2014: Gaza’s Year of Mayhem

There are some years when Gramsci’s adage about pessimism of the mind and optimism of the will seems more appropriate than others, and 2014 was a year filled with some pretty awful events, whether it was kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria or a summer in which more migrants drowned in the Mediterranean than ever.  In Ukraine the geopolitical test of strength between Russia and NATO triggered a vicious new conflict with the potential to turn into something even bigger and nastier.   In Syria there is no end in sight to a war that clearly cannot be won by anyone, but which none of the protagonists or their various backers seem to have serious interest in bringing to an end.

2014 was also a year in which we saw the rise of Isis in Syria and Iraq – a stunningly brutal and savage organization whose startling assault on a corrupt and disintegrating Iraqi state was clearly due as much to the weaknesses of its opponents as it was to its own strengths.  These successes were nevertheless used as a pretext for yet another of the West’s strategically incoherent ‘humanitarian’ wars, even as an older intervention in Afghanistan came to an utterly ignominious end, despite the attempts by both the American and British governments to present failure as victory.

When I look back on the mayhem of the last 12 months however, the single most haunting and revolting event for me remains Israel’s crazed assault on the Gaza Strip.  I know that more people were killed in other conflicts, most notably in Syria and Iraq, but Operation Protective Edge was so shockingly gratuitous and one-sided, so strategically and morally senseless and so steeped in the most grotesque hypocrisy on the part of Israel and the ‘international community’ which allowed it to take place, that it should never be forgotten, even by the standards of our ongoing age of cruelty.

It was a war that the Netanyahu government wanted to happen, and which it deliberately concocted through a cynical campaign of lies, deceit and manipulation because it wanted to act tough and give the Palestinians a kicking.  It was a war which in the end achieved nothing at all except to inflict even more punishment and devastation on a population that has already been pushed to the absolute limit of its resources.

Sure, Hamas and the other armed groups made the Israeli army pay a high price in soldiers when it actually dared enter Gaza, but there was no serious military equivalence in a campaign that was directed against the whole of Gazan society. 2, 145 people killed in seven weeks; 60,000 homes destroyed and more than 100,000 people made homeless; whole neighborhoods annihilated in an assault in 20,000 tonnes of explosives were fired into one of the most densely-populated regions on earth – all this was carried out in plain sight, in full view of the international media and the Israelis spectators who sat in deck chairs and watched/enjoyed the spectacle.

It was a moral disgrace, which no amount of Israeli ranting about ‘terrorism’ and crocodile tears and handwringing by Israel’s powerful supporters can conceal, and it is probably fitting that the year should come to an end with Israel and the United States colluding in the UN Security Council to overturn yet another Palestinian attempt to bring the Israeli occupation to an end through diplomatic means.

In the eyes of the ‘international community’, it seems, there is nothing that the Palestinians can do to ensure even their most minimal rights, and nothing that Israel cannot do to ensure that they never get them.

The huge outpouring of solidarity with Gaza from so many countries shows that many people feel very differently to their governments.    And when I look back on 2014, I will remember that too, because without it the Palestinians really would be on their own these days.

And then there would be no chance that a people for whom I feel a great deal of admiration and affection will ever find a place on earth where they will no longer be occupied, and where they will no longer have to live under the bombs again.

 

 

 

Gaza’s Drowned Refugees

How many people must die in the Mediterranean migrant graveyard before Europe decides that the human cost of its ‘migration management’ policies requires a change in these policies?   Or to put in another way, at what point does the ‘collateral damage’ of the EU’s migration wars become so high that European governments can longer maintain the fiction that they are trying to stop it,  and finally take some kind of concerted action to try and ensure the safety of the men, women, and children who undertake these lethal journeys towards the ‘space of freedom, justice and security?

Or should we instead, simply admit to ourselves that there is in fact no limit to the numbers of deaths that we cannot tolerate, and that a world in which the rich can travel anywhere but the poor must stay in their countries or risk horrific death is in fact the world that we want, and that we are prepared to live with indefinitely?

