Life in ruins: a man walks in the rubble of the Shejaiya residential district of Gaza City, July 28. Photo: Getty
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Jason Cowley: Does the left hate Israel?

It shouldn’t be a question of either you support Israel, no matter what it does, or you are on the side of the Islamists. 

Is the left biased against Israel? Are liberal-left commentators obsessing about the plight of the children of Gaza while ignoring the immense suffering of civilians in Iraq and Syria? Why express empathy for Gazans when they allow themselves to be ruled by, and are in allegiance with, the nefarious Islamists of Hamas, who would murder thousands of Jewish children given the opportunity? Why are acts of violence by Hamas absent from BBC news reports from Gaza?

These are just some of the questions being asked by Melanie Phillips, Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle, and others. Phillips’s tweet was characteristic: “Astonishing how many journos refer to total Gaza casualty toll as ‘civilian’. Apparently not one Hamas fighter killed there! Lazy or worse?”

But really it shouldn’t be a question of either/or – either you support Israel, no matter what it does, or you are on the side of the Islamists. It shouldn’t be a question of expressing anguish about the death and maiming of innocent children in Gaza while ignoring what is happening in Syria or Iraq. We should care about all of the innocents caught up in each of these horrendous wars and report what is happening as accurately as possible.

In my view, the BBC has been admirably even-handed in its reporting of the Gaza war, as has the Guardian’s Peter Beaumont, whose eye-witness reports from Gaza are harrowing to read. If you want properly biased reporting read the American press; even the liberal New York Times reports events always from a pro-Israeli rather than sceptical position. 

Elsewhere, in a widely noticed blog for the Telegraph, Alan Johnson, editor of the journal Fathom (tagline “For a deeper understanding of Israel and the region”), suggests that liberal journalists such as Channel 4 News’s Jon Snow make the mistake of treating  “pathological movements [such as Hamas] … as if they are rational political movements with grievances that can be negotiated”. Snow has recently returned from Gaza where he was appalled by the suffering he witnessed. 

Johnson says that Hamas did not emerge as a popular movement in reaction to the Israeli blockade of Gaza: “Analysis of the current conflict in Gaza is based on the fallacy that the Israeli blockade of Gaza led to Hamas rockets from Gaza. In fact, the rockets led to the blockade. Israel got out of Gaza in 2005 hoping for co-existence.”

Well, useful to get that learnt, as Philip Larkin wrote. For the record, Hamas, which is both a political party and an Islamist resistance movement and took its inspiration from the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood, was founded during the first intifada in 1987 and was democratically elected to power in Gaza in 2006. And, before this latest conflict, it was desperately and deservedly weak – and getting weaker.

Never once does Johnson mention the conditions inside Gaza – which Palestinians liken to an open prison – where 1.8 million people live in a strip of land 25 miles long and seven miles wide. Many of the young people in Gaza are descendants of those expelled from their ancestral villages in 1948. Nor does Johnson condemn the shelling of schools, hospitals and a home for the disabled in Gaza. Why not?

Jeremy Bowen, in his New Statesman Notebookreported that he saw no evidence that Hamas was using civilians as human shields in Gaza. Even if they were, as we wrote in last week’s NS leader, this would still offer no justification for the state-directed murder of innocents, who include children. It’s as if a terrible collective punishment is being visited upon all Gazans.

In his quest for “understanding”, the editor of Fathom neglects to remind readers that, with the exception of the border post with Egypt at Rafah, Israel controls all access to Gaza, its territorial waters and the skies above. Nor does he, by way of context of a kind he says is absent from Snow’s reporting, mention Israel’s long occupation of the Palestinian territories or dare even to imagine what it must be like to live as a Palestinian civilian in the squalid and militarised West Bank, where it can take many hours to travel just a few miles because of Israeli military road-blocks and checkpoints. The West Bank is being devoured by Israeli settlements even as I write – but of course Johnson has no wish to discuss the facts on the ground.

