My guest today is Chris Gunness who is a seasoned journalist and diplomat with decades of experience reporting on and working in the Middle East. Chris began his career at the BBC in 1982, and for 23 years, he served in numerous capacities including reporter and foreign correspondent. In 2005, he transitioned to diplomacy, joining the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, and later became the Spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNWRA). Post-UN, Chris founded the Myanmar Accountability Project in 2021, which brings criminal prosecutions against members of the Myanmar Junta and he is currently the Director of this initiative.
Chris joined me for his reflections on the tragic escalation of violence in Israel and across Gaza and the West Bank.
Some of the topics we covered include:
- Underlying Causes of Conflict: Chris delved into the root causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, highlighting the blockade of Gaza, the ongoing Israeli occupation and unfettered settlement expansion.
- The Blockade of Gaza: Chris discussed Israel’s control over Gaza’s land, sea, and air borders, emphasising the humanitarian crisis this has caused.
- Dehumanisation: Chris talks about the ‘Red Lines’ policy and how it reflects the dehumanisation of Palestinians.
- Role of the International Community: Critical reflection on the international community’s role in perpetuating the conflict, particularly the U.S.’s unwavering support for Israel.
- Need for a Mandela Figure: Chris suggested that the conflict needs a leader with a vision of peace and the courage to see it through.
- Israeli Cabinet’s Rhetoric: He points out the dehumanising language used by some Israeli cabinet ministers, such as ‘Gaza needs to be put on a diet’
- Professor Rashid Khalidi – Understanding the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: An Exploration of Root Causes and Geopolitical Dynamics
Finally, don’t forget to subscribe, rate, and share The Voices of War to help us continue exploring the complex narratives of war. To comment or take the conversation further, please connect to us here:
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Special Release: Chris Gunness – Scratching Beneath The Complexity Of The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
My guest is Chris Gunness, who is a seasoned Journalist and Diplomat with decades of experience reporting on and working in the Middle East. Chris began his career at the BBC in 1982, and for 23 years, he served in numerous capacities, including reporter and foreign correspondent. In 2005, he transitioned to diplomacy, joining the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, and later became the spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees, also known as UNRWA.
Chris founded the Myanmar Accountability Project in 2021, which brings criminal prosecutions against members of the Myanmar Junta, and he’s currently the director of this initiative. Chris joins me for his reflections on the tragic escalation of violence in Israel and across Gaza and the West Bank. Chris, thank you very much for joining me on the show.
It’s a real pleasure, Maz. Thanks for having me.
I know you are very busy, given what’s happening with the strike at the hospital. I do appreciate your time. Just before we dive into the horrendous events, just for context, we’re doing this on the 18th of October 2023 and it is now gone after 12:30 PM, so just after midday in Jerusalem. 10:30 AM in London, where you are. Before we get into it, it’s useful for our audience to get a sense of your background. Perhaps you can briefly summarise your career for us and explain your involvement in the Israel-Palestine conflict over the years.
I joined the BBC as a graduate trainee in 1982, having read philosophy at Oxford, and I became a journalist. I worked as a studio manager, a producer, and then a reporter. I became the BBC’s UN correspondent and reported a lot on East Asia, which interested me a great deal. My circumstances changed. My partner died. In 2006, I went off to be the head of communications for the UN’s Political Office, what you say, the Special Coordinator’s Office. I worked there for about a year.
UNWRA needed a spokesperson. UNWRA works in Syria, Jordan, Gaza, the West Bank, and Lebanon, not just in Gaza and the West Bank. I was the head of public advocacy and strategic communication and the spokesman through a series of Gaza wars. This is my fifth Gaza war. I’ve seen firsthand in Gaza what these attacks are like and what both UNWRA United Nations staff and the population of Gaza go through.
I guess that you are perfectly qualified to answer some of the many questions that I have given what’s happening. Perhaps we can start with a little bit of a backstory, given what we know about what’s happened and everything that’s unfolded. In your view, what are the underlying causes behind the ongoing conflict that we’re seeing occur now? What has brought us here?
In a way, that’s the most important question because the Hamas rockets, Hamas attacks, and the attacks by other groups are very much a symptom and not a cause. It’s condemnable, regrettable, appalling, and abhorrent, as they all are. It’s important as the rockets and missiles fly into Gaza to look at the underlying causes and the underlying causes threefold. First of all, the blockade of Gaza, which has been going on since 2007, is a collective punishment. Half of Gaza are children. They’re too young even to have voted to have expressed an opinion about Hamas. They’re not responsible for the rockets.
