Why we all need to reflect when we talk about Gaza

This post, by LFI Director Jennifer Gerber, first appeared on Progress

Simple narratives that seek to cast all the blame of the Gaza conflict on one side are as naive as they are unhelpful to the cause of peace, writes Labour Friends of Israel’s Jennifer Gerber

On Tuesday Labour Friends of Israel issued a tweet about the violence on the Gaza border which blamed Hamas for the tragic death of 60 Palestinians.

Trying to sum up a complex, developing situation in 288 characters is not easy or wise. We got it wrong and I regret that.

Our chair, Joan Ryan, yesterday published a more detailed outline of our views, calling for an end to the spiral of violence and urgent measures, including restraint by Israeli forces, to prevent the loss of further human life. On behalf of LFI, she condemned unequivocally the death of any innocent peaceful protestors. Crucially, it is very important that an independent inquiry is established to identify and expose the facts surrounding what happened.

As on all topics, social media encourages us to view issues in black and white terms, stripping them of nuance, context or history. This inevitably feeds into the wider political debate.

That, perhaps, explains why the shadow foreign secretary was able to repeatedly make statements about Monday’s events which did not once mention Hamas and its explicitly stated intention of destroying Israel.

But discussing Gaza without referencing Hamas is like trying to explain the Troubles while ignoring the IRA.

It is because of Hamas’ terrorism that both Israel and Egypt impose tight restrictions on goods leaving and entering Gaza in an attempt to stop it acquiring new weaponry.

It is because of Hamas’ rocket attacks and terror tunnels that it and Israel have fought three bloody conflicts in the last decade.

And it is because of Hamas’ hijacking of the ‘March of Return’ protests that violence has repeatedly broken out on the border over the past seven weeks.

These protests were originally organised by a coalition of Palestinian grassroots groups who wished to peacefully protest against the 70th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel. They explicitly rejected confrontation, suggesting: ‘We want to send a message that we want to live in peace — with the Israelis. We’re against stone throwing or even burning tires.’

But Hamas had other ideas. ‘The March of Return will continue … until we remove this transient border,’ Yahya Sinwar, its leader in Gaza, declared, vowing that the people of Gaza will ‘eat the livers of those besieging’ them.

In that spirit, Hamas operatives have used the cover of the peaceful protests to attempt to breach the border fence. They have hurled firebombs and explosives and opened fire on Israeli soldiers guarding it and attempted to plant improvised explosive devices alongside it. They have launched kites containing burning fuel towards agricultural land in the kibbutzim which lay just beyond it. And over the weekend, they posted pictures and maps on social media showing the shortest routes from the border fence to nearby Israeli communities should any demonstrators make it through. Nine Israeli border communities lie between 0.4 kilometres and three kilometres from the fence.

Hamas has frequently acknowledged that that many of those killed in the border clashes are members of its military wing, releasing pictures of them in combat gear.

As the response of many British Jews has shown, you do not need to support Israel’s actions to understand its fears. Failing to even acknowledge them does little to advance the debate about where we go from here.

That debate needs a plurality of views and perspectives. It needs an understanding that people can have honest disagreements without questioning their motives and intentions. And it needs to offer solutions rather than soundbites.

LFI’s Pledge for Gaza, which we launched earlier this year, attempts to offer some. As the Oslo accords outlined, Gaza should be demilitarised, which means Hamas’ effort to rearm and restock its terror arsenal must be stopped. The civil and political rights of the people of Gaza must be restored and, as the Palestinian Authority has repeatedly attempted, Hamas’ brutal rule brought to an end. The international community must honour the unfulfilled reconstruction pledges made at the 2014 Cairo conference. And the Israeli government must assist with the economic regeneration of Gaza by, for instance, adopting the plans offered by the Israeli Labor party for a seaport which which will ease the flow of goods in and out of the Strip.

Many in people in Britain feel an understandable frustration at the stalled peace process and the plight of the Palestinian people. So do I. That is why LFI has attempted, through its campaign backing the establishment of an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, to assist grassroots activists in Israel and the West Bank who wish to build bonds between people and communities on both sides of the Green Line. As in Ireland, such civil society foundations may yet prove an indispensable part of the path towards reconciliation, coexistence and the lasting peace which millions of Israelis and Palestinians long for.

As LFI has said previously, while it is right to mourn the loss of innocent civilian lives and ask questions of the Israeli Defence Force’s use of live fire, we also need to understand the complex nature of the situation on the Gaza border. Simple narratives that seek to cast all the blame on one side are as naive as they are unhelpful to the cause of peace. We recognise that in one poorly worded tweet, which did not live up to the standards we set ourselves, we failed in this regard. We would urge others, not least the Labour frontbench, to similarly reflect on the statements that they have made.