I ask these questions following the drowning of 500 migrants near Malta on September 11.  With these deaths, the overall death toll from  this year’s ‘migration season’ in the Mediterranean has now reached 2,500 – four times what it was in the whole of last year.   In this latest tragedy, the boat appears to have been deliberately sunk by their smugglers, because they refused to transfer to a smaller boat than the one they were in.

Yet this despicable crime barely seems to have caused a ripple in the consciouness of a continent that now appears to regard the horrors that take place on its borders with equanimity and indifference, as though the men and women who have wash up on its beaches are the result of some inevitable and unavoidable natural disaster that took place a long way away and has nothing to do with us.

But these latest deaths have a great deal to do with us.   According to the online  EU Observer, between 250 to 300 of the passengers who died last week were Palestinians from Gaza, who have fled the Strip in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead.   A Gaza-based NGO has reported 400 missing people who may have been on the capsized boat, all of whom  paid between $2,000 and $4,000 from housing rebuilding grants to a ‘travel office’ in Gaza to smuggle them into Egypt through the Rafah  tunnels, where they were taken across the Sinai desert to safe houses before undertaking their doomed voyage.

Even after this, one  young Gazan told the EU Observer he was planning to do the same, on the grounds that ‘It’s better to try and to drown in the sea than to stay at home and be killed by Israeli bombs’. And Palestinians are trying.  On Sunday another 15 Palestinians from Gaza drowned off the Egyptian coast, and 43 Palestinians were detained in a separate incident by the Egyptian authorities in ship carrying undocumented migrants nears Alexandria.

The International Organization for Migration has said that it has found no evidence of a surge in Palestinian refugees in the wake of Operation Cast Lead, but it isn’t only the immediate impact of the bombs themselves that is making Gazans leave. According to the UN Refugee Agency UNRWA, 95 percent of the water in Gaza is undrinkable salt water, and millions of litres of raw sewage flow into the sea every day, and there are now 800,00 people living on food aid, compared with 80,000 in 2000.

These are the consequences of the economic siege imposed by Israel with the complicity of the EU and the other members of the Quartet, and Gaza’s Arab neighbors, compounded by three major wars.   The result is that a territory made up mostly of refugees because Europe once saw Israel as a way of solving its guilty conscience are becoming refugees once again and seeking safety in a Europe that doesn’t want them or any other refugees.

And now Gaza’s refugees are dying, along with so many others who have made the same journey.   In doing so they have simultaneously become casualties of war and casualties of the border.  And as we contemplate these horrors, I would like to ask another question: is this the kind of world that we want to live in the 21st century, in which men and women must routinely die while seeking safety while our governments petrify us with visions of ISIS and other invented threats to our safety emanating from ‘out there?’

Well take comfort folks. Because  European Parliament President Martin Schulz has said that he ‘deplores’ last week’s deaths and called for action to prevent a ‘humanitarian catastrophe’.

Will these statements have an impact?   We’ll see, but given the EU’s previous responses to such tragedies no one can be optimistic.

So by all means let us all  ‘deplore’ these deaths and the men who sank their boat, but let’s remember that we all passengers in this fragile shipwrecked world, and that as we freak ourselves to death worrying about Ebola and ISIS, and Syrian jihadists coming back to kill us, there are people out there facing real dangers and real threats, and living in hells that our governments helped create, and they don’t just need us to ‘deplore’ their fate – they need us to reach out a hand and help them.

Beating Galloway

On Friday 29 August the British parliamentarian Adam West, Conservative MP for South Benfield, was viciously attacked by a Muslim fanatic while posing for a photograph on a London street.   Horrified onlookers watched helplessly as the MP was punched in the head and knocked to the ground during a three-minute assault in which his assailant rained kicks and blows down on him, shouting ‘this is for Iraq and Gaza’ and calling him ‘Netanyahu.’

