to ensure compliance with the court. Instead, and to the alarm of much of the rest of the world, they claimed the case should not have been brought and acted to undermine the authority and judgment of the court.

UK ministers are less than convincing when they claim that they encourage Israel to uphold international law. To prove genocide is a high bar but there can surely be no question that Israel is in obvious breach of international humanitarian law.

Too many people are letting this pass. It’s not okay to shoot and kill unarmed civilians approaching under cover of a white flag. It is not okay to send special forces into hospitals and execute people in hospital beds whilst they are getting treatment. When did we dispense with arrest and trial?

Most of all the massive and continuing attacks on civilian infrastructure and the mass deaths of unarmed non-combatants is not okay. I had an argument with a senior Tory last week who thought it was. He argued international law justified civilian casualties if the overall military objective was being met. He is wrong. Legally and morally.

To demonstrate compliance the UK government ought to have made sure that it could not be accused of complicity in genocide. Given that this country is one of the biggest arms exporters to Israel and that those armaments and systems rare now being used against the civilian population an obvious and logical response would be to immediately suspend arms exports until there can be certainty about their deployment.

Components for this weaponry are being made here. The Italian firm Leonardo employs 1800 people in Edinburgh making guidance systems for F35 fighters being used against Gazans by the IDF. It has multiple other licenses to supply armaments to Israel. I believe that the government should halt these licenses right now. And while the UK reviews licenses, I have written to the company suggesting that it would help their own reputation and protect them legally if they were to voluntarily stop supplying the IDF whilst genocide is being investigated.

In the midst of the terrors and chaos unfolding in the Middle East the only response of democrats can be to insist on the universal application of international law. It’s difficult. It’s not trendy. But it is the only way to get through.

UK is complicit amid horrors in Israel’s war on Gaza

With the UK media obsessed by Boris Johnson’s appearance at the Covid enquiry and Tory infighting over immigration, the war on Gaza has slid down the headlines. And yet, the past week since the pause in the fighting collapsed has been one of the heaviest yet in terms of the death and destruction.

More than seven hundred Palestinians were killed in one day last week, the highest daily toll so far. The aerial bombardment has continued unabated. The targets are now in the south, especially around the city of Khan Younis, a place where tens of thousands of civilians have fled from the north. 

For people on the ground the situation is increasingly desperate. Many have moved repeatedly over the last two months, fleeing danger only to become a new target. The health service is on its knees, able only to provide the most basic help. One doctor reported that 80% of patients were now receiving amputations. Facilities are now effectively field hospitals in a war zone.

More than eight out of ten Gazans have been displaced. More than 60% of homes destroyed. People are living in tents on streets surrounded by rubble. Food is in short supply. Water is dirty. It is a recipe for disease to spread on an epidemic scale. Aid agencies report that humanitarian assistance is impossible.

The worry now is that Israeli forces will flatten southern Gaza as they have the north. The World Health Organisation has appealed for protection for the two remaining major hospitals in Khan Younis which are now the hub of what is left of the health service.

You might wonder why this scale of aerial bombardment is continuing as Israeli ground forces now occupy all parts of Gaza? Israel claims it is only fighting Hamas. It also claims that the Hamas military operation operates from a network of underground tunnels which they are trying to destroy.

I confess I am not an engineer, nor do I have any experience of explosives. But I am pretty sure than the best way to destroy a tunnel is to detonate an explosion inside it in order toachieve its collapse. Aerial bombardment seems particularly ineffective in achieving this. If anything, you would think that layers of rubble five or ten metres thick would provide additional protection to anything underneath.

No wonder Palestinians and most observers conclude that the objective of Israel’s military operations is in large part to do with rendering Gaza uninhabitable, displacing its Palestinian residents into Egypt. 

There are plenty of Israeli politicians who are quite open about this aim. “We are now actually rolling out the Gaza Nakba,” says Avi Dichter, Israel’s Minister for Agriculture and former head of Shin Bet, the Israeli Security Agency. 

Many others support and amplify this view. There is no pretence about precision attacks, just total destruction.

Underpinning these views are a series of anti-Arab attitudes growing in force in Israeli civil society and media. Chris Doyle, the Director of the respected Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) provides a compelling and forensic examination of this. He says there is a trend to portray Palestinians as animals, a stark process of dehumanization that is necessary if you are going to get involved in ethnic cleansing and war crimes. He cites Sara Netanyahu, the powerful wife of the PM, saying “I really hope that our revenge, that of the state of Israel, on the cruel enemy — will be a very big revenge. I don’t call them human animals because that would be insulting to animals.” 

As Doyle points out there has of course, been a long history of vile, bloodthirsty anti-Semitic comments from Hamas. The difference is that whilst these are called out by Western political leaders, there is silence about genocidal remarks against Palestinians.

This hardening ideology provides cover and context not just for the indiscriminate destruction of Gaza, but for the increasing attacks on Palestinian villages by armed settlers in the West Bank too. There have now been over three hundred such attacks documented since October 7th, with over 250 Palestinians killed and more than a thousand displaced.