To be clear, Gaza has been brought to its knees. It’s in a state of abject destitution. There’s over 46% unemployment now because of the Israeli blockade, which has been turned into a pretty much absolute blockade with the denial of water, food, electricity and benzene. You name it, Israel is not allowing it in. An already destitute territory has now become a humanitarian catastrophe. There’s the blockade of Gaza’s underlying cause, number one. Secondly, the Israeli occupation, which began in 1967 and has not continued to this day, has deepened and broadened.
One of the horrifying aspects of the new administration, the far-right settler administration in Israel, is the exponential settlement expansion that’s taken place. With it, the appalling settler violence which the so-called Israeli Defence Forces are protecting to some degree on the settlers. The Israeli occupation is the underlying cause number two. The underlying cause number three is the dispossession of the Palestinians that took place in 1948 with the so-called War of Independence, or as the Palestinians put it, the Nakba, their primordial catastrophe in which 750,000 people either fled or were forced out of their homes. That population has grown.
Now, there are millions of refugees. Two-thirds of Gaza are refugees. With every displacement, that sense of the Nakba, that original displacement, is reinforced. To be clear about these underlying causes, until and unless we move away from this narrative of terrorism and Israel’s right to defend itself, of course, Israel has the right to defend itself, until we start addressing the underlying causes, Israelis will continue to live in a state of terror, anxiety, and insecurity.
Palestinians will continue to be denied political rights. They’ll be denied dignity and the chance to participate in a thriving economy. Make no mistake about it, Gaza could be the Singapore of the Middle East. Palestinians are educated, computer literate, and they speak good English. There’s no doubt in my mind that Gaza could be a thriving economy if only Israel would open up, lift the blockade and allow Gaza to live up to its destiny.Gaza could be a thriving economy if only Israel would lift up the blockade and allow them to live up to its destiny. Click To Tweet
A couple of points that I want to pick up on there. Firstly, thank you for that summary. It’s a very useful summary in a very good starting point. Just focusing on the occupation. We are seeing it everywhere at the moment. The competing narratives, especially on something like X or Twitter. It is incredible what we’re observing.
One of the narratives is that Israel hasn’t occupied Gaza since 2005. It’s throwing the ball back into the Palestinian court and saying, “You are governing yourself. It is you who is choosing Hamas.” Every time we mention who represents Gaza, we know that’s Hamas, who are elected leaders of Gaza. How do you reconcile that fact and how do you explain that fact based on what you know about Gaza and the living conditions that people have been living under for so long?
There’s no doubt that Ariel Sharon, then Prime Minister, removed the Jewish settlements from Gaza in 2005, August or September. It was the late summer of 2005. It was called the Disengagement. That happened. There’s no doubt about that. Israel then continued to control the land, sea, and air borders of Gaza. It established what’s called international law effective control, which is tantamount to occupation. The Israelis say, “We don’t do that because there’s the border across Rafah in South Egypt.”
As we saw, Israel has complete control over the Rafah crossing. They bombed it, they closed it. Although the Israelis might turn around and say, “We don’t control the Rafah crossing the Egyptians do, they could let them through.” That isn’t the case. As we saw, Israel bombed the Rafah crossing and closed it. Israel has complete control over Gaza. They even enclosed in control of the population registry. They have complete control over Gaza. That was imposed pretty much as soon as the disengagement, as soon as the Jewish settlements were pulled out in 2005. That’s why I say that is one of the prime causes of the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
The fact that there is this medieval blockade, not allowing in water to children, as I say, more than half of the Gaza Strip are children, they’re being denied water and food. That is effective control, if ever I saw it. Israel has obligations that blockade is a collective punishment. It’s illegal and international. It’s a war crime that it needs to stop. The blockade needs to be lifted. There’s no doubt in my mind, as I’ve said, that if properly managed, there is no doubt that Gaza could thrive. We need this inhuman blockade to be lifted.
It needs states, people on both sides, frankly, with some sense of vision. The Palestinians and Israelis conflict needs a Mandela figure with a vision of peace, moral, political, and courage to be able to see that vision through at the moment, partly because of these events. Also, partly because so many of the Palestinian leadership, people who might be able to do something, are locked up. Israel has moved so far to the right. You’ve got cabinet ministers making genocidal threats on the records, death to the Arabs. Nobody condemns it. No one complains about it. We need to have some vision on those sides.
These are human animals. Words matter. You, as a BBC reporter and then as a spokesman, were perfectly placed to comment on that because words do matter. Even though, in this instance, the object of that description was Hamas terrorists, who a big part of the world describes as terrorists. Even describing other people as human animals progresses down that slippery slope of dehumanisation, which, therefore, then allows it to make it much more powerful.
There was once this thing called the Red Lines policy, which the Israelis dreamt up. What they did is they converted the number of calories a human being needs each day into truckloads. They allowed in enough truckloads to allow just enough calories for Palestinians to have them hovering above a humanitarian crisis.