The 61-year-old Mr West suffered a cracked rib and a broken jaw and his face was badly bruised.   Mr West is well-known for his outspoken support of Israel and his fervent and provocative advocacy of British military interventions. His attacker, who was arrested shortly afterwards, is reported to be a second-generation immigrant of Arab origin, and had previously expressed a desire on Twitter to ‘cut West’s throat.’

Leaders of all three parties have united to condemn the attack. Labour leader Ed Miliband called it an ‘assault on democracy and free speech’. Prime Minister David Cameron, who visited Mr West in hospital, condemned what he called a ‘cowardly’ and ‘vicious’ attack against ‘all of us’, and promised that there would be a robust response to the ‘radical and violent fanatics in our midst who do not share our common values.’

Hundreds of MPs have sent messages of support and sympathy to Mr West, including some of the maverick parliamentarian’s bitterest critics.  ‘ An assault like this is an assault on all of us, regardless of our differences, ‘ declared Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, while former Education Secretary Michael Gove has called upon Muslim community leaders to condemn the attack and reject what he called the ‘extremist cancer’ in their midst.

OK, I’ll stop now.  Because all of you know that neither Adam West nor South Benfield exist, that the MP who was attacked on the 29th was George Galloway, MP for Bradford West, and that his attacker was a ‘Jewish carer’ named Neil Masterson. And because his attacker was white and a Zionist, and because his victim was George Galloway, his actions elicited a very different response to my counterfactual.

Here is Ben Cohen, an analyst for JNS (Jewish and Israel News).org, in a ‘reflection’ on the Galloway assault:

[stextbox id=”alert”]I will readily admit that, like many Jews, my reaction to the news was one of unbridled joy, tempered by the guilty realization that, in a democracy, violence is rightly frowned upon as a means of dealing with one’s political opponents. However distasteful someone’s views—and Galloway’s views are, without question, highly distasteful—there are legal and constitutional channels available to challenge them.[/stextbox]

Well thank you so much for pointing that out Mr Cohen.   We Brits will always be grateful in the future for your insight, wisdom, and your commitment to democracy – not to mention your touching honesty in sharing your ‘unbridled joy’ with us at the fact that an MP was savagely assaulted on a London street.

Still, Cohen’s ‘reflection’ is positively nuanced in comparison with this response from the Jewish Press blog:

[stextbox id=”alert”]

Galloway has been released from the hospital, but it is doubtful that the attacker was able to beat some sense into his head. The MP, who has built his political career on loving Saddam Hussein and Hamas and hating Jews and Israel, was posing for pictures in west London Friday night when the attacker jumped on him while calling him “Hitler.”

The name of his one-MP party is Respect, which indicates his ignorance of the English language.  The party’s name is a very contrived acronym for Respect, Equality, Socialism, Peace, Environmentalism, Community and Trade Unionism. A more accurate acronym would be “Racist, Extremist, Satanic, Pisher, Ethnic=hatingt, Crude and Twisted.

We wish Galloway a speedy recovery and hope that some of the medicine he needs is made in Israel.

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Noble words, that positively sizzle with humanity and intelligence, and there is a lot worse than this out there, where the notion that ‘Galloway had it coming’ has been oozing out of numerous crevices in the Internet.  Much of it comes from Israeli or Zionist websites; just read some of the comments underneath the above-mentioned pieces if you want to get the flavour.

No one will be entirely surprised by such a response from these circles.  But what of the British political class?  Surely one might expect to see some expression of outrage and condemnation from Galloway’s fellow-MPs?  After all, on the same day that Galloway was attacked, David Cameron condemned Yes-campaigners in Scotland for throwing eggs at Labour MP Jim Murphy, saying ‘ ‘People shouldn’t throw eggs at somebody, full stop.’

Eggs, it seems, are clearly worse than kicks and fists, at least when George Galloway is on the receiving end of the latter.   And so, more than a week after the attack, Cameron has said nothing about it.   In fact, so far, only one MP out of 650 members of parliament has publicly condemned it – and it won’t come as any surprise to know that that MP was Caroline Lucas, who tweeted ‘ Attack on ‘Georgegalloway was cowardly & shocking – wishing him a speedy recovery.’

