Palestinians salvage items from the rubble of destroyed buildings in Gaza City as the fragile ceasefire entered a second day, 6 August. Photo: Getty
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Jason Cowley: The destruction of Gaza and when Israel backed the Islamists

The Gaza conflict has raised the important question of empathy. Would that both sides were capable of greater empathy and, indeed, imagination. 

Imagine a science-fiction novel or a dystopian-themed film, set in a strip of land 25 miles long and no more than eight miles wide in which 1.8 million people are encaged or blockaded. The borders are sealed and the people have no control over their territorial waters or the skies above. Many of them are doubly dispossessed because they are descendants of those expelled from their ancestral villages several decades earlier. Squalid refugee camps have hardened into permanent settlements. Imagine, too, that the sinister whine of drones can be heard every day over this blighted territory, monitoring the movements of the people below, who are ruled by cruel, fanatical religious conservatives. Where once women wore bikinis on the beach and local cafés resounded to the clash of argument about Marxism and national liberation, now the women, through choice or coercion, wear burqas and niqabs and the men swear devotion to Allah, the one true God. Meanwhile, hidden figures are hard at work underground, toiling to dig tunnels of escape and attack into the two neighbouring states that have conspired to isolate this claustrophobic coastal enclave from the world.

This preposterous set-up sounds like something that could have been dreamt up by H G Wells (think of the Morlocks and the Eloi). Yet this is how the people of Gaza must live, with the added inconvenience of being assaulted every two years or so by one of the world’s most sophisticated and merciless military powers.

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Hamas, which is a political party and an Islamist resistance movement, with origins in the Muslim Brotherhood, is culpable for the plight of the Palestinians of Gaza. It sent suicide bombers into Israel during the second intifada to blow up cafés, hotels and bars. Its founding charter is anti-Semitic and calls for the destruction of the Jewish state. Its leaders dare not even live in Gaza – Khaled Meshal, having left Damascus as the anti-Assad revolts morphed into murderous civil war, is resident in Qatar, one of the very few states still sympathetic to Hamas. If Meshal actually lived in Gaza he might think twice about ordering Hamas to fire his ineffective rockets into Israel, knowing what the devastating response will be. Still, he’s well placed to get some decent tickets for the World Cup.

But Israel, which is fighting what it believes is a “just war” of self-defence, must share equal blame for the tragedy of Gaza. This is because of its long occupation of Palestinian territories – the West Bank is being devoured by Jewish settlements even as I write – and because of its failure to countenance the possibility of negotiating with Hamas when the experience of Northern Ireland showed that, in the end, a deal could be reached only by the hardliners on either side. The irony is that the Israeli security forces once encouraged the Islamists of Gaza, then under the leadership of Ahmed Yassin, a disabled cleric. They were seen as useful idiots, a counterbalance to the power of Yasser Arafat’s secular PLO. The thinking was this: divide the Palestinians among themselves and it will be easier to control them and thus indefinitely postpone the creation of a viable Palestinian state.

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In recent days, I’ve had a lot of emails about a blog I wrote exploring anti-Israel bias in the broadcast media. It has been said to me that the emphasis in too many BBC and Channel 4 news reports has been on the death of children in Gaza rather than on the Hamas rockets and “terror tunnels”, as if what even the Daily Mail has called “the slaughter of innocents” should be downplayed, or were comparable in some way with the threat posed by Hamas rocket fire.

I accept that Channel 4 News has been partisan, but never anti-Israeli. Jon Snow and his colleague Paul Mason, who has shown great courage by just being in Gaza during the bombardment, are justifiably horrified by what they have witnessed: the dead and maimed children, the chaos in the impoverished hospitals struck by Israeli bombs, the wilful destruction of infrastructure, such as UN schools and Gaza’s only power plant. It’s as if a terrible collective punishment has been visited upon all Palestinians in Gaza.

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The Gaza conflict has raised the important question of empathy. The reporting by Snow and Mason has been motivated by empathy for the civilian victims. Would that both sides were capable of greater empathy and, indeed, imagination. “It is hard to be cruel,” Ian McEwan wrote after the attacks of 11 September 2001, “once you permit yourself to enter the mind of your victim. Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.”

There is also the question of proportion. Israel has the technological capability to show the world that it can defend its people while operating ethically and proportionately but rather it chooses to act ruthlessly and disproportionately, and then seeks to justify its killing of civilians by spurious recourse to international law. Which leads us to the intransigence and belligerence of the Likud-led coalition government and the coarsening of public debate in Israel, where Jewish dissenters to the war are in the minority.

The territorial maximalists and absolutists are in the ascendant in Israel. In a column about the Gaza war in Haaretz, for which she is correspondent on the occupied territories, Amira Hass wrote bravely of her country’s “moral implosion” and the “ethical defeat of a society that now engages in no self-inspection”. She exaggerates – I know many Israelis who are deeply anguished and self-inspecting – but she is correct to suggest that Israel, even as it attempts to bomb its way to security, has suffered a moral defeat in Gaza: a defeat, Hass wrote, that “will haunt us for many years to come”, as well it might. 

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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue