For the majority of JC readers, one suspects, Gaza remains an almost unfathomable concept — a bit like pre-Second World War Sudetenland, infamously described by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain as “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing”.
But the Jewish community, probably more than most casual observers, needs to know about Gaza. Its importance in any potential future peace deal for Israel cannot be overestimated.
So Gaza: Preparing For Dawn, a new book by veteran foreign correspondent Donald Macintyre, would seem to be almost required reading.
Macintyre, 70, the Independent’s Jerusalem bureau chief between 2004 and 2012, knows Gaza well. His time in Israel overlapped the Jewish state’s disengagement from the Strip, three wars and an economic blockade; and although he is painfully aware that some of his book might have become out of date instantly, he believes it covers “an important period, worth charting in some detail”.
That’s a characteristic understatement from Macintyre, a charming and self-deprecating journalist, who keeps himself well out of the story in order to give the reader the most objective picture. In fact, he sounds slightly surprised at the fact that he became a foreign correspondent at all — and he is unusual among his peers in that Jerusalem is the only place he has served abroad.
A long-time labour and political correspondent, Oxford-educated Macintyre jumped ship from The Times when Rupert Murdoch moved his operation to Wapping, and after a stint at the Sunday Telegraph, where he was political editor, joined the Independent as political editor between 1993 and 1996.
But “I had itchy feet”, he says, and — quite late in life, in his 50s — took the decision that “I could either sit around whingeing that I had never worked abroad, or I could do it”.
In 2003, he’d been to Israel and Gaza for the first time, going to help cover Sharon’s second election. He got a taste for going back, he says.
“I remember driving in from Erez [the Erez checkpoint, the main crossing between Israel and the Strip] and seeing Gaza City in the distance. I don’t want to romanticise it but it was almost like this secret vista — and yet it is a big city, with 700,000 people, quite a few universities;` it’s a pretty major conurbation, in my view it’s certainly the most metropolitan and sophisticated of Palestinian cities”.
Metropolitan? Sophisticated? These are not usually words associated with Gaza. And yet Macintyre succeeds in showing a society with quite as much an appetite for education and creativity as its Israeli neighbours.
The tragedy, as he also recounts, is that, through a variety of factors, both external and internal, Gaza’s Palestinians have not been able to satisfy these appetites — or come anywhere near them.
Our talk took place before President Abbas’s most recent denunciation of Israel, lambasting it as “a colonial project that has nothing to do with Judaism,” pronouncing the Oslo Accords dead and buried in the wake of America’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Perhaps if we had spoken after the Fatah leader’s lengthy rant, Macintyre might have offered different conclusions. But his book carefully unpicks the edgy and uneasy relationship between Abbas’s Fatah and the Hamas leadership, painting a depressing portrait of a group of civilians constantly caught between the two groupings.
Up to President Trump’s radical announcement in December, broadly speaking, Fatah was supposedly Israel’s partner for peace, while Hamas, funded by Iran and responsible for endless rocket attacks against Israel, was judged beyond the pale. It was Hamas that was responsible for building the never-ending terror and smuggling tunnels from the Strip into Israel; Hamas that waged war against it; Hamas whose original charter denounced Jews.
But Macintyre acknowledges that things are never black and white in the Middle East. His book shows a Gaza in which many businesses had close and productive ties with businesses in Israel, and whose economy is the subject of serious concern by Israeli intelligence and military leaders. They are aware, says Macintyre, that a Gaza in better economic health is much less likely to make war against its neighbour. To write the book, he drew a lot on his own reports for the Independent and, in 2016, spent months living in the Strip, for the first time in an apartment block in Gaza City, rather than in a hotel as most foreign correspondents do.
There is, Macintyre agrees, “a simplistic understanding of what Gaza represents” as it is portrayed in the world’s press. “Gaza is only in the headlines in a major way when there is a full-scale conflict. The TV pictures that you get … it’s either blown-up buildings from Israeli missiles or masked guys clutching AK-47s. Those tend to be the dominant images, and one of the reasons I wanted to write this book is that I think there is a lot more to Gaza.
“Israelis and their supporters tend to see it, in [former US Secretary of State] Condoleeza Rice’s phrase, as a terrorist wasteland. There is a tendency to depict it as a humanitarian basket case — which it is — but it’s not just that”.
For Macintyre, it is a “great shame” that Israeli journalists have been stopped — by their government — from reporting from Gaza. “It is a matter of great regret: and it means that the Israeli public don’t get as rounded a view of Gaza as one would hope”.
He acknowledges a profound depression in Gaza after the 2014 war — high numbers of dead, and nothing to show for it, nothing achieved. On the other hand, he says, “there is something profoundly uplifting in Gaza. There is humour, there is industry, it is an entrepreneurial society — and they are education mad”.
Nor does he place the blame for Gaza’s woes solely on Israel’s shoulders. “I wouldn’t exempt Egypt from responsibility, in particular relating to the supply of electricity to Gaza. It is at least questionable whether Israel doesn’t have responsibility to go on supplying electricity to Gaza at less than market rates.”
He contacts the JC after our interview to stress his grave concern at President Trump’s decision to cut or freeze $65m in UNRWA funding. The UN agency “provides food aid, education and health services to a majority of the Gaza population,” he points out. “This would be bad enough in any circumstance, but in Gaza’s currently dire conditions, it is likely to cause real social implosion.”
He describes himself as “agnostic” as to how Palestinians can achieve political rights, and while he will not pronounce the two-state solution dead, he thinks it cannot be reached without external pressure, although not Trump’s version. “Europe has a locus in this issue. It is a major donor both to the Palestinian Authority and to UNRWA.”
He can’t resist the cynical worry that wars between Israel and Gaza have erupted when Israeli leaders have been in political trouble — “Olmert was in pretty deep political trouble when the 2008/9 war started, and Netanyahu is in fairly deep trouble now. One can’t rule out war as a distraction. I really hope it isn’t going to happen, but the experience of the last decade does not lead one to take an optimistic view that there isn’t going to be another war”.
‘Gaza: Preparing for Dawn’ by Donald Macintyre is published by OneWorld Publishing at £20. He will be speaking at an event for the New Israel Fund on February 12. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for details