UPDATE AUGUST 2011 - The collective punishment of Palestinians continues. Following an attack by gun men in Israel which left 7 people dead, the Israeli Defence Force has been repeatedly bombing Gaza over the last 24 hours - an act which by its nature is always indiscriminate, regardless of how supposedly targetted such strikes are. Tanks are reported to be approaching Gaza from Israel - similar acts by the Syrian regime against largely defenceless people are rightly being condemned around the world. But in Gaza is the silence only to be broken by the sound of gunfire?
This post was originally written at the onset of the Israeli assault on Gaza in January 2009, after I attended an anti-war demonstration in Leeds. The attack led to the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian civilians, including many children. I wrote about the aftermath in a later post. However, while the major Israeli assault is over, the siege continues - as witness the recent attempts by boats to reach Gaza with supplies. Israel continues to restrict aid, and refuse exit to the hundreds of thousands trapped in the cramped conditions of Gaza. The violence against them continues on a more casual basis, while their situation remains utterly desparate. The world sits by, twiddling its thumbs, and America's support for Israel remains pretty much unchanged in spite of the early promise of Obama.

"they will bring upon themselves a bigger shoah (holocaust)"

Tuesday, 06 January 2009 at 06:58
A tiny area, packed with tens of thousands of people in cramped, inadequate, decaying buildings; with no one allowed in or out; water supplies cut and barely enough food allowed in; with one of the highest rates of infant mortality and deaths in childbirth…packed in together, with a mighty army surrounding this place to keep its inhabitants incarcerated, the head of the army proclaiming that soon he will unleash a holocaust on that place.

Where is this? The Jewish ghetto in Warsaw in 1941? Or Vilnius in 1942?

It could have been – but it is neither. It is Gaza, squeezed between Israel and Egypt. And the time is…now.

Gaza is a strip of land 25 miles long and 4 miles wide, with 1,600,000 people squashed into its confines. They are nearly all refugees or the children and grandchildren of refugees – the Palestinians thrown out of their lands in what is now Israel in 1948.

After the peace accords signed in 1993, the territory fell under the administration of the Palestinian National Authority, which also has jurisdiction over various enclaves in the West Bank. In both areas, however, the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), retained military control and withdrew from Gaza only in 2005.

Elections to the Palestinian Parliament in 2006 brought Hamas, a fundamentalist Islamic religious party, to power, its electoral triumph defeating the previous regime of the PLO-Fatah party of the late Yassir Arafat. Hamas was the clear choice of the Palestinian electorate. Yet the EU and USA joined Israel in refusing to recognise or deal with them – democracy it seemed mattered to the West only as long as it produced the right result. After clashes between supporters of Hamas and Fatah, the Palestinian lands fractured, with Hamas in control of Gaza and Fatah in control of the West Bank territories.

Israel began a blockade of Gaza, restricting food and water and medicine. The densely populated territory suffered greatly as a result, and a UN report just a few weeks ago found massive addiction to painkillers and antidepressants among all age groups as the only things which helped the inhabitants cope with day to day life. Gaza is a ghetto just as much as the ones the Jews of Poland were crushed into ahead of their deportation to the gas chambers.

Under the circumstances, it seems of little surprise that some Gazans resorted to firing homemade rockets with fertiliser incendiaries into Israel. Over the last six years, this led to 19 Israeli deaths. Hamas encouraged this, and Israel responded – with massive raids by its airforce and its army, the fourth largest in the world. Several thousand Palestinians have been killed over the same period (around 2,300 in Gaza alone, including nearly 400 children). Past Israeli tactics have included bulldozing rows of houses in the close quarters of Gaza, often with little or even no notice to the residents. Now, tonight, their army has launched a land assault.

Earlier today, like thousands in cities around Britain, I joined about 350 others to march and protest in Leeds City Centre to call for peace in Gaza. Under a steel grey sky, in the bitter chill of an early January afternoon, we walked along the Headrow as shoppers watched, most of them seeming mildly bemused by this interruption to their post-Christmas Sales shopping, a few more hostile, shouting abuse, especially at the Muslim women in their headscarves. The police filmed us carefully every step of the way.

Why should it matter? Why does it matter, what happens hundreds of miles away?

Aside from the moral and ethical case, if these are not enough, there is the self-interest of stopping violence between humans: what happens there could happen anywhere, given the right (or wrong) conditions. And with its arms supplies to Israel, the UK is more involved than probably any of these shoppers might imagine.

The USA bankrolls both the Israeli army and pumps a huge economic subsidy into Israel - some estimates as high as $5.5 billion pa. In addition, the UK is one of the IDF’s arms suppliers . Both could exert a huge influence on what is happening if they chose. But both Bush and Brown (and of course the Middle East Peace Envoy, Tony Blair) have at best equivocated, somehow putting the puny rocket attacks on a par with the assault launched by the fourth most powerful army in the world; more than that, they have effectively backed Israel to the hilt, leaving little room for hope they might broker true and just peace.

US President, George Bush, has claimed this latest bloodshed is the inevitable and justified Israeli response to Hamas terrorism: Barak Obama, by his craven silence at this critical time, has in effect endorsed this view, even although the first shots were fired several weeks ago by Israeli forces and although as far back as 29 February last year, the Israeli Defence Minister was promising to unleash a “shoah”, a holocaust, on Gaza.
That the Israeli elections are only a few weeks away and the poll ratings of the two Government parties – Kadima and (shame on them) Labour – have soared since the offensive began is clearly more than coincidence. Likewise, this can be seen as Bush’s last anti-Muslim hurrah, a proxy assault by his allies rather than the no longer possible attack on Iran he dreamt off, just as his dad, Bush senior, invaded Somalia at the equivalent point in the dying days of his Presidency in 1991/92. Just as Clinton was incapable of sorting out the mess in Mogadishu, it seems hard to see how Obama will ever draw peace out of the Palestinian pyre.

But then perhaps that would suit some of these scheming politicians – for Hamas is very much the creation of the Israelis. Back in the 1980s, PLO-Fatah, a vaguely socialist, wholly secular party led by Yassir Arafat, was in the ascendancy among Palestinians and recognised around the world as their legitimate voice. Israel decided on an approach of divide and conquer and so began to sponsor, fund and train Hamas as a religious alternative for Palestinians in order to undermine Fatah and Arafat. That Hamas went on to win the elections and subsequently for the Palestinian Authority to be effectively divided in two is something that will suit those who wish no peace that involves Israel surrendering an inch of land. It may bring no peace or security, but the low grade incursions Hamas makes into Israel may well be seen as a price worth paying by those who seek endless confrontation.

Anti-war demo in Leeds, January 2009
Today, one speaker hit the nail on the head for me: when he saw children weeping amid the ruins of their homes, he thought of his children; when he saw an old woman bleeding in a hospital, he thought of his own mother; when he saw houses turned to rubble, with people trying to dig their neighbours out, he thought of his own neighbours. I think it is this, the commonality of suffering, that should bind us together in campaigning for peace - by marching, by writing to MPs, emailing newspapers, by talking to any who will listen.

Only by accident are we born where we are born; but we are all part of humanity, and there is only one earth. What happens anywhere should concern us all – enough at least to stop shopping and start shouting.

The land attack has begun – there will be more demonstrations in the UK and around the world in the days to come. These will all be chances for us to make our voices heard to save Gaza, and all of us.

When the Nazis came for the communists
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.
When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.
When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.
When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I was not a Jew.
When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

- Pastor Martin Niemoller