Forgive my ignorance, but this is proven. This exists out there as evidence as fact.
Thank God, the policy, when it was exposed, got cut short in its tracks. The human history of the 20th century has seen that thing happen, and it’s horrific. This is the dehumanisation when you get the Israeli cabinet minister saying Gaza needs to be put on a diet. We need to mow the lawn every few years. When you’ve got tweets, which I presume are authentic from Itamar Ben-Gvir saying, “The only thing I’m going to allow to Gaza is tons of explosives every day and no humanitarian aid.”
How much more dehumanising can you get when you see pictures of the children and the babies in Al Shiva Hospital and this hospital that was bombed overnight? I’ll argue. It’s dehumanising. The violence that was perpetrated against Israeli civilians in the south of the country struck me as very dehumanising when you’ve got babies having their throat slit and people being executed in front of their families. It’s appalling. Violence begets violence. Make no mistake about it. As I say, we need to look at the underlying causes. We need to rehumanise the conflict and address the underlying causes.
Just a couple of more things to pick up on. Firstly, how has this blockade been going for many years now? How has that been allowed by the world? I know the Palestinian plight pops in and out of our news cycle every so often. This is sixteen years of gross abuses of human rights and indignation at a level rarely seen over the past hundred years or so. How is that possible?
I find it as puzzling as you do for a policy that is so medieval and so inhumane, which is a clear violation of international command and law. It’s a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention on the treatment of civilians in times of war. There are a lot of politics here. Israel has always managed to win the narrative. Israeli spin doctors are out there, peddling this narrative that there are terrorists out there who are out to get Israelis. There’s a narrative also of Israel having the right to defend itself, which it does.
Both of those are based on facts also, though. Both of those are based to grounded in truth. That part is undeniable.
There are other narratives. Israelis are very quick to say that this was the highest number of people killed in a single day since the Holocaust. That is terrifying, horrific, and true. That doesn’t make it any easier because when people like me say it’s a violation of international law, people turn around and say, “You’re a Holocaust denier, or you’re antisemite or you’re a racist.” Since the Israeli spin machine has been so successful in winning the narrative, makes it very hard for reasonable, balanced, objective human beings like myself, who invoke international law, to make the points that they do. They get shouted down.
The fact is that Israel is the spoiled child of the international community, partly because America, this guardian parent, has always protected Israel by vetoing anything in the Security Council, which is critical of Israel and protecting the Israelis in other fora. The fact that you’ve got this huge power behind the Israelis and America pays for 20% plus of the UN’s bills.
The Secretary-General has been feeble. Why he didn’t call for a ceasefire pretty much straight away? People would’ve ignored him, but to get that out there, there has to be some narrative and discussion around a ceasefire because it was clear that 2.3 million civilians were in severe danger. Guess what? The hospital was struck. I’m not passing judgment on who did it, but there was a massive explosion. The hospital was hit and 500 people were killed. The hospital was pretty much demolished.
Israeli spin doctors are out. They’re going to do their investigation. Who knows what the truth is? I remember in 2014, a lot of lies and a lot of disinformation were put out by the IDF and their spin doctors. They hit seven of our schools in 2014. Immediately, the narrative was put out that there were militants there. There were investigations, but they weren’t. We found rocket parts in our schools on three occasions. We informed the Israelis straight away. We got no recognition of that whatsoever. Instead, a plethora of lies were put out about how UNWRA was attempting to assist terrorists in attacking Israel.
I remember well, one day, I was on an American Network TV program with Netanyahu himself. In the middle of his live interview with me, the Israelis interrupted the American broadcaster to put out pictures, which alleged to be Hamas rockets coming out of UNRWA schools. It was completely fake, completely false. In the end, the network had to deny it and had to issue a retraction.
That was because there were all these extraordinary lies and misinformation being put out by the Israeli spin machine. There’s a history here of the idea of very quickly putting out lies. The same is true of the Al Jazeera journalist who they killed as soon as it happened, the idea of putting out a denial or whatever, and we know who killed her.
This is a particularly interesting area that I want to talk to you about because this contest for the truth is so evident. Take the case of the hospital that was hit overnight. Just before we came on, I got the latest update, and IDF has now released alleged signals intelligence of a couple of Hamas seniors discussing it and acknowledging that it was a partner group of theirs. Palestinian Islamic Jihad had launched that rocket, which had misfired, and it landed. I’ve seen some open-source intelligence groups who studied the impact area, and there’s no creator, etc.
There have now been questions about the potential number of casualties potentially. In other words, the world’s been awash with this information. That there’s been an attack alleged by the Palestinian authorities. In other words, Hamas it was an IDF missile and 500 were killed. All of that has now been put into question, even though now has been spun up over it.
