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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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