The bloodthirsty tragedy of Gaza and Israel has so many of us in the wider world despairing of the conflict in the Middle East. It is some 40 years since I watched Israel invade Lebanon to settle the Palestinian issue once and for all — based first in Lebanon and afterwards Israel. To say that nothing has been settled would be an understatement. Still, I’m sensing just a hint of hope this time around.
Intense diplomatic choreography suggests new thinking at work
Whatever the latest nightmare images, let’s consider how some have re-written their scripts as Hamas and the Israeli government have gone back to the well of bitter history. Yes, Hamas committed horrific atrocities designed to induce a war, see thousands of their own killed, and so produce tens of thousands new volunteers for its jihad. No illusions here. Hamas wanted to bring its paymasters in Iran to a regional conflagration, too.
Likewise, the Israeli government clearly desired to strike back instantly, and dramatically, as has been its way ever since its brutal response to the first Palestinian Intifadas in the late 1980s. Some members of the present government make no attempt to disguise their wish to rid Gaza, and the West Bank, of millions of Palestinians.
Nonetheless, in the past few weeks, we have seen the kind of intense diplomatic choreography that suggests new thinking at work. The Americans, for all the bear-hugs that Joe Biden has given Israel’s Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, have obviously been demanding restraint, with a keen eye on how Israel’s war will be seen in the world at large. Washington has then enlisted the likes of Rishi Sunak, Olaf Scholtz and Emmanuel Macron to join the chorus in demanding Israel think again — “pause” being the latest euphemism — before acting.
Biden, whatever his rhetoric of support for Israel, has now nixed the idea of re-settling Gaza’s 2.3 million people to neighbouring Egypt, warning of how America’s blind anger post-9/11 led to costly disasters for the superpower in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is hard for some of us to remember when an American President gave such a firm “no” to Israel.
Now comes quiet acknowledgement of the superpower realpolitik — an embryonic conversation between Beijing and Washington which we advocated in these pages at the beginning of the Hamas onslaught on Israel. In a surprise visit to Washington, China’s Foreign Minister recently heard the Biden team seek the “calming influence” of China’s Xi Jinping on his ally, Iran, and their proxies in Lebanon and Gaza. Biden and Xi are now expected to meet face-to-face in San Francisco later this month. The Middle East will be number one on their agenda, and what Washington is calling the big question, the “day after” the war over Gaza.
I’ve always had a hope, born out of living in the Holy Land as Middle East correspondent for Britain’s ITN for years and writing a book about the Palestinian–Israeli relationship. The hope was that these two peoples could find a way to co-exist. For a few years in the mid-1980s, I saw that at work, specifically in Gaza. Believe it or not, in those days I could drive down from Jerusalem and spend the weekend in Gaza — listening, watching, learning — and I saw some co-existence. Indeed I can remember Israelis and Palestinians both swimming on Gaza beaches.
A potential conversation between Biden and Xi Jinping hints at a new dawn
I recall — almost fondly, given the bloodshed ever since — Israeli contractors driving in the early morning to Gaza’s Palestine Square, haggling with Palestinian labourers over the day’s pay, then driving them north to work, to Ashkelon, Sderot and Jaffa — towns under Hamas bombardment of late. I rode with a group one morning in 1985, and a middle-aged Palestinian named Khalil explained how he’d worked for the Israelis for years, once as a dish-washer at a Tel Aviv restaurant, then as a gardener for a Jewish family in Tel Aviv, usually two hours there every dawn and two hours back at night. “Min al-farshe al-warshe”, you heard a lot in Gaza back then. Translation: “from the mattress to the workplace, then back to the mattress.”
I remember him telling me that he had Israeli bosses who were decent — on pay, on food, even on accommodation. “I learned to like some of them. There was some respect.” Was it ideal? No. Was it just? No. The Palestinians were the underclass of Israel, and liberal Israeli friends had started using the A-word, “apartheid”. Still, did it signal co-existence of a kind? Yes. In the words of Khalil, “I understand them, and most days they understand me.”
One of the few things I got right in my book was the title of the chapter on Gaza: “The Palestinians are a Jewish problem.” It was not my quote. It came from an interview with then Israeli Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, a man who dreamed of coexistence, echoing a line spoken by Israel’s first president in 1948. History would judge Israel by the way it treated the Arabs, said Chaim Weizmann. In time, Gaza became Israel’s nightmare — so much so that Weizman’s nephew, Ezer, a war hero, then cabinet minister, and a man who would become Israel’s President, told me: “Gaza is a time bomb. I’d give it back tomorrow if someone would take it.” Going back, as the Palestinians launched their Intifadas, it was clear the tiny Strip had become an “open-air prison”, to quote an aide to Peres, part of the team that negotiated the peace accords in 1993.
Today, for all the horrors, I can see signs of change in what the Americans and the Europeans have done over the past month. They have put the foot on the brake of Israel’s response, whatever the dismay we feel at the death count and the attacks on the likes of refugee camps. We can point to a potential conversation between Biden and Xi Jinping as the hint of a new dawn diplomatically.
Even today, with the daily images of humanity tearing itself apart in Gaza, and the prospects for a two-state solution bleaker than ever, I don’t lose hope completely. This latest carnage has me seeing signs of change afoot.
What’s lacking is a way forward — a plan for after this war. Sadly, the United Nations no longer has the credibility to lead the search for peace. The UN Security Council’s paralysis over Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and Syria’s civil war before that makes it semi-voiceless, even though some old UN colleagues are doing brave work in Gaza. Likewise, the Americans and the Europeans seem bankrupt of fresh ideas for a peace going forward. This is why it is vital that others come to the table, and not just the Chinese. The world at large has to say, enough.
We can’t change the past, but we can change the future: “a whole stack of memories can never equal one little hope.”
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