Anti-Arab narrative has always been part of Israeli political discourse. The difference is that today it has become mainstream. This is also leading to a crackdown on dissent both within the occupied territories where more than one thousand Palestinians have been detained and within Israel itself where alternative voices are silenced.

The problem for the Israeli government is that it is difficult to see how this strategy will work, either in eradicating Hamas or other armed Palestinian groups, or in providing security for Israel itself. 

There are 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza, more than three million in the occupied Palestinians territories in the West bank and Jerusalem. As many again are refugees in neighbouring countries. They are not going away. At some stage Israel will have to come to terms with the necessity of sharing the place we once called the Holy Land with ten million Palestinians. 

Imagine the effect the current war is having on the Palestinian population. More than seventeen thousand dead, seven thousand of them children. Tens of thousands injured. Severe collective trauma the consequence of this collective punishment. Does anyone imagine this will be anything other than disastrous in the long term. Their families will not forget about the events of the last two months. The IDF says it has killed five thousand Hamas fighters. The real question is how many more thousand is it creating by its actions. 

But what if Israel could annex the areas it occupies by force and displace all Palestinians into neighbouring countries? What sort of future is that? A fortress state constantly vigilant against a minority of its own population living in continuous tension with its neighbours. That is the vision the right-wing extremists aspire to, but it offers little for most ordinary Israelis who crave peace and security.

There is only one way out of this which offers hope for Israelis and Palestinians alike. The war must stop and talking must start. That will require considerable international pressure and intervention. A ceasefire could lead to a managed truce and de-escalation with international arrangements for the temporary administration of Gaza and brokering new talks aimed at long term solutions. 

Sadly, we are a long way from that. Our own government and that of the US mouth platitudes but do nothing. They talk of upholding international law but stay silent when presented with prima facie evidence of its breach.

“I must admit I sense that the prime minister feels zero pressure, and that we will do whatever it takes to achieve our military goals,” Netanyahu’s foreign policy adviser Ophir Falk told Reuters last week when asked about the international pressure on Israel.

Those of us trying to offer solidarity with a Palestinian people under existential threat need to make that pressure rise. That is why we are debating arms sales to Israel this Tuesday in the UK parliament.

Meanwhile Christian churches in Bethlehem have cancelled Christmas celebrations in solidarity with Gaza. The Lutheran church has a new nativity with a baby Jesus set amongst a pile of rubble. It is a poignant representation of the suffering of Gaza’s children who find themselves buried under what is left of their own homes. Its pastor, Reverend Munther Isaac says “If Christ were to be born today, he would be born under the rubble and Israeli shelling.”

​Israel must call a ceasefire in Gaza now

More people have written to me about what is happening in Gaza than anything else in the eight and half years I have represented this city. All bar a handful express solidarity with the Palestinians and demand a ceasefire now. I agree with them. And like everyone else, I watch with horror and feel impotent to stop the catastrophe unfolding day by day.

It is the scale that is most terrifying. Twice as many people killed in three weeks than in three decades of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. 11,000 bombing raids dropping ordnance greater than the Hiroshima bomb – more than five kilograms of explosive for every man, woman and child. Most of the two million plus population displaced and homeless, civil administration collapsing, power, food and water running out, disease now taking hold.

And yet, the western world stands idly by and allows this to happen. Sunak and Starmer talk of Israel’s right to defend itself. But the bombing of overcrowded civilian areas and the killing of thousands of innocents is not self-defence. It is a war crime. Demanding that a million civilians head south and then bombing them when they do is not self-defence. It is a war crime. Blocking supplies of food and medicine to people who are sick and starving is not self-defence. It is a war crime.

Whilst the world’s attention is on Gaza, attacks on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank have dramatically intensified. Gangs of armed settlers have so far killed 120 villagers. Not Hamas fighters. Not militants. Olive farmers mainly. The Israeli authorities turn a blind eye, and sometimes collude.

The intention is clear; to force Palestinians from their own land. Israeli human rights groups like B’Tselem report that entire villages are now abandoning their homes under extreme pressure. Some call this a new Nakba, the mass displacement of 1948 – and Netanyahu’s talk of a second war of independence makes clear that this is his understanding too.

The Israeli government claims all of this is in response to the horrific Hamas attacks on October 7th. But we are way beyond that. Apart from international law requiring military responses to be proportionate, they should also not be directed at non-combatants.

In any military situation, there will be innocent casualties. But this is different. We are not seeing civilians caught in the periphery of attacks on military targets. The civilians are the targets.

There are some driving this Israeli campaign who quite clearly believe they are at war with the Palestinian people, that Hamas and the people of Gaza are one and the same.

This is the most extreme right-wing government in the history of Israel. Before this war it was deeply unpopular. Many inside Israel believe Netanyahu is waging death and destruction on this scale in part to keep himself out of jail.

The political objective here is the denial and eradication of Palestinian claims to territory, a redrawing of the map, the end of any notion of a Palestinian state. That is why Palestinians now face an existential threat. That is why we should support them.

I watch in shame at the complicity of the British government in all of this. We cannot do much. But we can speak out. We can say – not in our name.

Still the bombs rain down. Still the world watches.

“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.