Speechless in Gaza

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Gaza Picture

By Bob Marshall-Andrews MP

Nothing prepares you for it. As a comparatively young Oldie I have had little experience of extensive war damage in civilian areas. It was the same for the majority of our party of 66 European politicians from 13 different countries who spent two days in Gaza.

Nothing prepares you for it. The worst of the damage inflicted by Israeli planes and tanks during Operation Cast Lead has been cleared away, but there is little reconstruction. Construction materials cannot cross the Israeli blockade. Bags of cement are slit open by grinning ringletted guards. Having destroyed they maintain the destruction.

More than a year has passed since the onslaught and the ruins can have the calm air of a natural disaster. This changes when you see the UN schools, classrooms with great holes rendered in their sides and the wire of reinforced concrete spiking towards the blackboards and the wall units that remain inside. Nothing quite prepares you for the sight of a parliament building with one half blown open.

With a fine sense of theatre, our hosts in the Hamas Government organised lunch within the ruined debating chamber. It was a generous lunch with extensive views over the city of Gaza through the walls which no longer existed. A little like dining in the House of Commons with scenic views of Westminster Abbey.

Nothing prepares you for the first hand eye witness account of atrocity. The quiet testimony of children telling of their families being removed from their homes and shot in cold blood by Israeli soldiers. None of us doubted the veracity of what was said. It reflected the quiet dignity of these Palestinian people who have now suffered five years of blockade and deprivation, the collective punishment for the free election of Hamas.

What we saw and heard was compelling confirmation of the Goldstone Report to the United Nations. 1,400 people were killed, countless more injured and traumatised. Among the dead were 400 children and 300 women. 60% of agriculture was wantonly destroyed including three quarters of the chicken farms on which Gaza relies heavily for its subsistence. We saw the wholesale destruction of industrial areas and sewerage plants deliberately bombed in order to pollute the three miles of sea in which the Gazans are allowed to fish by the government of Israel.

Our hotel was a good modern hotel overlooking the Mediterranean and the bombed port. In the morning, when we had the best breakfast that could be provided by the blockade (boiled eggs and cheese), we heard, suddenly, the gunfire of Israeli warships patrolling the three mile limit. The guns are unnecessary and are intended only to intimidate a broken population. On the same day we heard the sonic boom of Israeli F16 planes illegally over-flying the Gaza Strip, intended, again, to destabilise and traumatise a population, of whom 50% are children. The blockade ensures that over half of those children are chronically malnourished.

That is the initial impact of Gaza. The wider impact lies in the ernest friendship of the Palestinian people. The Foreign Office ritually warns any travellers of the dangers of the Gaza Strip but I have seldom felt more safe albeit surrounded by European politicians and led Gerald Kaufman.

We spoke to the elected leaders of the Hamas Government. If these are terrorists they are the best educated terrorists in the world. Middle-aged, clever men and women who welcomed us into the wreckage of their Palestinian parliament. When they observe that it is difficult to see the military potential of the debating chamber it is both a necessary and obvious reflection.

Of course there are terrorist factions in Hamas. Of course rocket attacks on Israel are indefensible and we said so, repeatedly. But equally indefensible were IRA bombings of London and Birmingham which killed far more people. Had we responded by laying waste large areas of Belfast and Derry, slaughtering hundreds of civilians and systematically starving the rest we would have anticipated and received international condemnation and certain trial.

To our delegation, the Prime Minister of the Hamas government stated unequivocally their support for a return to the 1967 borders which should then be legitimised by all sides. This is also their public position, stated repeatedly but largely unreported in the west. Of course they still retain an unsustainable and futile charter calling for the end of the Israeli state. It is a position they will undoubtedly relinquish, but overtures to negotiation with Israel or America are met with the silence of stone.

The conclusions of our delegation were mixed but the anger at what we saw and heard was universally shared. The actions of Israel towards Gaza are indefensible at any level. This is now a pariah state. This ruthless, genocidal repression is the worst in today’s world. It is worse than the Sudan, worse than the Congo, worse than Burma – a large claim but true, and that truth lies not in the identity and suffering of the victims but in the identity and nature of the perpetrators. This deliberate policy of mass starvation, intimidation, destruction and casual slaughter is not perpetrated by warlords or Juntas. It is not the work of the Lords Army or the Ton Ton Macoute. This is the deliberate systematic, lawless cruelty of an apparently democratic state allied to the most powerful nation on earth, a nation which daily colludes in its atrocities and provides impunity for its swaggering extra judicial murder.

The abundant evidence of war crimes and atrocity supports the long meticulous detail of the Goldstone Report but it also underpins the necessity to retain universal jurisdiction to arrest and prosecute those war criminals from the Israeli state who come to the United Kingdom. There can no special provision, no amnesty for them despite the outrageous undertakings of our own Attorney General. If we do not undertake this duty we will collude in a monstrous international crime comparable to any in modern history.

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