How do we even get to the point where we can evaluate what’s happened, especially when you’ve got two competing sides, i.e., Hamas on one side and IDF on the other, both pushing their narrative? How does the rest of the world, i.e., all of us observers, how do we sift through what’s happening? How do we figure out what’s right or wrong when everything can be doctored or post-produced, so to speak?
It may well be that we will never know the truth behind this attack. In an age of artificial intelligence, the production of imagery and voices, and goodness knows what else, it may simply be impossible to tell. In an atmosphere where there is so much mistrust, it may be that we’ll never get to the truth. Good journalists need to carry on asking the tough questions. We need to carry on demanding that those in power give us the truth. There is transparency and accountability. We simply have to press on in that direction. I see no other alternative.Good journalists need to ask the tough questions. They must demand those in power to uphold transparency and accountability. Click To Tweet
There are credible organizations that could investigate this. The UN could send in investigators. I wouldn’t trust an IDF investigation, I’m sorry. The history is such that there’s been too much spin doctoring and lies. I wouldn’t necessarily trust an investigation for my other side, either. There has to be an independent investigation into this, and then we can begin to work out what happened. Until we get that, we will never know. The fact that there is this track record of fabrication, particularly on the IDF side, but also on the side of people in Gaza. It simply makes it impossible to say what is happening. The answer to your question is we may never know the truth.
That’s the sad fact, which is why taking a side is so difficult. Firstly, it’s very difficult to stay neutral or unbiased because the moment you see one side of the picture that’s presented to you, you tend to leave that side.
You can say one thing with absolute certainty, and that is international law and international humanitarian law is absolute. Just because Hamas violated it by conducting these barbaric attacks in Israel, does not mean that anybody, and I’m not saying it was the Israelis, has the right to violate international law. When you see these disproportionate and what appeared to be indiscriminate attacks, hold apartment blocks being failed with a missile or two, you have to ask yourself, “Is this indiscriminate? Is this deeply disproportionate? What’s the military advantage?”
As far as I’m aware, Israel is not saying how many Hamas militants or Islamic militants it’s killed. If these are pinpoint targeted attacks against militants that they know about and not against civilians, why would they at least tell us how many people have been killed who are Islamic militants? One has to ask these questions. If you are hitting militants, then tell us who they are. At the moment, it seems that you are killing civilians, women and children, and non-combatants disproportionately.
It was well over a thousand children have been killed in Gaza. I’m a child of Sarajevo, Bosnia, where more than 1,000 children were killed in a 3.5-year siege. Those numbers are mind-boggling. They’re just numbers from our desensitised distant perspective that looks at this crisis through our TV screens or smartphones. That’s part of the danger that, in itself, dehumanises because it’s just a number to think of 1,000 children. If somebody killed 1,000 children in Australia, I don’t even know how we would react. We would be in utter devastation. It would be an uproar. It
That’s a very good point. I also think that the world has become very desensitised to the killings in Gaza. The killings in Israel were truly shocking. They were unprecedented. The sheer personalised, vicious bastille nature of the killings was shocking. People in Gaza have been subjected to that personalised violence for years. This is the fifth Israeli attack on Gaza, the fifth Gaza war. In each of these, mothers have seen their children crushed, still semi-live, screaming as tons of rubble fall on them and crush their limbs. Mothers and parents in Gaza have seen their children screaming with 80% and 90% burns because of these attacks. Awful traumas, children being made disabled, terrible psychosocial problems.
The people of Gaza are no strangers to these appalling. It seems depersonalised because they’re caused by huge artillery pieces coming into the Gaza Strip and hitting buildings. If you are that parent underneath that building with your family trying to survive, believe me, the violence is close up and personal. This is the fifth attack on Gaza. That’s what the Palestinians in Gaza have been subjected to, but because they’re not always cameras filming and capturing this in quite the same way that we’ve seen so many horrific stories coming out of Israel.
I’m married to an Israeli, and I’ve got real sensitivities for what’s happening on that side. Rightly so, some very articulate people are telling their stories on the Israeli side. One of the most impressive interviews I saw was on a BBC interview, the News Night program with Victoria Derbyshire and a mother whose child had been abducted, and then she heard the child had been murdered. She said, “I don’t want the single death of anybody to be done in my son’s name,” her only son. That was astonishingly moving and a very beautiful and impressive thing for someone on that side in that situation, given the history.
That’s another interesting point and something I spoke about in my last episode with Professor Rashid Khalidi, who I’m sure you are familiar with his work. He’s written a lot about the Palestinian trauma. One of the things that he’s spoken about, as he called it, is outstanding or excellent diplomacy large by those in Israel.
One of the points he made is that one of the advantages they’ve had for a better part of the century is that they speak the languages of the countries that are sponsoring them. They speak perfect English, German, French, and American. They speak with the right accent and present in a manner that’s far more familiar to the Western audience than perhaps what we’re seeing from the Palestinian side.
