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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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution