I’ve watched the news on the recent violence across Israel and Gaza with a heavy heart. Yet sadly, none of it surprises me.
The photos you see here I took on my last trip, prior to the first Covid lockdown.
As well as talking with hundreds of people on both sides, I have interviewed an ex-member of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) in Jerusalem and the chief spokesman for Islamic Jihad in Gaza. I have also come face to face with the men you see in this photo. In an underground bunker inside Gaza.
If you are expecting a typical anti-Israeli rant, or a pro-Palestinian rant, you won’t find it in this column. There’s enough one-sidedness in other publications for you to take your pick.
As for so-called “social media”, it’s often a cesspit of hate at worst, or blatant one-sidedness at best. And famous celebrities are among the worst; many, I guess, have never been there and have no idea what goes on at ground level.
Everyone please, stop taking hard stances for one side and totally condemning the other. Real life doesn’t work like that. Israel/Palestine is like an onion, you keep peeling off layer after layer after layer. It is deeply complicated indeed and cannot be resolved or even understood by a striking photo, one terrible story or an attention-grabbing headline.
On making friends with a Palestinian in Bethlehem some years back, he told me calmly: “There will never be peace in the land of peace.” I initially thought that negative. Wow was I naïve.
I now know better. And I fear my friend is correct.
The Gaza Strip is totally blockaded off from the world by Israel. It’s a fortress with a wall round it that would make the Berlin Wall look like a garden fence. No one gets in or out without the permission of the IDF. I’ve been in Gaza three times – no easy feat.
So, how on Earth does Hamas get its hands on thousands of rockets? Underground tunnels from Egypt. The weapons are thought to be supplied mainly by Syria and Iran.
I don’t mean tunnels that a solitary man can crawl through, I mean complex tunnels wide enough to drive cars and weapons through. The IDF bombs them on a regular basis, but they still exist and are used to deadly affect, as we see right now.
And of course, it’s always the innocent that suffer most. Believe me, the vast majority of people on both sides want nothing to do with violence.
One of the biggest problems in moving forward is the Palestinian leadership itself, who are pathetically useless. In the West Bank, Fatah has been in power for so many years, it doesn’t even hold elections anymore. If it did, it would be kicked out tomorrow.
In Gaza, ruled by Hamas, they haven’t held elections since 2006. Again, if they did and a serious alternative was on the ballot paper, ie for peace with Israel, Hamas would be out on its ear. Who tells me this? Countless Palestinians themselves.
When last in Gaza, I spent days walking the streets and talking with ordinary Gazans. I asked them who they blamed for their situation. What surprised me was that despite naming Israel of course, many also blamed Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. I also never once heard any ordinary Gazan say they hate Jews.
Many committed western pro-Palestinians cry out, and rightly so, about child deaths in Gaza. They don’t, though, want to talk about the 15 seconds that Jewish kids have to run into bunkers in their school playground before a Hamas rocket slams into them. I’ve seen these bunkers for myself.
Pro-Israelis rightly point this out. Yet they’ve no idea what life really is like in Gaza. I’ve seen it first-hand. What the ordinary people of Gaza cope with every single day is near unimaginable.
I’ve been inside schools and refugee camps in Gaza, seen kids live in fear of Israeli strikes. No child should have to live like this. No Muslim child. No Jewish child.
As for Israel, it is not doing itself any favours whatsoever. Take the building that housed foreign press agencies which it bombed last week. Despite giving an hour’s warning, Israel took it out. Not good PR.
That said, Hamas has been accused – and there is much evidence to support this – of using residential areas to store and fire rockets from. It has also been accused of running supply tunnels under schools and near hospitals. Therefore, when Israel hits them, innocents suffer.
Israel claims it is attacking legitimate targets, and often it is. However, many innocents die during these attacks. It’s heart-breaking.
And what about that oft used phrase these days “collateral damage”? I hate that phrase.
As for Hamas firing rockets into Israel? Please, be under no illusion, Hamas fires off thousands of rockets indiscriminately towards civilian populations. That is not an opinion. It is fact.
And remember this, something that Hamas supporters in the west often fail to grasp is that around 20% of the Israeli population is Arab. Therefore, not only are innocent Jews dying from these rockets, but Muslims also.
Each side only wants to tell you the evils done to them by the other side. They don’t want to admit what their side does wrong. The problem here is not fake news, it’s blatant one-sidedness, and until we overcome this, no progress will ever be made.
I’m sorry, but after countless visits to Israel/Palestine over many years, I cannot come out 100% for or against either side. I’m always amazed that other westerners can. There really are a lot of armchair experts out there, especially those living in social media bubbles.
And please, don’t quote the bible at me over whose land it is and who has the ultimate right to be here. You’re really not helping.
Hamas has to stop firing rockets into Israel, and pressure has to be brought to get those who do supply Hamas to not do so anymore.
Israel has to find a way to end the blockade of Gaza. It simply cannot go on as it is. Also, inside Israel and the West Bank, they have to address the fact that Palestinians and even Arab Israelis do not have anywhere near the same quality of life as Jewish residents. The checkpoints and disruption which cause misery to the lives of hundreds of thousands in the West Bank, is unsustainable.
Does Israel have a right to defend itself? Yes, every country does. Does that give it the right to condemn millions of people in Gaza to live in abject misery? No, it does not.
Does Hamas have any justification to fire thousands of rockets indiscriminately into Israel? No, it does not. Does Hamas have a right to say “end the blockade of Gaza”? Yes, it does. However, surely that can’t happen until Hamas drops its long-term goal for the destruction of Israel. Which of course it won’t do.
Do children on both sides have the right to live free from fear? Yes, they do.
As for those who naively shout, “free Palestine”, believe me, if the walls were to be unilaterally taken down around Gaza today, there would be a stampede on a biblical scale of hundreds of thousands fleeing Hamas-run Gaza to escape into Israel. Chaos would reign.
However, if Israel keeps the walls around Gaza and the blockade going, there will be a humanitarian disaster in Gaza the likes of which the region has never see before.
Someone said to me recently: “Surely there should be no Jews, no Muslims, no Christians… only people.”
Poignant words indeed.
But what worries me even more than the bombing of Gaza and Hamas rockets into Israel is the senseless violence inside Israel between Palestinian and Jewish communities. Jewish people dragging Palestinians out of cars and beating them, Palestinians attacking Jews and stabbing them. For no reason other than they are from the other side.
Flags, ultra-nationalism, and religion can often create a “them and us mentality”. Fear, hate and suspicion rule here.
I see no evidence whatsoever that either side will budge. Hamas will never give up power, never recognise Israel.
Israel will never recognise the state of Palestine and give them half of Jerusalem as a capital. It’s simply not going to happen. The much talked about two-state solution is dead in the water.
So, what does the future hold? Sadly, just more of what we see on our TV screens.
This latest escalation will die down, it always does. What then? I could pretty much write the script.
Hamas will claim that it has repelled the invaders. Israel will claim it has weakened Hamas’s position.
Who knows what will have happened by the time you read this column? A ceasefire may have been achieved. But it will, as always, only be a sticking plaster.
Each side will rebuild, Israel will get stronger, Hamas will source more rockets, and in time, probably sooner than later, it will all kick off again.
I’ll leave the last line of this column to my wise friend Adel.
“There will never be peace in the land of peace.”