This is something I’ve noticed, not just in this war, but also in other wars, especially in the Bosnian context where the media would project the Bosnian as the poor Muslim, grandmothers with their scarfs, this victimised notion of refugees carrying their bare essentials. There’s always somebody screaming and crying.
This is something I keep seeing when Palestinian voices are represented in the Western media is that there is this constant screaming, and there is almost even a dehumanisation component in the images because it is pain and suffering. You get interviews from the Israeli side, usually very emancipated, very well-spoken and most definitively educated. They look and speak like us. I wonder how much that influences the Western, maybe not the rest of the world, but the Western perspective of what’s going on in Palestine.
It’s a really good point. I would say it’s more the concept of the other, as much as the victim would. It’s classic Orientalism. These are sites of atavistic savages who are always screaming. They don’t speak our language. They don’t look like us. Their skin’s a different colour. All of that plays into the demonization of the Palestinians and in Gaza. It was made considerably worse by the nature of the attacks. In Gaza, there is this sense of this backward Islamic religious, tribal society where women have no rights and men are complete savages. It’s very easy because of the blockade.
When I first went to Gaza, there was a rope over the road that you went out. It was before I went. Israelis could go in and out. Israeli reporters used to go to Gaza, meet each other and marry each other. There was this real intermingling of communities a long time ago, but as part of the blockade, it’s become more difficult for two sides to meet each other, to have lunch together, to eat together, to fall in love, to have children together, to do all those very human things.
Slowly, this horrendous separation of the two communities, the two societies, has led to the consolidation of this concept of the other. In that context, it’s very easy for politicians to turn the other side into savages, and for Israeli cabinet ministers to talk about animals in Gaza. There is a long history of this demonization, reinforced by the blockade and by this apartheid system. In the West Bank, there’s one set of roads for the secularists and one for Palestinians. One legal system for the settlers and one for the Palestinians, one water system, and on it goes. There is this apartheid separation in the West Bank and the blockade in Gaza. In that context, it’s been so easy for irresponsible right-wing politicians to demonise the other, particularly the Palestinians.
Maybe you can describe Gaza for us. What is life like inside Gaza, or at least perhaps before this upsurge in violence, based on your experience?
Even before you get to Gaza, you have to understand it’s a conflict zone with a fence around it. The Israelis have built a war around, it’s unique in the annals of contemporary warfare. It is a conflict zone with a fence around it. There’s nowhere to flee. When the bombs start falling, the hold of Gaza is unsafe. Since 2007, there’s been a blockade, so there are very few exports, very little economic activity. Now, the water system has been completely eroded. The water table salivated, sunken, and very little fuel.
When I first went to Gaza, there were orange groves in the north. It was quite a productive society. There was agricultural production and there were also garment factories. A very industrious society. Palestinians are incredibly hardworking if they’re allowed to be. They’re very computer-literate, smart, and sassy. They’re good at languages.
As I said, Gaza could be the Singapore of the Middle East if they were allowed to be. Instead, the blockade has taken away any of the economic possibilities for most people in Gaza. There is no economic horizon as well as all the industrial degradation that we’ve seen. There has been a humanitarian crisis but the main UN agency that’s there to mitigate and deal with the humanitarian crisis, UNWRA. There’s almost been a blockade against UNWRA. They, too, have come under attack. Thirteen UNWRA schools and four UNWRA health centres have been attacked, 13 UNWRA workers have been killed, 13,000 UNWRA staff have fled down to the south. The main organization that’s there to deal with this humanitarian crisis, too, has been subject to the blockade.Gaza could be the Singapore of the Middle East if it were allowed to be. But because of the blockage, it has taken away any economic possibilities for most people. Click To Tweet
There’s the psychological aspect, the non-physical aspect, children in Gaza over the age of eighteen or so, this is the fifth brutal war that they are living through. Children get re-traumatised each time. After the 2ns conflict, you’ve got all the memories and traumas of the 1st, and added to that is the burden of the 2nd, 3rd, and the 4th. Now we’ve got children being re-traumatised for the fifth time. It’s unimaginable to look at what is going on in Gaza.
It’s unconscionable that as a matter of direct manmade political choices, we have allowed a Palestinian population, which could be so vibrant and so economically productive. We’ve denied them economic and political rights. All that’s happening is that they’re being further brutalised and radicalised. That’s tragic because that is a direct result of choices that are being made. Not just by the parties, not just by the Israelis and the Palestinians, but also by the international community. The international community, it seems, has been comfortable with sitting by and allowing Gaza to fester in the way that it has. Things have to change now. We have to start thinking about the underlying causes of the conflict and how they can be addressed.
