A Palestinian woman in the Gaza Strip on 24 July 2014. Photo: Getty
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Jeremy Bowen's Gaza notebook: I saw no evidence of Hamas using Palestinians as human shields

The BBC's Middle East editor reports from Gaza.

Trouble has been brewing between Israel and Hamas for months. The signs were there before the Israeli and Palestinian teenagers were kidnapped and murdered, and before Israel’s crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank. It’s all horribly familiar. Missiles, rockets and threats, and another Israeli prime minister saying that this time military action would make his people safer.

History shows that military action merely deepens the conflict. Only a proper peace deal will make Palestinians and Israelis safer. There is no chance of one right now, which means more small wars, which will eventually become much bigger ones.

 

Palestinians who live in Gaza often call it the world’s biggest prison. They mean that about 1.8 million people live in a small strip of land, and most of them are not allowed out by Israel and Egypt, which control the border crossings. In Gaza, the human spirit is strong and it can be a surprisingly cheerful prison, but not now, of course.

The main route into Gaza for a journalist is through the Erez checkpoint from Israel. Erez looks a shiny airport terminal, empty and echoing except for the security guards with automatic weapons, and bored young women in the glass passport booths checking their mobiles. To cross, you need a foreign passport and an Israeli press card.

After a series of corridors and steel turnstiles is a concrete wall with a steel door. It slides open, controlled by a distant Israeli at the other end of the CCTV, and Gaza is on the other side. Next comes a kilometre-long wired-in walkway. If you’re lucky, a few Palestinians granted permission by Israel to approach the gate will be waiting. They run a shuttle service that links up with taxis that take you to the Hamas checkpoint. Israel destroyed their small terminal when the current war started. Now they’re back to noting down passport numbers in a ledger on a table under the shade of a tree.

It wasn’t always like that. When I started visiting Gaza in 1991, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians crossed Erez every day to get to work. Paul Adams, my BBC colleague, told me that when he first went to Gaza, teaching on a gap year in 1980, he took a party of Palestinian children on a public bus from the West Bank for a day at the seaside.

Now, anyone who could negotiate a public bus service from the West Bank to Gaza would at the very least get a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. The diplomat who found a way to stop the killing on Gaza’s beaches and streets would deserve much more than that.

 

I saw Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, giving an interview to the BBC after Israel had killed more than 60 people in the Gaza district of Shejaiya. He said he regretted the civilian casualties in Gaza but they were the fault of Hamas. Netanyahu said Israel had warned people to get out. Some had taken the advice; others had been prevented from leaving by Hamas.

I was back in London for my son’s 11th birthday party by the time all those people were killed in Shejaiya. But my impression of Hamas is different from Netanyahu’s. I saw no evidence during my week in Gaza of Israel’s accusation that Hamas uses Palestinians as human shields. I saw men from Hamas on street corners, keeping an eye on what was happening. They were local people and everyone knew them, even the young boys. Raji Sourani, the director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza, told me that Hamas, whatever you think of it, is part of the Palestinian DNA.

I met Sourani first when he was condemning abuses by Yasser Arafat’s men. He has taken an equally tough stance on Hamas. Now he says Israel is violating the laws of war by ignoring its legal duty to treat Palestinian civilians as protected non-combatants.

 

Hamas, human rights groups say, also violates the laws of war by firing missiles at civilians. I used to be very cynical about international humanitarian law. When I heard, some time around the end of the Bosnian war in 1995, that the UN was setting up a tribunal to prosecute war criminals in the former Yugoslavia I thought it was a bad joke. I feel differently now, especially after testifying four times at the tribunal. I don’t think anything similar is coming for the Israelis and Palestinians. But the laws of war are the best way we have to measure the degrees of horror that human beings inflict on each other.

 

When I left Gaza, Palestinian rockets were landing uncomfortably close to Erez crossing. When the alert sounded, our Israeli driver leapt out, leaving the engine running, and took cover behind a wall. It is very frightening to be caught up in a rocket attack like that. Israeli civilians have been protected by the Iron Dome anti-missile system, by a big investment in civil defence (in the border town of Sderot, even the bus stops double as bomb shelters) and because their people are trained from childhood about how to take cover.

