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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It's a stab in the dark: the myth of predicting your student loan repayments

Even the company responsible for collecting repayments admits that it can't tell students what they'll be.

In response to renewed calls to overhaul the student finance system, the universities minister Jo Johnson insisted last week that the "current system works". He pointed out that a university degree boosts "lifetime income by between £170,000 and £250,000".

What he failed to mention is that not even the people administering the loan system can tell students what they will be expected to pay back each month, because they can't work out what they'll earn. 

When asked by the New Statesman why it had pulled an online calculator designed to tell students what their repayments would be, the Student Loans Company (SLC) said it wasn't "possible to answer customers' questions about how long it will take to repay their loan or how much they will owe at a point in the future because there is no accurate way of predicting their future earning".

The confusion around student loans stems from the fact that, unlike loans from banks, their repayment is income contingent.

Until May last year, the SLC had a calculator on its website which students and parents could use to predict how much they may have to repay in the future. But after Andrew McGettigan, a higher education journalist, emailed the SLC noting that the calculator did not take into account gender inequality in future salaries, it was swiftly taken down. 

It was in response to queries about this calculator from the New Statesman that the SLC admitted that there was no accurate way to predict future repayments. The organisation added that it was "exploring new and better ways to present information" to its customers. 

This admission appears to undermine Johnson’s “fair and equitable” description of the student finance system. If even SLC can't say what repayments could look like, how do we know? 

Further controversy around student loan repayments is expected when a report is published later this year by the Department for Education on student finance and expenditure. This is expected to highlight the discrepancy between the maintenance loans students receive and rising rent costs. 

There are still a range of unofficial student loan calculators on the internet, but many use overly optimistic projections for future earnings. McGettigan says this is because they are based on salary trends from the 1980s to the 2010s. He also adds that these unofficial calculators are all based on the official one that was removed – and that they also do not take into account the impact of Brexit. It's a stab in the dark.

The SLC notes that "every student who applies for their student finance online must navigate a page of key repayment information that outlines six points". Student loans are inherently complicated by design, but as Amatey Doku, NUS vice president (higher education), makes clear, this has consequences for fair access to higher education. “We know that BME and poorer students are more worried about high levels of debt than any other group, but the current system does not provide adequate support for those about to enter it.”

Students seeking advice from an independent body will be hard-pressed to find one. The independent Student Finance Taskforce set up by the coalition government in 2011, which sought “to reassure potential students about what they can expect when applying for university and beyond”, was quietly discontinued and never replaced. 

Read more: Jeremy Corbyn's opponents are going down a blind alley on tuition fees

Further confusion surrounds the government’s framing of student finance to sixth formers. Beyond the debate surrounding tuition fees, there is the assumption that has never been made explicit by either political party, which is that students who have a household income of more than £25,000 are expected to have some form of financial support from their families for living costs.

Are parents made aware of this before their children apply to university? Unlike in America, where parents are encouraged to put money away into a “college fund”, the British government never openly encourages parents to save specifically to send their children to university. 

Although there is “no specific date” for its publishing, the Department for Education's report is is believed to argue that, much like the NUS’s debt report did in 2015, that the current system results in poorer students having to take excessive part-time work during the university term. Some also have to take on commercial loans. The stress of both can have an adverse effect on students' mental health.

All this, and not even the organisation responsible for collecting repayments can tell students how much they will be paying back.