Egypt's oppression of the Palestinians

The Galloway eviction and the "Israeli/Egyptian" blockade of Gaza

Reports of George Galloway's eviction from Egypt -- from where he "was reportedly trying to return to Gaza to help members of a humanitarian convoy who had been arrested" -- remind me of a text I received from a politically active Muslim friend earlier this week:

Dear all. Egypt has systematically been doing Israel's dirty work by besieging the Palestinians. And it has employed every dirty trick and used shameless force on humantiaran aid convoys and peace activists trying to enter Gaza. We should start a "boycott Egypt" campaign now.

I'm not keen on boycotts myself, but I am delighted to see British Muslims -- finally! -- taking a public stand against Muslim (in particular, Arab) regimes that employ "shameless force" against civilians, and that "talk tough" on Israel but do so little to help the Palestinians. (Did you know that Jordan, for example, killed more Palestinians in the ten days of "Black September" than Israel killed in the three weeks of "Operation Cast Lead"?)

In recent months, there has been much talk of a "boycott" of Israeli goods but -- as defenders of Israel often point out -- advocates of such a strategy have to be consistent. If you're going to boycott Israel because of its morally reprehensible and near-criminal economic blockade of the Gaza Strip, why not boycott its accomplice Egypt as well?

Egypt, like so many despotic Arab nations, has long been complicit in either the abandonment, or the outright oppression and suppression, of the Palestinians and their historic cause. I'm glad Muslims, as well as western commentators, have cottoned on to this (and thereby, perhaps, neutralised a constant refrain of the pro-Israeli brigade).

Seumas Milne, writing in yesterday's Guardian, pointed out:

For the last fortnight, two groups of hundreds of activists have been battling with Egyptian police and officials to cross into the Gaza Strip to show solidarity with the blockaded population on the first anniversary of Israel's devastating onslaught.

. . . while the Egyptian government claims it is simply upholding its national sovereignty, the saga has instead starkly exposed its complicity in the US- and European-backed blockade of Gaza and the collective punishment of its one and a half million people.

The main protagonist of the siege, Israel, controls only three sides of the Strip. Without Egypt, which polices the fourth, it would be ineffective. But, having tolerated the tunnels that have saved Gazans from utter beggary, the Cairo regime is now building a deep underground steel wall -- known as the "wall of shame" to many Egyptians -- under close US supervision, to make the blockade complete.

And, as my former colleague Tim Marshall, the Sky News foreign affairs editor, wrote on his blog over Christmas:

For years now, almost all media, when writing about the "siege" of Gaza, have referred to it as the Israeli blockade. This term is misleading, not because there is no Israeli blockade, but because it gives the impression that it is only Israel which prevents the free flow of goods in and out of the territory. Israel imposed the blockade after Hamas took control of Gaza, and tightened it when thousands more rockets were fired into Israel leading to the war of Dec 08 -- Jan 09.

However, there are no Israelis inside Gaza, nor along the border with Egypt, nor at the Rafah crossing into Egypt which is controlled by the Egyptians. Cairo does not allow goods to pass into Gaza through Rafah because it does not want to recognise the authority of Hamas.

Now the Egyptians, with US assistance, are building a formidable underground steel barrier along the eight-mile border to prevent the rampant smuggling through tunnels. All manner of goods pass this way, as well as weapons and extremists. It is Gaza's lifeline to the outside world.

. . . So much for pan-Arab values. Statecraft trumps it every time, and yet again the ordinary Palestinians suffer. The blockade needs to be described in terms which inform us what is going on. Calling it an Israeli blockade serves to let the Arab countries, which have always used the Palestinians as pawns, keep getting away with it.

Marshall concludes: "The blockade of Gaza needs to be called what it is -- the Israeli/Egyptian blockade." He is absolutely right. How can anyone, on the pro-Palestinian side or anywhere else, disagree with him?

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.