From the other 649, there has only been a pathetic, shameful silence.  And we should be clear why this is.  Personally, there are things that I don’t like about George Galloway, such as his 2012 comments about rape, but what you or I think about him is irrelevant in this case.   There are many politicians I don’t like, and some that I positively detest, but that doesn’t mean I want to see them beaten to pulp in the street.

Many of the politicians who have remained silent about the Galloway attack worshipped and continued to worship Tony Blair, the man who launched a criminal and reckless war in Iraq that killed people in their hundreds of thousands and wrecked Iraqi society.

Yet they regard Galloway as a pariah because he has persistently and loudly condemned that war and many other ‘interventions’ of the last decade.   Galloway was attacked in the aftermath of the savage destruction of Gaza – an event that was greeted for the most part with silence or outright support for Israel by most British MPs.

Galloway condemned that assault in his usual outspoken fashion, declaring West Bradford an ‘Israel-free zone’.  This exhortation was presented as proof that he was antisemitic by the Zionist lobby, and also by his many enemies who have neither the integrity nor the intelligence to recognize any distinctions between ‘Jews’ and ‘Israel.’

So the refusal of the political class to condemn the attack is partly driven by reluctance to be seen as a ‘Galloway supporter’, and it is also driven by the fear of any association with his ‘antisemitic’ criticism of Israel.   No one can say that these MPs don’t know what is required to get on in Westminster.

Today I listened to Galloway being interviewed by Peter Oborne on the Week in Westminster.  Oborne is that rare phenomenon – a Tory journalist with integrity, and despite his tendentious suggestion that Galloway’s views ‘offend all right-thinking people’, he too was shocked at the response to the assault.

Galloway himself spoke calmly, eloquently, and with some dignity.  He pointed out that he wasn’t asking for sympathy from his fellow MPs, which he rightly said would be ‘hypocritical’, but he did ask why none of them except Lucas had even condemned an attack that was, in effect, an attack on all of them.

It was a good question.  And it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that too many MPs are self–seeking careerists, who either lack the guts to say aloud what ought to be a very simple and unproblematic observation: that kicking an MP into the street because you don’t like what he says is immoral, undemocratic and just plain wrong, or perhaps they too believe privately that ‘ Galloway had it coming.’

Either way, their silence stinks.

An Afternoon in Belchite

Lower Aragon is a very different place to the towering peaks of the Aragonese Pyrenees, where I spent most of last week.  Drive south of Zaragoza and you leave the fertile plain of the Ebro River and pass through a strikingly weird lunar landscape of chalk-white hills that would make a perfect location for Starship Troopers or a cinematic version of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

Curve round beyond these hills and head east roughly parallel to the Ebro and you find yourself in flattish terrain of bronze rock and hard soil, dotted with a collection of hundreds of wind turbines that would have driven Don Quixote mad.

When we went through it yesterday pretty much everything was parched, bleached and burnt dry at the end of a summer where temperatures were still reaching 32 degrees even at the beginning of September.   This is the countryside that produced Goya, who was born in a humble and austere stone house in the pretty village of Fuendetodos.   It was also a key front in the Spanish Civil War, and the area is still littered with trenches, bunkers, and former firing positions that now provide one of the major tourist attractions in an area that doesn’t tend to figure on the itinerary of many foreign visitors.

Just a few miles away from the village are the ruins of Belchite, the scene of one of the most devastating battles in the Civil War.   Between 24 August and 7 September 1937, seven thousand Francoist troops resisted an assault by the newly-created Republican Army of the East, supported by units of the International Brigades.

The Republican assault was ultimately successful, despite a Nationalist counteroffensive supported by the Condor Legion – at the cost of six thousand mostly civilian lives and the virtual destruction of the town.  After the war Franco designated the ruins of Belchite as testament to ‘Red barbarism’ and a monument was established there to honour the Nationalist dead, even as a new town was built alongside it, initially by Republican prisoners-of-war.

