With Israel and Gaza, separation is no guarantee of solution

There must be a limit, though, to how long bombs, bullets, and barbed wire can contain Gaza.

It was an impossible, deadly, dilemma.

I was reminded of it last week when I read that the Israeli aircraft had, "dropped leaflets warning Gazans to stay away from Hamas".

The storyteller lived in a Gaza refugee camp. A member of Hamas’ military wing was a neighbour. Then, in 2004, Israeli military incursions were frequent - yesterday’s ceasefire provides no guarantee they will not be again. Expecting attack, Hamas fighters had placed explosives in the rubble and sand which passed for a road in that part of the Gaza Strip.

A detonation might damage any tank which was its target – while also endangering the house in which three generations, from toddler to grandmother, were sleeping. The man could only pray that nothing would happen. His only alternative, it seemed to me, was to tamper with the trap - and risk either blowing himself up, or being shot by one side or the other as either a collaborator or a bomb layer.   

"Staying away from Hamas", however stern the warning, was simply not possible.

Innocence would not defend you from death. The picture last week of Jihad Masharawi, father of 11-month-old Omar, holding the sheet which contained the body of his tiny son demonstrated that better than any words.

In some senses, the Gaza in which I lived and worked as a reporter from 2002-2004 was a different place. There were still Jewish settlements placed at strategic intervals throughout the crushingly crowded strip of scrubby coastland. The Palestinian Authority, not Hamas, were in charge.

Yet then, as now, Gaza civilians could no more stay away from members of the militant groups than Israelis could suddenly move house because a soldier lived next door.

Palestinians and Israelis were moving further apart – accelerating the process of mutual dehumanization. A decade ago, even though the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising against Israel, was already two years old, thousands of Gazans crossed each day into Israel for casual work. The pay was poor. The day began before dawn to allow time for travel through lengthy security checks.

Still it was cooperation – coexistence - of a sort.  In the summer of 2003, a café owner in the Old City of Jerusalem pointed out to me that Palestinians then in their teens had been born in the first intifada, from the late 1980s, and were approaching adulthood in the second. They had known little else. He remembered a time when there were some economic ties, at least some kind of mutually beneficial business activity, even if it was not conducted between the best of friends.

That time has gone. The warning about the coming generation was brought home to me in a conversation with a young man who had received rare permission to visit the West Bank. Leaving Gaza, he had chanced to chat to an Israeli soldier guarding the crossing point. He had been amazed that the soldier was about the same age as him - about nineteen.

Until then, Israelis had always been soldiers: not humans, but enemies faceless behind armour or concrete. He had never imagined that they might be anything other than combat-hardened 30-somethings.

Such ignorance has consequences. As a BBC reporter working in conflict zones, you are required to undergo ‘hostile environment’ training. One session explains how to deal with kidnappers, especially when they might be about to kill you.

The advice is never to turn your back, but to look at them, show them pictures of your family if you have them; in other words: be a person, not a symbol of something. Did the Israeli pilot who was responsible for the death of Omar Masharawi see the picture? If so, did he see a father’s face twisted in grief, or just part of a hostile mass?

Reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict gives journalists a rare perspective. On Fridays, I might wake in Gaza, hearing the call to prayer, then, in the late afternoon, be in West Jerusalem in time to hear the horn which announced the start of the Jewish Sabbath.

The sounds of devotion which defined departure and destination were also a sign of one of the conflict’s most enduring divisive elements: faith.

By my last visit to the region, in September last year, that sense of division had only grown stronger: the concrete separation barrier cutting off the West Bank my dominant memory of the journey from airport to East Jerusalem. 

This week’s fighting has subsided into ceasefire. There must be a limit, though, to how long bombs, bullets, and barbed wire can contain Gaza. The United Nations warned in August that resources may only be sufficient to support the growing population until the end of the decade.  Separation is no guarantee of solution. If it were, Gaza would no longer be in the news.

James Rodgers is Lecturer in Journalism at City University, London. From 2002 to 2004, he was the BBC Correspondent in Gaza. He is the author of "Reporting Conflict" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), and of "No Road Home: fighting for land and faith in Gaza" (forthcoming).

He will be taking part in a panel discussion "Reporting 21st Century Conflict’ at City University on 29 November. (Admission free, you can register here.)     

A Palestinian woman walks past destroyed tents near bombed smuggling tunnels between the southern Gaza Strip and Egypt. Photograph: Getty Images
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The government has admitted it can curb drugs without criminalising users

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity