An Israeli soldier prays on a tank a few kilometres from the Israel-Gaza border on 6 August as the ceasefire entered a second day. Photo: Getty
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Leader: Israel’s moral defeat in Gaza

Israel will know true quiet only by withdrawing from the occupied territories and negotiating a settlement with the Palestinian leadership, which may well include Hamas.

In his harrowing report from Gaza, our reporter Donald Macintyre tells the story of Mohammed Badran, a ten-year-old-boy whose family was killed in an Israeli air strike on their home in the Nuseirat refugee camp. Mohammed survived but was blinded in the attack, probably by flying shrapnel, which is maiming and killing so many. Confused by what was happening around him when he arrived at al-Shifa Hospital, the boy kept asking staff, “Why have you switched the lights off?” A bereaved and blinded boy asking for the lights to be turned on in a suddenly darkened world: the cruelty and arbitrariness of his suffering is like something from an ancient parable.

More than 1,850 people, most of them civilians, have been killed since Israel responded to Hamas rocket fire by launching a series of air strikes on Gaza in which hospitals, mosques and even UN schools sheltering displaced civilians have been deemed legitimate targets. In addition, Israel launched a land invasion of the blighted strip on 17 July, the purpose of which, it said, was to destroy the network of tunnels that had been dug deep beneath Gaza and through which Hamas militants could enter Israel to launch terror attacks.

Israel has said that its ultimate aim is to “bring long-term quiet” to its citizens. But Prime Minister Binyamin Netan­yahu is deluded if he believes that Israel can bomb its way to security through indiscriminate use of force. Israel will know true quiet – especially as each generation, on both sides, is hardened by war and hatred deepens – only by withdrawing from the occupied territories and negotiating a settlement with the Palestinian leadership, which may well include Hamas.

Israel is the lone democracy in a region being ravaged by war. It has representative government, a free press and a flourishing, plural civil society. However, in times of war the nation unites behind its army – opinion polls suggest that the war in Gaza has the support of as high as 90 per cent of Jewish Israelis.

As it grieves its own dead soldiers, Israel seems immune to world opinion. Bolstered by unequivocal US support and certain of the nefarious intent of the Islamists of Hamas, many Israelis have become desensitised by decades of war and bloodshed. The country, once a haven for socialists, has shifted abruptly right. A new generation of belligerent territorial maximalists, led by Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party, opposes the creation of a Palestinian state.

The Gaza crisis has been condemned as “intolerable” by Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, and Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, has spoken of the “outrages” committed by Israel. The most recent attack on a UN-run school in Rafah, a town in the south of the Strip on the border with Egypt, was denounced by Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, as “a moral outrage and a criminal act”. The attack, he said, was “yet another gross violation of international law”.

Yet the UN is powerless to influence Israel, let alone prevent the killing of civilians in contravention of the Geneva Conventions, signed in the aftermath of the Second World War. David Miliband, the former British foreign secretary who is now head of International Rescue, has expressed horror at the killing of the innocent in Gaza. “As the leader of a humanitarian movement I have to defend the principle that, after centuries in which civilians were . . . caught in the crossfire of war, finally in 1949 the Geneva Convention established the absolute right to defence for civilians in times of war. That is being broached [by Israel]. The heartbreaking, the heart-rending situation which faces the people of Gaza is that 1.8 million of them are trapped in an area where frankly there is no safe zone.”

Elsewhere, the Haaretz journalist Amira Hass has written of her country’s “moral implosion” and “ethical defeat” – a defeat that “will haunt us for many years to come”. Her words resonate because in spite of its legitimate right to self-defence, Israel, which has one of the most technologically sophisticated militaries in the world, has wilfully violated the rules of war.

On page 34, we republish a 1955 NS profile of David Ben-Gurion. The piece reminds us that Ben-Gurion’s great fear was that the Israelis would one day become “Levantinised”, which was his “word for his nightmare – his people becoming like their neighbours”. As war rages across the Levant, one can only wonder what Israel’s first prime minister would have made of his proud nation’s moral defeat in Gaza. 

 

Update, 12 August. Donald Macintyre writes: Mohammed Badran’s family turned out not to have been killed in the strike on his home, as had been reported here. In the confusion of a packed Shifa Hospital, the doctors treating him in the burns unit thought he had lost his parents and all his siblings. In fact, although seven of the Badrans’ nine children were also injured in the attack, including their 17-year-old daughter Eman, who is now also in Shifa with serious leg injuries, Mohammed’s parents Tagorid and Nidal Badran both survived to take care of him. That is until Nidal, 44, a policeman, was killed in another air strike, this time on the Qassam mosque in Nusseirat refugee camp, in the early hours of Saturday, 9 August, as he prepared to attend dawn prayers. On 12 August, I was told that Mohammed was being referred to a Spanish hospital for treatment.

This article first appeared in the 06 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Gaza

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.