Post-Franco Spain redisignated the ruins of Belchite as a general testament to the destruction and folly of war, and its impact on civilians.   Each year thousands of tourists, visitors and schoolchildren come here to see the gutted and bullet-splattered facades of churches and chapels, the former hospital and theatre, the Goya cinema, the houses of the wealthy and the poor.

Today visitors are no longer allowed to visit the ruins by themselves, partly because they are dangerous, and also because last year Francoists defaced the more recent post-Franco monument which commemorated the dead on both sides, and sprayed graffitti that included swastikas and exhortations to ‘ honour our fallen’ that explicitly rejected the efforts by the Aragonese local government to present Belchite as a tragedy that transcended the intentions of either side:

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As a result the monument has now been fenced off.   And yesterday we joined the guided tour, and spent an hour and half in the ruined town that was once wrecked by Republican and Nationalist artillery, by the bombs of the Condor Legion, and the fierce house-by-house fighting that left no building untouched:

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Not all the damage was the result of the battle.  In the early sixties there were still people living here while the new town was being built.   Now the years of abandonment have compounded the impact of wartime destruction, so that Belchite at first sight resembles some of the hundreds of Aragonese villages that have been abandoned because their inhabitants were unable to make a living in them.

But it was war that first turned this ancient town into a ghost-town, and as I walked through the ruins I thought of Goya’s Desastres de la Guerra, of the artists impressions of Zaragoza that were drawn in the aftermath of the two French sieges of 1808/09, of the devastated Southern cities during the American Civil War, of Stalingrad, Warsaw and Berlin:

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All these buildings were places where men and women worshipped, played, relaxed, stored their food and animals, collected water, gossiped and flirted, watched films and theatrical performances. The ruined churches were themselves a reflection of the town’s rich and ancient history, from their Baroque facades to the mudejar horseshoe arches and geometrical patterns that reached far back into the early Middle Ages.

Before the war Belchite had evolved over centuries from a Celtiberian settlement to a Moorish town, to a mixed community of Christians, Jews and Muslims, to a provincial nineteenth century bourgeois town. In 1936 it had a Socialist mayor, who was shot when Francoist troops seized the town in the first days of the Nationalist uprising.

The Civil War was not the first time that Belchite had been transformed into a battlefield. In the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the name of Belchite is inscribed to commemorate one of Napoleon’s victories during a battle in the Spanish War of Independence. Belchite also became a battleground during the two Carlist civil wars in the nineteenth century.

In 1937, the town was exposed to the full destructive power of twentieth-century warfare, in which children were shot down by snipers, waterways were turned into trenches, machinegun nests were erected in churches, and the Condor Legion razed an entire neighborhood.

This time Belchite did not recover. Thousand of years of human endeavour and artistic creation were obliterated in two weeks, leaving the hollowed out buildings that have been slowly mouldering away beneath the deep blue sky of Aragon for the past 77 years.

These ruins are a poignant and powerful reminder of the national tragedy that was the Spanish Civil War – and the spectacle of devastation that has befallen so many towns and cities as civilians have been transformed into ‘collateral damage’ and deliberate targets of military operations in wartime.

Today in 2014, civilians remain the primary victims of war in Gaza, Aleppo, Mosul, Homs and Donetsk, where cities and neighborhoods have been reduced to ruins by gunmen, warlords and vainglorious holy warriors bored with too much peace, by arms manufacturers and the governments who serve them, by politicians who celebrate the ‘great’ war of 1914 and dream of new ones that they will never fight in.

Today, the world is closer to a major conflict than at any time since World War II.   There are many reasons for this situation, but in the Western world at least, the militarist drift is partly the result of the fact that too many people have forgotten what war really means, and/or have allowed themselves to be seduced by fantasies of ‘surgical’ high-tech violence that have once again served to legitimize war as a policy instrument.

Belchite has a different message, to those who are willing to listen to it, a message summed up its empty homes, and the words of a local poet, inscribed on the door of a destroyed church:

Old town of Belchite/the young men no longer loiter around you/Now they will no longer hear the songs that our fathers sang.