A missile is launched by an 'Iron Dome' battery in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod. Photo: Getty
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Where are the diplomats, policy-makers and peace envoys? They're not in Gaza

The BBC's former Gaza Strip correspondent on the way the world views the Palestinians, and how Israel transformed from a young David of a fledgling state to the Goliath of the occupation.

"Of course, the problem we had in those days was the terrorists," explained the aged former soldier. It was late 2002, and I was visiting the UK – back from my post as the BBC’s correspondent in the Gaza Strip.

"Terrorist" was then one of the most used-words in international news. Israel used it to describe the suicide bombs and other attacks it faced during the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising against Israeli occupation. George Bush and Tony Blair were then preparing to order an invasion of Iraq as part of their "war on terror".

The veteran of D-Day, and of the last days of Britain’s Mandate in Palestine, had something else in mind. 68 years ago next week, on 22 July 1946, fighters of the Irgun – a Jewish armed movement seeking to drive British forces from Palestine, and hasten the creation of a Jewish state – blew up a wing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. The hotel served as the headquarters of the British military and political authorities. As such, it was also a meeting place for journalists.    

"I owe my life, and the fact that I am able to write this story of the bloodiest terrorist outrage, to the cool courage of a British military policeman," began Barbara Board’s story on the front page of the following day’s Daily Mirror. Board went on to describe how as "a great charge of dynamite" went off, the military policeman, who had been guarding the hotel entrance, threw her to the ground "and shielded me with this body."

In the following days, reporters pieced together what had happened. The explosives, it turned out, had been placed in milk churns – and carried to an underground hotel kitchen by Irgun fighters disguised as delivery men. 

A huge military operation to find the attackers and their accomplices follows. Newspapers – outraged at the attack – follow events with enthusiastic headlines. The Daily Mail’s "Palestine Army to crush terrorists" from the 25 July, as the search got underway, is typical.

Weapons are reported found in a synagogue; Tel Aviv residents are dragged from their beds in their nightwear by British paratroopers looking for the bombers.

Less than two years later, the British Mandate is over. The State of Israel has come into being. The United Nations estimate that in the war which made that possible, more than 700,000 people fled their homes in what had been Mandate Palestine.

In the decades between then and now, in the land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean, there have been large-scale wars in 1967 and 1973; two intifadas; several attempts at negotiated peace.

Countless episodes of bloodshed, each false dawn and failure, have been covered in detail by the international press. "It’s very clear that Israel for sure and that this conflict in general gets vastly more coverage than anything else," says the Jerusalem bureau chief of a leading US news organisation.         

From the deadly blow to British imperial personnel and pride suffered in 1946; to Europe’s guilt over the Holocaust; to international sympathy for both Israel and the Palestinians; to the United States' attempts of recent years to seek a diplomatic solution, this is a part of the world with countless global connections.   

"A lot of countries, a lot of peoples, feel that they have got a stake in this story and it’s a story that they engage in, and are committed to over and above any other conflict for religious reasons, for historical reasons – you know, so many European, American countries deeply involved here over a long period of time," another senior member of the Jerusalem press corps told me during my trip there last month.    

Journalism and history are concerned with processes of change, and now the region around Israel and the Palestinian territories is changing as never before. In history as told by journalism, Israel has been admired for its struggle for existence; criticised as the young David of a fledgling state became the Goliath of the occupation. The Palestinians have been pitied for their suffering; reviled as terrorists as the Jewish fighters of the 1940s once were.  

Much has changed in the way journalists work, too. In 1948 and 1967, reporters fretted over whether bombs and bullets would keep them from a post office or telex machine. Now they worry about wi-fi, and whether they will be trolled on social media.

The journalism itself has been praised, and rubbished. Yet their fascination with the story means that journalists have been there, often travelling to places others cannot, or will not. Where, for example, have the diplomats, the policy-makers, the peace envoys been in the last couple of weeks? They have not been in Gaza.
    

