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 Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide