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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Why we should still care about the Commonwealth

It may be a relic of the Empire, but smaller countries in particular benefit from remaining members. 

On the face of it, the Commonwealth is a strange beast. A hotchpotch of 53 nations, covering a quarter of the world’s land-mass, its leaders represent (after a fashion) a third of world’s population.

Born out of the Empire, it was Whitehall’s answer to the conundrum of what to do with an imperial estate that had grown rapidly and uncontrollably. What to do with this giant mess troubled civil servants as early as 1887, and was discussed at a series of imperial conferences. It was only in 1949 that the term “British” was dropped from its title and the modern Commonwealth was born.

Yet, despite its odd history, it remains an attractive option, especially for the world’s smaller states. The Commonwealth is rather like a battered, mended, shabby coat that almost anyone can put on. Its Secretariat resides in the fading grandeur of Christopher Wren’s Marlborough house on Pall Mall. It’s a place Commonwealth leaders can pop into during visits to London; to complain about the rudeness of British politicians, or to ask for advice.

This gives a hint as to just why leaders like it. States like Australia or India have little need for the organisation. But how else would tiny Nauru, in the Central Pacific, with a population of just 10,900 ever have its voice heard? Britain, with its seat on the Security Council, has a responsibility to oblige. The British gift to this week’s meeting is a £61m fund to fight plastic pollution in the oceans.

Leaving aside the concerns of Commonwealth leaders, I was struck by how often I came across the organisation during my time as the BBC’s World Service’s Africa News Editor. Tramping through the East African bush I would stumble across men such as an Indian vet, who had been flown in at short notice to help stamp out some virulent livestock disease. Commonwealth connections can provide assistance from everything from farming to the judiciary. It is this kind of quiet backup that is really important in an unassuming sort of way.

The Commonwealth is full of strange nooks and corners. The CDC (until the Blair government reformed it, the Commonwealth Development Corporation) funds commercial investments. Some investments have been criticised by organisations like War on Want for being too commercial. But for cash-strapped businesses in Africa and South Asia CDC can be a lifeline, committing $1.3bn of direct funding since Commonwealth leaders last met in 2015. Its investments support businesses with over half a million employees.

A brand-new code of conduct to help the media has just been drawn up; put together by a group of journalists drawn from across the globe, with a fair smattering of former BBC staffers. It is full of the sort of worthy aspirations that such drafts normally include. The state and prime ministers are unlikely to give it a second thought.

It was only at last week’s launch that its importance was brought home. One journalist after another stood up to explain the pressures their colleagues were facing: the death threats in rural India, or the attacks on the press in Rwanda. The principles urge Commonwealth leaders to ensure that “journalists can work without fear of attack, intimidation or interference, and to take prompt measures to protect them when they face a serious threat of harm or are subject to attack”. Without sanctions or a monitoring mechanism it is unlikely to be of much immediate help, but slowly – perhaps imperceptibly – it might seep into the patina of the organisation. World leaders don’t like to be called to account.

Britain itself is unlikely to benefit directly from this week’s Commonwealth summit. It is certainly no substitute for membership of the European Union. As Peter Mandelson argued: “for most Commonwealth producers the UK was chiefly an easy route into Europe.” Perhaps the people who have gained most from the gathering have been the Windrush generation. Acute embarrassment at their plight, just when so many Commonwealth leaders were in London, forced Theresa May’s government into a sharp U turn and an abject apology.

Perhaps the Commonwealth is not so bad, after all.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. His most recent book is a biography of Robert Mugabe with Sue Onslow.