An Israeli tank, part of Operation Protective Edge. Photo: Getty
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Leader: A collective punishment being visited on all Palestinians

The New Statesman view.

For global leaders, foreign crises come not as single spies but in battalions. The shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet by pro-Russian separatists, the Israeli assault on Gaza in retaliation for missile attacks by Hamas, the murderous rampage of Isis in Iraq, the perpetual civil war in Syria – all have shaken and demoralised western elites.

Never has the UN Security Council, which is divided along old cold war lines, seemed more irrelevant. Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the UN, is an especially forlorn figure, a symbol of the decline of the world’s multilateral institutions.

The graphic images of the bodies of passengers, lying in the wreckage of Flight MH17, have concentrated the public mind on the war in Ukraine. It has been said that Vladimir Putin’s determination to rebuild Russia’s sphere of influence and bolster his nation against western expansionism is a sign of weakness rather than strength. But the ease with which the Russians were able to annex Crimea and enter eastern Ukraine merely reinforces western impotence.

The challenge for the United States and the European powers is to agree a set of policies that would ensure that support for rebel groups such as the one that shot down Flight MH17 has profound economic and political consequences for Russia and its leaders.

Meanwhile, Israel’s long war against the Palestinians goes on. Israel has a right to defend itself from incoming rocket fire from Gaza but, however ruthless and cynical Hamas may be, no state, least of all one that purports to be a liberal democracy, has the right to shell a hospital deliberately or indiscriminately kill civilians. It can seem at times as if a kind of collective punishment is being visited upon all Palestinians.

On page 24, Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East editor, writes that he “saw no evidence during my week in Gaza of Israel’s accusation that Hamas uses Palestinians as human shields”. This is an important insight: the Israeli justification for bombing hospitals, schools and a home for the disabled was that Hamas militants were hiding inside the buildings. Even if they were, this would still offer no justification for the state-directed murder of the innocent, who include children.

Before this latest small war, Hamas, corrupt and nefarious, was weak. The fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – the country’s then president, Mohammed Morsi, brokered the last ceasefire between Hamas and Israel in November 2012 – had left the Palestinian militant group even more isolated.

Yet the ferocity of Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip has served only to bolster Hamas. By killing civilians and destroying homes, the most recent offensives by the Israel Defence Forces may prove to be the greatest recruiting sergeant Hamas could wish for.

If any ceasefire is to be permanent, it must be followed by substantive moves towards a political settlement of a kind that, in truth, has never seemed more unlikely. The economic blockade of Gaza – which Palestinians liken to an open prison – must be ended and the 1.8 million people who live in the blighted Strip must be given hope and a sense of possibility, as suggested by Uri Dromi, a spokesman for the Rabin and Peres governments between 1992 and 1996, writing on page 16.

At present, there is no sign that Israel, its people traumatised by decades of war and by Hamas rocket attacks, is willing to make unilateral moves towards a lasting peace. The settlement building continues in the West Bank and the Likud-led coalition government remains belligerent.

What unites the crises in Ukraine and the Middle East is the world’s powerlessness to resolve them. The UN Security Council is riven and ineffective; the EU cannot agree over what should be done in Ukraine. Under the leadership of the cautious and pragmatic Barack Obama, the US is in retreat from world leadership, exhausted by its occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Before Gaza, I’d spent most of the past two months in Baghdad, Beirut, Jerusalem, Aleppo and Damascus,” Jeremy Bowen writes in his NS Notebook. “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.” Such is the weakness of the western powers in an age of insecurity. 

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

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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war