I’ve been to Gaza twice. The first occasion was a few months after the blood-soaked coup with which Hamas seized power from the Palestinian Authority in 2007, the second during the 2010 football World Cup. On both occasions, I stayed at the al-Deira, a delightful boutique hotel with airy rooms and a decent restaurant on a terrace overlooking the beach. Nearby was a swanky shopping mall with escalators, marble floors and stores that sold familiar designer brands. It also contained a café with a big TV screen, where I joined what passed for Gaza’s gilded youth to watch Germany thrash England 4-1 in the round of 16.
For sure, there were neighbourhoods where the poverty and overcrowding were only too visible. But there were also upscale streets with spacious villas, and it was still possible to imagine that with the right political leadership, the often-cited dream of making Gaza a Singapore on the Med might one day come true.
On both of my visits I employed a local journalist, a civilised, cultured man who spoke excellent English and had been to Britain several times, to fix interviews for me and act as a translator. I’m not going to mention his name, because like the Gazan Ahmad Fouad Alkhatib, whose searing denunciation of Hamas was published by the JC this week, he loathed the terror group and all it stood for, and even then was convinced its reign would end in catastrophe.
We’ve stayed in touch and his posts since October 7 have been heartbreaking. “When I meet a displaced friend, I look into his eyes so he doesn’t see my tears,” he wrote earlier this week. “I’m lost in the roads of exit aimlessly looking for a future lost in the midst of a pile of disappointments,” another post read. “I want to get upset, scream, cry like a child. It is not a weakness. But I do not feel that my emotions and feelings are ok.”
JC readers do not need reminding of the horror Hamas and its allies inflicted on Jews and Arabs in Israel. But maybe we should reflect a little more on the consequences of Hamas rule for Palestinians, for many thousands of them are innocent victims too.
Of course, Gazan casualty figures are suspect: they are issued by the Hamas-controlled health ministry, and they include thousands of fighters killed while waging war. Nevertheless, as a friend said in a conversation this week, if it’s right that as of last weekend, 26,000 Palestinians had died in battle or from airstrikes, that equates to about one per cent of Gaza’s total population before the war. The same proportion of Israelis would be 94,000.
I’m not pointing this out because I endorse the claim that Israel is committing genocide. Well before the sun set on October 7, it seemed clear to me that Israel could, should and would respond to the atrocities in only one way: by seeking to extirpate Hamas once and for all. The days of small, time-limited wars, which started with the terror groups firing rockets, continued with Israeli airstrikes, and ended with the so-called international community securing a ceasefire, were over. It was also clear that the civilian casualties and physical destruction were going to be horrendous, to say nothing of the cost to Israelis who would lose their lives or their loved ones.
But if this war is ever to be succeeded by a lasting peace – a real one, not a series of intermittent lulls between frequent spikes in violence – then world leaders have to recognise just how big an obstacle the wounds suffered by both Palestinians and Israelis really is.
A few weeks ago, I wrote that the British government was in danger of magical thinking when it came to its ideas about what might happen after this conflict. The occasion then was Defence Secretary Grant Shapps’s suggestion that Gaza might be governed by the corrupt, much-hated PA, with some additional help from Britain in training and advising its murderous security forces.
Now we have further examples. The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn was rightly criticised for its policy that Britain would recognise a Palestinian state on “day one” if it formed a government, even though nothing that could reasonably be called a state was actually in existence. Under Keir Starmer, this has been comprehensively jettisoned: Labour’s policy now, sensibly, is to see Palestinian statehood as a goal to be achieved at end of the process, not the beginning.
That used to be Tory policy too. But earlier this week, Foreign Secretary David Cameron seemed to taking at least half a leaf from Corbyn’s book, suggesting that “recognition” from Britain of an independent Palestine “doesn’t have to be the very end of the process. It could be something that we consider as this process, as this advance to a solution, becomes more real.”
The Biden administration, according to reports from America, is thinking along lines even closer to Corbyn’s, with senior officials said to believe that “unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state should be the first step in talks to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict instead of the last”.
When I visited Israel last month, it seemed evident that as numerous Israeli politicians have said, it is far too early to be talking about the contours of a final status, two-state solution. Before most Israelis can contemplate such things, the war has to end, with the remaining hostages freed, Hamas defeated and basic security restored.
At the same time, the facts in Gaza have to be addressed. Almost as many Palestinians live there as in the West Bank, and they have suffered grievous casualties, have had no means of earning a livelihood for four months and counting, and tens of thousands have lost their homes. Dealing with this is not a small problem, and its political consequences will not be trivial.
I ended my previous column on the dangers of magical thinking by stating that I don’t have the answer to what should happen to prevent future violence. But I do know what won’t: Biden and Cameron waving a magic wand and saying “Abracadabra”.