I couldn’t agree more with that point about radicalisation. The upstream causes, nobody’s born a war criminal. I’ve said this time and time again on this show. I’ve looked at various aspects of crimes in war, not necessarily just formal war crimes. I don’t even know how we can expect youth who’ve been through 5 wars, 5 bombardments, or 5 aggressions where they’re defending against homemade weapons, more often than not.
I don’t know how we could expect youth of that nature, of that experience, to somehow side with those whom they perceive and know to be the oppressors as opposed to those who are as misguided as there might be representing their plight, their cause somebody like Hamas, who is using methods that are horrendous and despicable and shouldn’t be seen in 2023. I can’t see how we could expect it.
What’s interesting is it’s not just people in Gaza seeing Hamas trying to get the blockade lifted and deal with all those injustices, but also the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. It’s the third holy shrine in Islam. What you’ve seen is increasing settlement and settler activity in Jerusalem. The settlers are becoming increasingly emboldened. What the Palestinians are seeing is themselves Palestinians in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, being barred and heavily restricted and controlled about the Al-Aqsa.
At those points of heightened tension over this very holy shrine, we see Hamas firing rockets. The signal it’s sending is not only are we looking after your human rights, your human dignity, and your economic rights, but also in terms of your religion, which is so much a part of your identity, we are also prepared to protect your religious rights as best we can. You’ve got these Israeli policies, which are making the population of Gaza resentful and hateful. You’ve got the Hamas policies, which many people in Gaza see as standing by their rights. That combination, sadly, is becoming more lethal and toxic.
How widespread is the support for Hamas in Gaza, do you think? What does that support him and look like?
The only scientific poll we’ve had was the election at the end of January 2006. The Carter Centre described it as the freest and fairest election ever held in the Middle East, which I assume meant Israeli elections as well. Hamas won it overwhelmingly. The last time there was a poll in which people could express themselves, Hamas was overwhelmingly popular. Fatah, the ruling party in the West Bank, as it were, has dragged their feet on elections. I suspect that’s because they know that they would lose in the West Bank overwhelmingly to Hamas.
We don’t have the scientific answer. We do have plenty of anecdotal evidence, and it’s fair to say that with each attack on each Gaza war, we’ve seen the popularity of Hamas grow and the standing of Fatah, the so-called more moderate party, declining. There is no way of telling. We saw pictures, for example, in the West Bank overnight of Palestinians attacking the Fatah, the moderate security forces. There’s a lot of anger and resentment against the moderate party Fatah. There’s evidence that far from turning on Hamas, the people of Gaza were saying, “You are protecting us and we are under attack.” There’s little doubt in terms of the anecdotal evidence that the standing of Hamas is rising.
That’s probably to be expected. If your life’s threatened, then regardless of who the guy that’s defending you is, even if they are not necessarily defending you, we do know that Hamas is happy to sacrifice Palestinians. It’s the civilians that are paying the price for this full stop. Now, we are waiting for Israel to announce this ground invasion of Gaza. I know they’re doing some incursions and some clearances certainly of the northern part of Gaza. Why haven’t they gone in yet? Do you think they’re going to go in? In Biden’s visit, how do you think that will play into it? How do you see it unfolding?
A ground offensive is certainly something which all Israelis, including military commanders, are talking about. Israel is in no hurry. Two hundred Israelis were captured and they were very worried about them. They will do everything to make sure that they don’t come into harm’s way. In 2005, one Israeli, Corporal Gilad Shalit, was captured, and there were nationwide marches the length and breadth of the country. He became an almost an international cause celeb and that was just one Israeli soldier.
With two hundred Israelis, their will, if what we saw with Gilad Shalit predominates, there will be a lot of caution. It seems to me that we know Hamas had an extensive network of tunnels. One imagines that Israel wants to bond those and make sure that Hamas is not going to be popping up in tunnels doing ambushes and then disappearing again. Though I have no special knowledge of this one, imagine that hostages are being held in the tunnels, too. There are limitations to the extent that those can be bonded.
The ground invasion could be expensive. It could lead to further IDF soldiers being kidnapped and further complications. Israeli military commanders are well aware of all of that. If you are going to kill Hamas or destroy Hamas, I don’t think you can do it from the air. I don’t think you can do it at all, by the way. Destroying the social movement is impossible. It’s a social movement with a very extreme military wing. It’s a bit like saying we are going to destroy the conservative party by destroying every single conservative party office, killing every single conservative party politician. There would still be conservatism in Britain.Destroying a social movement, especially one with an extreme military wing, is impossible. Click To Tweet
That’s the big problem that Hamas is in people’s minds as well as a reality, an infrastructural reality on the ground. It’s very hard. Some people go further in saying that Mr. Netanyahu was deceiving himself and perhaps others if he thought that he could destroy Hamas. On the question of Biden, which you asked, it was very embarrassing for the Americans that both the Egyptians and Mahmoud Abbas cancelled this quadripartite meeting they were going to be having with him. For what it’s worth, it was unfortunate. One can see why.
There was going to be a lot of anger that the president of the nation that seemed to be so supportive of Israel was meeting the Palestinian president. What good can come about come out of it from his perspective? On the other hand, the Americans are a power that can exert some influence over Israel at a time when Gaza is being pummelled.
There are swings and roundabouts from the Arab perspective. Whether Israel will see this as a restraining head, I somewhat doubt it. All the signals to American leaders have been, that Israel needs to do whatever it needs to defend itself and to destroy Hamas. Could they possibly abide by international law? Sure. The overarching imperative is to destroy the Hamas threat. I don’t see that Biden’s visit is going to make very much difference in terms of the prosecution of the war, sadly.
The prosecution of the war so far has been by air. As you rightly point out, you will not kill Hamas from the air. That begs the question, what is the point of this bombardment? This is being discussed again in social media and in the legacy media. This idea of proportionality, that it’s a useless concept. It shouldn’t be because it’s about military objectives. One has to ask, “What is the Israeli military objective in destroying civilian infrastructure far and wide when arguably Hamas fighters are hiding in the tunnels? In some instances, dozens of meters on the ground remain untouched.
Not only that, but if the border, the Rafah crossing with Egypt, were to be opened, two million people would flee out, and assuming that UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, could get there, establish reception centres, water, sanitation, food, shelter, housing, all that stuff, what are you going to do, create that another desperate Palestinian refugee population on the doorstep of Israel becoming increasingly desperate and brutalised? I don’t see where that argument goes either, which is why I keep saying the only option in all of this is for politicians on both sides to have the vision and to talk about it, to address, and to resolve the underlying issues, blockade, the occupation, and the dispossession of the Palestinians.
Suppose we can quickly turn to the West Bank now because we’re seeing more violence across the West Bank as well, where Hamas is not in power. You’re saying that there’s a more radical movement attacking some of the more moderate voices. What do you also make of the 500 or so arrests that have been made of Palestinians across the West Bank? Who are these people? Why are they being arrested? Again, that’s increasing the fear of Palestinians in the West Bank.
It’s true to say that the West Bank is being further radicalised because these aren’t two separate communities. There are people with cousins, brothers, aunts, uncles, and grandparents in both Gaza and the West Bank. There were family ties. When you attack Gaza, you are attacking families in the West Bank also, and that shouldn’t be surprise forgotten.
The West Bank is not a homogenous territory. There are parts of the West Bank, that Israel controls and where Israeli military orders apply. As Francesca Albanese, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territores, said there is a system of control which is extraordinarily tight, and you only have to be accused of knowing a terrorist in the West Bank for the Israelis to be able to rescue.
There are 5,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons. If they weren’t radicalised before they got to prison, believe me, they’re being radicalised in prison. Who are they? They were people who may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. They may indeed have extremist actions behind them, but there’s plenty of evidence that a lot of the people are being picked up by laws, which, by the way, were created by the British mandate. A lot of these laws, which are being used in the West Bank to arbitrarily detain people, were used by the Britts during the mandate period.
There’s a broad spectrum of people being picked up. What we’re seeing with these arrests under these six-month detention orders is the increasing radicalization. It’s become a cause of war. One of the reasons why Hamas says they’ve kidnapped and taken all these hostages is because they want to use them as pawns. They’ve used them in the past and 1,100 were released back to the Palestinians for the release of Gilad Shalit. There’s little doubt that was part of the calculation of the people that took the hostages from Southern Israel.
Where to from here? What must the world do unless this becomes an even bigger tragedy?
First of all, there has to be a ceasefire.
Who can mend that? We’ve seen what’s happened in the Security Council.
Generally, after the Gaza War, there’s a so-called Grace period where the Americans say to Israelis, “You’ve got a week or two or whatever it is to go and take your revenge and do whatever you say will do.”
Is that what this is? Is that what the delay is right now?
If you look at what Israeli cabinet ministers are saying, “I won’t let in any humanitarian, but I will let in thousands of tons of explosives.” It does feel like an eye for an eye war.
The rhetoric of vengeance and revenge is ever present in discourse.
Mercifully, not all Israelis feel like that. As I said, there’s this amazing woman whose son was murdered who said, “Not a single person should be killed in my son’s name.” I don’t think all Israelis feel like that. Certainly, you can look at Ben-Gvir. See that they’re coming out with this rhetoric. The Americans have got to prevail upon the Israelis, first of all, to have a ceasefire. We’ve been here before. The reconstruction of Gaza needs to take place rapidly. That means huge amounts of aid. Here, we are rebuilding Gaza with Western taxpayers’ money and other taxpayers’ money. Yet again, that has to be done.
