The people's spirit survives

Into the second week of the ceasefire, Gaza is almost exactly as it was before the war. Israel's siege, the restricted admittance of humanitarian aid, the near total closure of crossing points, the continued operation of the deposed government of Hamas and the enduring embarrassment of Palestinian division - all are still in place. Massive destruction to the fundamentals of civilian life, and great death and injury among civilians, were all that Israel achieved. Entire neighbourhoods were annihilated, leaving homes either completely demolished or so gutted that they were uninhabitable. Desperation and hopelessness are now soaring to new levels.

There seems to be no victor in this war. What is clear, however, is how the plight of the Palestinian people, and particularly those in Gaza, has moved to the forefront of urgent tragedies in the world. Ironically, it was Israel's shameful haste in conducting this war that exposed the genuine morality of the Palestinian plight; a moral cause that was, oddly enough, smeared by internal Palestinian strife.

The long siege on the Gaza Strip allowed Israel to characterise it, unfairly, as a "humanitarian case". Having consistently kept basic supplies at dangerously low levels, Israel leveraged its tight control of "humanitarian" supplies by simply stopping them under whatever pretext. In Gaza, this was widely seen as one of Israel's most unfair weapons against ordinary Palestinians.

It now seems increasingly evident that Israel is heading towards making Gaza into a region of beggars by applying crippling controls to any postwar reconstruction efforts and pre-empting Gaza's proper development - claiming that its security needs dictate restrictions on essential reconstruction materials.

The policy of the UK, America and the major European countries towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been one of attempting to influence the outcome by remote control. As the great powers of the world directly supported and engaged with Israel, while not necessarily extending the same support even to more moderate Palestinians, they left Israel virtually unchallenged in meting out whatever punishment it saw fit on Palestinians, whether in the West Bank, East Jerusalem or the Gaza Strip.

Without directly engaging with all the adversaries in the conflict, the great powers will have, in effect, endorsed its continuation. One of the most painful outcomes will be the condemning of Gaza to the position of an endless "humanitarian case", as long as a political resolution remains elusive.

Curbing Israel's unrelenting will to exercise its superiority over Palestinians now seems mandatory. The world must encourage Palestinian reconciliation and directly engage with all Palestinians, including Hamas. A new political approach based on dialogue would pave the way for renewed and credible peace. The worry is, however, that Israel may cripple a unity government, and one with a political programme based on pursuing peace, just as it did in early 2007, by restricting the movement of its cabinet and withholding its funds.

Continued political failure will turn a motivated and aspiring people into permanent beggars: something they have never been. What strengthens the resistance of Gazans is their unrelenting resilience and their determination to secure a dignified life - just as they long for a comprehensive and just solution with Israel. Any rebuilding efforts that sideline Gaza's positive spirit and its need for political resolution will be a wasted investment.

Sami Abdel-Shafi is a writer and management consultant, based in Gaza City

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Interview: Alistair Darling

Show Hide image

An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State