In its way, this contribution by the editor of Fathom is as deluded as those he seeks to condemn. I agree with Stephen Pollard that the conflict in Gaza has encouraged the evil of anti-Semitism, which is spreading throughout Europe. But rare, too, is the commentator who writes on the Israel-Palestine conflict with nuanced, dispassionate intelligence. One such commentator is the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland, and his New York Review of Books blog post on the anguish of liberal Zionists is essential reading.

 

***

 

One recent morning, on a visit to Israel, we drove north from Jerusalem travelling alongside the Sea of Galilee and then on to the occupied Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 war. Leaving the car, I made my way up to where a small group of Fijian soldiers, part of a UN peacekeeping mission, peered through telescopes into the Syrian villages below.

Of the two nearest villages, Syrian government forces controlled one; anti-Assad rebels held the other. You could hear artillery fire and explosions. The war felt very close.

A few weeks after my visit, an Israeli youth was killed in the Golan Heights after a truck in which he was travelling with his father was hit by a missile fired from inside Syria, the first such death since the start of the Syrian war in 2011. The Israelis responded with the inevitable air strikes on “strategic targets”. 

Since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Syrian border has been Israel’s quietest. That’s no longer so. The Syrian civil war has been raging now for three years and has created the conditions in which atrocity-minded jihadists and rebel militias have flourished.

Israel is a highly militarised country in a state of perpetual preparedness for war. Everyone has served in the army or knows someone who has. However, until quite recently, the mood inside the country was one of relative calm. The fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt had emboldened the Likud-led government and considerably weakened Hamas – Mohammed Morsi brokered the last ceasefire between Hamas and Israel in November 2012. Israel has been largely unaffected by the civil war in Syria (though some of the wounded have been treated in its hospitals). Iran’s client Shia militia Hezbollah, against which Israel expects to fight another war before too long, is otherwise engaged in Syria.

Above all else, it is widely accepted in Israel that the “Palestinian problem” is manageable and containable. The construction of the so-called security wall that separates Israel from the West Bank – a tragic symbol of the conflict between two peoples destined to claim ownership of the same land – ended the Hamas-directed suicide attacks that traumatised Israelis during the second intifada. The US-funded Iron Dome missile defence shield means that incoming rocket fire from Gaza, though terrifying for Israelis, pose few mortal dangers. I was in Israel during the Gaza conflict of November 2012 and watched as long-range missiles fired from the Strip were intercepted in the skies above Tel Aviv.

After my most recent trip to Israel in May, I left feeling hugely despondent. It seemed obvious to me after many briefings that the two-state solution is becoming impossible. The hard right is ascendant. Israel has been coarsened and desensitised by decades of existential wars and the hatred of its Arab neighbours. The belligerent right-wingers in the coalition government, such as Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home, are territorial maximalists who do not recognise the Palestinian claim to statehood. A majority of Israelis reportedly support a two-state solution but the settlers are winning, indulged by the unworthy Benjamin Netanyahu.

I met Bennett’s deputy, Ayelet Shaked, in her small office at the Knesset. She was charming, courteous, secular, very pretty  – and alarmingly extreme. “I don’t see any reason to stop the settlement building [in the West Bank],” she said. John Kerry and others should concentrate on solving the larger problems in the world, such as the perpetual civil war in Syria, she said. “Israel is the most stable territory in the Middle East.” She did not accept that there was a demographic threat to Israel.

The US secretary of state is the latest in a long line of powerful politicians who have failed in Israel. At least the settlers and their supporters such as Shaked have been honest about the consequences of their actions: they know that expanding settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has led, inevitably, to the demise of the ideal of two separate nations. Shaked, too, beguiles her disparagers by calling for the security wall to be pulled down and for the Palestinians to have their own airport in the West Bank. They should not have a state but they should be helped to live better and more dignified lives – so long as they accept the status quo and stop throwing stones. If they don’t like it, they could always relocate to Jordan.

But the larger anxiety for liberal Zionists is this – a putative single, bi-national state would, in time, surely cease to be a Jewish-majority state and thus could evolve into something more unwelcome altogether – a de facto apartheid state. Meanwhile, the killing on both sides goes on. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era