But it is wrong to suggest that Israeli civilians near Gaza suffer as much as Palestinians. It is much, much worse in Gaza. I defy anyone with an ounce of human feeling not to feel the same after ten minutes in Gaza’s Shifa Hospital with wounded and dying civilians. In the mortuary, it’s so overcrowded that the bodies of two children are crammed on to a single shelf. One day, they had only found enough of the remains of six women and children to fill a single stretcher.

Before Gaza, I’d spent most of the past two months in Baghdad, Beirut, Jerusalem, Aleppo and Damascus. The Middle East is on fire. I haven’t seen anything like it since my first reporting trip to the region in 1990. I don’t think anyone knows how to put the fire out. 

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor and the author of “The Arab Uprisings” (Simon & Schuster, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

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Irish preparations for border checks bring home the reality of Brexit

The news that the Irish government has begun preparing for customs checks has caused alarm.

With the United Kingdom set to leave the European Union, the re-introduction of some form of border controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic is, perhaps, inevitable.

In particular, after Prime Minister Theresa May confirmed that the UK will be leaving the single market, few can be surprised to hear that the Irish Revenue Commissioners have begun identifying possible locations for customs checkpoints.

Internal government documents, whose contents were reported in yesterday's Irish Examiner, are said to examine possible sites in Louth, Monoghan, Cavan, Leitrim, and Donegal.

Yet if the news is not surprising, the prospect of a reinstated border still has the potential to alarm – another reminder of the unavoidable impact of Brexit on these isles.

According to the Donegal Daily, Sinn Féin TD Pearse Doherty has called the proposals “deeply worrying”.

“This is a major cause for concern for the island of Ireland as a whole, but particularly for counties along the border where communities there have such close social and economic links.

“The re-introduction of full customs checkpoints would cause considerable economic upheaval, and poses a very real threat to our economy and to employment on this island – both north and south.

Concerns have already been raised about services which may be threatened by Brexit. Cross-border health schemes that currently give Irish patients NHS access, for instance, may be at risk, according to UK government documents leaked to the Times.

For those in the border counties, however, the concerns are not only practical.

Although systematic customs checks were abolished in 1993, with the creation of the single market, it was not until the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement were implemented that British military checkpoints were removed from the Irish border. The last major structures were removed in 2007.

Nowadays, road travellers from the North may not even notice they have crossed into the Republic until the first bilingual road signs appear.

Yet the border still looms large in the local imagination. Darran Anderson, the author of Imaginary Cities, is from Derry-Londonderry, and grew up with a military checkpoint at the end of his street.

“The psychological dimension, and the political reverberations from that, shouldn't be overlooked," he tells me.

“The free movement of people across the border has encouraged plural senses of identity and belonging. It was never quite the European cosmopolitanism that some claimed but it was much looser than the traditional 'us and them'. With a reinstated border, we face a situation where the young in particular are expected to return to old identities and allegiances to which they've never really subscribed. Other borders, beyond the physical, risk being reinstated.

Although politicians would no doubt point out that there is a big difference between watchtowers and a routine customs stop, for some, even these proposals represent a worrying step backwards.

“Even if it does occur with minimal disruption, how long will it stay that way?” Anderson asks. “The head of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland has expressed concerns that border posts would be 'propaganda gifts' and 'sitting ducks' for rogue Republican groups, adding that attacks are ‘highly likely.’

"Should those occur, and security be stepped up as a result, it is very easy to see the border becoming re-militarised and the reassurances going the way of the Leave campaign's NHS funding pledge.”

Brexit secretary David Davis has promised that there will be no return to a “hard” border.

Last week, the House of Commons voted down a proposed amendment by the Social Democratic and Labour Party which would have guaranteed that the terms of the Good Friday Agreement be considered during negotiations to leave the European Union.

Speaking after the vote, Ulster Unionist Party MP Tom Elliot re-iterated comments made by the Irish ambassador, Daniel Mulhall, stating that the Irish government has “absolute determination” that the 1998 agreement will not be impacted by Brexit.

But the work on the Irish border suggests the practical side of Brexit may overrule the political principle. 

The Irish Revenue Commission have been approached for comment.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland