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The human cost of violence in Israel and Gaza

Phoebe Greenwood in Gaza reflects on the recent violence.

You never get used to the sight of a dead child. The men working at the morgue in Shifa hospital, the largest in Gaza, have seen their share. Yet when the four small bodies of the El Dallo children, crushed, blackened and bloody, were rushed in on Sunday evening, carried on a surge of shouting relatives, hospital employees paled. Laying their bodies, wrapped in white cloth, two abreast on rows of metal trays, ready to be stored until their funerals the following morning, a morgue employee was overcome with tears. “What rocket did these kids ever fire?” he asked.

On the evening of Tuesday 20 November, as the Gaza Strip held its breath to see if the rumoured ceasefire would take hold – first at 8pm, then midnight, then 2am – the bodies of more children, dead and injured, crashed through the doors of the emergency unit at Shifa hospital. The heaviest bombardment of the war so far ran into the early hours of the morning of 21 November, with no sign of the promised truce. Apache helicopters hovered in the sky near the morgue, the air thick with the stench of burning plastic, as the hospital filled to capacity.

More than 30 children have been killed in this latest cross-border war between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip; more than 135 Palestinians have been killed in total (as we went to press). Five Israelis have been killed and dozens injured by a barrage of 1,380 home-made Qassam and long-range missiles, fired from Gaza into Israel. The Israeli military has evidently learned its lessons from Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, a war that cost Gaza 1,400 lives and Israel its unconditional backing from western powers. Even the US was unable to balance the volume of innocent blood spilled with the security gains won. Then, after three weeks of military destruction wrought from land, sea and air, Hamas was still in power. Four years later, its militant wing is once again firing rockets into Israel.

This time around, the Israel Defence Forces’ media unit has fed journalists footage of their F16 pilots aborting bombing missions to prevent civilian casualties. Mark Regev, the prime minister’s spokesman, and his military counterpart, Avital Leibovich, have appeared on global news bulletins reporting “surgical strikes” that have successfully targeted Hamas infrastructure, weapons stores and militant leaders.

Deserted streets

On the streets of Gaza City, the air hums noisily with the whine of Israeli drones and the chug of electricity generators running through the daily 18 hours of power cuts. Few are reassured by Israeli claims of “precision”. Most shops on the main streets are closed, their owners at home with their families. After nightfall, the streets are deserted. People are terrified. The only people still operating at full capacity are taxi and ambulance drivers, militants and journalists.

Leibovich tells news teams that Israel has taken pains to avoid killing civilians but when Hamas uses children, women and journalists as “human shields”, civilian losses are unavoidable. Seven days into the war, most of the Palestinians killed have been women and children.

“Journalists are always in danger but we have tried to show everything, all the children killed, all the houses destroyed,” said Mohamed Musa al-Akras, 23, from his hospital bed in Shifa hospital’s crowded orthopaedics unit. The al-Aqsa TV cameraman was editing footage at 2am on the morning of 19 November when a missile fired from an F16 jet hurtled through the ceiling. The IDF was targeting an antenna above the office of the TV channel al-Quds that it claims was being used by Hamas. Khader al-Zahher, an intern, was hit by the third missile fired. The blast shattered one of his legs, which was later amputated.

Another Israeli strike was launched simultaneously on the Shuruq Tower, several blocks away. This was home to Sky News, al-Arabiya news and Russia Today. Plumes of smoke surged from the ground floor. This time, the target was the Islamic Jihad commander Ramez Harb. Three cameramen were injured in the blast, two from al-Jazeera. On 20 November, three more journalists were killed, two as they sped through Gaza’s streets to the site of another Israeli strike.

Buried bodies

When the four El Dallo children were buried, only Jamal, their grandfather, was left to mourn. They were carried for a final visit to their destroyed home, along with ten of their family friends also killed in the strike. Israel is investigating the civilian casualties in this incident but confirms “targeting” a Hamas official at the house. The children had not yet been washed for burial. Their bodies were still bloody, covered in dust and swathed in Palestinian flags. “I expected this would happen,” Jamal said as he moved through the crowd to view their bodies. “No family, no house is safe in the Gaza Strip.”

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What is Israel thinking?

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide