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.


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.


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.


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.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.