James Rodgers is the author of ‘No Road Home: Fighting for Land and Faith in Gaza’ and ‘Reporting Conflict’. His next book, ‘Headlines from the Holy Land’ is due to be published next year by Palgrave MacMillan. He teaches journalism at City University London.

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What Brussels can learn from the Italian referendum

Matteo Renzi's proposed reforms would have made it easier for eurosceptic forces within Italy to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

The Austrian presidential elections can justifiably be claimed as a victory for supporters of the European Union. But the Italian referendum is not the triumph for euroscepticism some have claimed.

In Austria, the victorious candidate Alexander van der Bellen ruthlessly put the EU centre stage in his campaign. “From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after a campaign that saw posters warning against “Öxit”.

Austrians have traditionally been eurosceptic, only joining the bloc in 1995, but Brexit changed all that.  Austrian voters saw the instability in the UK and support for EU membership soared. An overwhelming majority now back continued membership.

Van der Bellen’s opponent Norbert Hofer was at an immediate disadvantage. His far right Freedom Party has long pushed for an Öxit referendum.

The Freedom Party has claimed to have undergone a Damascene conversion but voters were not fooled.  They even blamed Nigel Farage for harming their chances with an interview he gave to Fox News claiming that the party would push to leave the EU.

The European Commission, as one would expect, hailed the result. “Europe was central in the campaign that led to the election of a new president and the final result speaks for itself,” chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels.

“We think the referendum in Italy was about a change to the Italian constitution and not about Europe,” Schinas added.

Brussels has a history of sticking its head in the sand when it gets political results it doesn’t like.

When asked what lessons the Commission could learn from Brexit, Schinas had said the lessons to be learnt were for the government that called the referendum.

But in this case, the commission is right. The EU was a peripheral issue compared to domestic politics in the Italian referendum.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and an Italian. He said the reforms would have been vital to modernise Italy but rejected any idea it would lead to an Italian Brexit.

“While anti-establishment and eurosceptic actors are likely to emerge emboldened from the vote, interpreting the outcome of the Italian referendum as the next stage of Europe’s populist, anti-establishment movement – as many mainstream journalists have done – is not only factually wrong, but also far-fetched.”

Renzi was very popular in Brussels after coming to power in a palace coup in February 2014. He was a pro-EU reformer, who seemed keen to engage in European politics.

After the Brexit vote, he was photographed with Merkel and Hollande on the Italian island of Ventotene, where a landmark manifesto by the EU’s founding fathers was written.

This staged communion with the past was swiftly forgotten as Renzi indulged in increasingly virulent Brussels-bashing over EU budget flexibility in a bid to shore up his plummeting popularity. 

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even publicly reprimanded Renzi for demonising the EU.

Renzi’s vow to resign personalised the referendum. He gave voters a chance to give him a bloody nose when his popularity was at an all-time low.

Some of the reforms he wanted were marked “to be confirmed”.  The referendum question was astonishingly verbose and complex. He was asking for a blank cheque from the voters.

Ironically Renzi’s reforms to the constitution and senate would have made it easier for the eurosceptic Five Star Movement to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

For reasons best known to themselves, they campaigned against the changes to their own disadvantage.

Thanks to the reforms, a Five Star government would have found it far easier to push through a “Quitaly” referendum, which now seems very distant.  

As things stand, Five Star has said it would push for an advisory vote on membership of the euro but not necessarily the EU.

The Italian constitution bans the overruling of international treaties by popular vote, so Five Star would need to amend the constitution. That would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then another referendum on euro membership. Even that could be blocked by one of the country’s supreme courts.

The Italian referendum was closely watched in Brussels. It was hailed as another triumph for euroscepticism by the likes of Farage and Marine Le Pen. But Italians are far more likely to be concerned about the possibility of financial turbulence, which has so far been mildly volatile, than any prospect of leaving the EU in the near future.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv.com.