The causes of the conflict and the blockade are that there has to be a system whereby goods going in and out of gas can be properly checked. It did exist. It was the Kerem Shalom crossing point and industrial trans-shipment point with many lanes in which container trucks could go in and out. The European Union set up this good system of security, but it was clear that the Israelis didn’t want that to function. Israel has to get to the point where it wants to see a vibrant, economically thriving Gaza. There needs to be a peace dividend and that takes time. It’s not inconceivable that a peace dividend should be there. People being radicalised in Gaza and brutalised in Gaza need to be shown that there is a dignified and economically prosperous way out of the present nightmare.
As I said, Gaza is incredibly entrepreneurial, and it ought to be the Singapore of the Middle East or the Mediterranean. There’s plenty of evidence that once you lift the blockade a bit, Gaza recovers economically exponentially, quickly. With the right imagination, all sorts of peace efforts are possible. Look at the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland. You need somebody, perhaps it’s the women.
This extraordinary Israeli woman was talking the other night about mothers and grandmothers on all sides coming together to promote peace. Maybe that thing is to be possible. I’m too much of an optimist, even in these very darkest of times, to buy into narratives around pessimists, and there always has to be another option to war and violence.
There’s enough optimism bedrock in those communities. Look at those people, those Israelis who chose to go and live near Gaza. I know Israelis who go with their cars and wait to transport Palestinians coming out of Gaza to Israeli hospitals and give them summer camps for children from Gaza with terminal diseases. There are decent people of values on both sides. If only they would be allowed to do more of what they were already doing.
As you rightly point out, that requires leadership. In this current climate, who is capable of providing any mediation negotiations? We cannot expect either of the two sides to back down. Israelis in a blood rush, which is perhaps understandable. Also, given the far-right government, we can certainly not expect Netanyahu to step down in the face of the greatest atrocity committed against Jews since the Holocaust. Equally, Hamas is not going to step down if anything is going to step up. The US is arguably tainted in any dealings, as much power as it holds. Of course, Russia can’t, could China? Who has enough power to be able to mediate, Qatar?
Maz, there are two sorts of mediations we’re talking about. There are humanitarian mediations about the immediate and that is about a ceasefire, evacuating non-competent humanitarian access to all who need it. The only game in town there is the US. Only Martin Griffiths who is the UN’s emergency coordinator, weights that. The Middle East quartet, US, EU, UN, Russia are discredited beyond belief now. Martin Griffiths has a huge reputation. He comes from the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, which is all about humanitarian dialogue. Martin Griffiths is well placed to be able to do the humanitarian negotiations.
There’s a much longer-term problem, which is the wider conflict in how we deal with that. It’s very clear that, somehow, everyone’s going to have to be involved. The Iranians want Hamas to be involved in any future dispensation, any negotiations. Somehow, Iran will have to be involved. The Saudis are a massive wealthy power in the Middle East. Somehow, the Arab voice in all of this has to be heard. The Europeans will pay for this ultimately. They’re traditionally paid along with the Americans for the reconstruction of Gaza. They are going to have a voice. The Americans will be hugely influential. The Security Council is going to be too divided.
China, which brokered the deal recently between the Iranians and the Saudis, will no doubt feel that there is some role for them. It’s going to be something like the United Nations, where all 195 member states sit, and all governments in the world sit. At the moment, we don’t have that leadership from Antonio Guterres. He hasn’t emerged from this very well at all. We’re going to have to see the world’s top diplomat stepping up to the plate and making sure that this very careful jigsaw puzzle of the bigger powers shaping into place.
These groups like the Israelis, Hamas, Fatah and Hezbollah have all got to be brought gently into alignment before we can even begin to talk about these underlying issues that need resolution. Someone with this big geopolitical jigsaw puzzle in their heads, who’s able to see how these pieces can intricately be put together, that’s the thing we need.
Sadly, that’s very difficult and rather absent. Last question, Chris. What are you most worried about, given what’s going on?
Just the immediate, I’ve got friends in Gaza, I’ve got family in Israel, and I lose sleep over children, innocent people, civilians being caught up again. People who have no responsibility for this conflict. That’s why I lose sleep. I fear that there are going to be an awful lot more civilian casualties before we even begin to get to the point where both humanitarian negotiations and wider political dialogue are going to be possible. It’s highly regrettable, both in the long term and in the short-term, we are in a very dark place. If you don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, you might as well give up. I refuse to do that.
Full credit to you, Chris. I admire that. On that note, we’ll leave it there. Thank you so much for your time. I know it’s an extremely busy period for you, so thanks for giving me so much of it.
It’s a real pleasure to be in conversation with you, Maz, and good luck and best wishes to all of your audience.