We have become grimly accustomed to horrific violence in the Middle East. Yet even by the dismal standards of recent years, the killing by Israeli soldiers of civilians on the Gaza border was an outrage. On 14 May, as Palestinians demonstrated by the border fence, Israeli snipers opened fire on largely unarmed protesters, killing 62, including eight children, and wounding at least 2,400 others. Israel, whose illegal blockade of Gaza immiserates the blighted strip’s two million inhabitants (the UN has deemed the area “unliveable”), displayed no regret or remorse.
This was an unashamed and flagrant breach of international law for which there was no conceivable justification. Though Israel’s actions were shocking, they were far from unprecedented. For six weeks, as Palestinians have demonstrated for the right of refugees to return, the Israeli military has indiscriminately fired on unarmed protesters.
The day after the massacre, as funerals were held for the dead, the Palestinians marked the 70th anniversary of the Nakba (catastrophe), commemorating the 700,000 people who fled or were expelled from their homes after the foundation of Israel in 1948. In this febrile climate, Donald Trump recklessly inflamed tensions by recognising Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and moving the US embassy to the city. His presidential predecessors had accepted that the status of Jerusalem, which is also claimed by the Palestinians as their capital, was to be resolved through peaceful negotiation, not unilateralism.
Mr Trump’s decision – a sop to the Republican Party’s evangelical base – renders the ambition of a “two-state solution” still more hollow. Israel has long asserted that it has no “partner for peace”. Hamas, the hard-line Islamist group that rules Gaza through fear and terror, has continually refused to recognise Israel’s right to exist (though it has announced its support for a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders). In a speech on 30 April, the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, who has lost all credibility, used anti-Semitic tropes when he argued that massacres, including the Holocaust, were prompted by Jews’ “social function related to banks and interest”. A disgraceful comment.
The unhappy Palestinians have long been ill-served by their leaders. But Binyamin Netanyahu’s stridently nationalistic government cannot claim that it has been a partner for peace. In defiance of the UN, the US and the EU, Israel has continued to expand illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to the point where there are now more than 800,000 settlers, controlling 42 per cent of the land and representing nearly 13 per cent of the Israeli Jewish population. With every new settlement that is constructed, the possibility of a viable and contiguous Palestinian state recedes further.
Israel now faces what Mr Netanyahu has called “the demographic threat”: the number of Arabs in Israel and the occupied territories and Gaza (6.5 million) will soon exceed the number of Jews (6.9 million). Should this landmark be reached with a Palestinian state still unestablished, as is likely, Israel’s discrimination against its Arab population will be the subject of ever greater scrutiny and outrage. And Israel will be forever haunted by the dark shadow of the Palestinian tragedy.
The inspirational Tessa Jowell
In August 2015, we endorsed Tessa Jowell, who died on 12 May aged 70, to be the Labour candidate in the London mayoral contest. We did so because of her excellent record of service in government – most notably in founding Sure Start, the national nurture and childhood programme, and in helping to bring the 2012 Olympic Games to London, which turned out to be such a joyous event – but also because of her moral character. Unusually in Westminster politics, she seemed to have no enemies, as the cross-party reaction to her death revealed. She was unceasingly courteous and decent. We also believed that to have a woman in her late sixties elected as mayor of London would be inspiring in a culture that can be obsessed with youth and novelty. In the event, Ms Jowell lost out to Sadiq Khan, but she did so with characteristic good grace.
In September 2017, it was announced that Ms Jowell had a brain tumour. But although she was dying, she did not stop campaigning, not least for improved care for patients and research into brain cancer. This week, the government announced increased funding for a national roll-out in England of a “gold standard dye” test to identify the disease – one last triumph for the inspirational Tessa Jowell.
This article appears in the 16 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel and the impossible war