Thursday 12 June 2003

Israel can halt this now

The no man's land separating Israel from the Gaza Strip gives way to what can only be described as desecrated land. Razor wire and crushed buildings line the route. Torn slabs of concrete look like tattered cardboard on a rubbish heap. In front of us two Israeli tanks block our path. Behind us, the border will shortly be sealed to prevent Palestinian reprisals for the helicopter attack launched hours earlier against the extremist Hamas leader, Abdul-Aziz al-Rantissi - who is still alive. A Palestinian woman and her young child, on their way to hospital, are dead, and 35 are injured.

Later that afternoon we hurriedly leave the building we are in when a missile lands nearby. As two British MPs travelling with Christian Aid, myself and Jenny Tonge are
alarmed. For Gaza residents this is business as usual. More than 1 million Palestinians live on this tiny piece of land (smaller than the Isle of Wight) - more than three-quarters of on less than £1.30 a day. Life below the poverty line for these Palestinians contrasts with the 5,000 Israeli settlers who occupy one-third of the land and enjoy watered gardens, first world housing and protection by the Israeli army. This protection means Palestinians wait for hours - sometimes days - at Israeli checkpoints, trying to find work or get access to essential services such as medical care.

The sun is setting on Gaza. From my hotel balcony I hear demonstrations in the street below. It occurs to me that I can put on a headscarf and slip into the crowd as a Palestinian. No one will guess I'm Jewish, still less that I'm a British MP. The sounds lead me to the hospital where Rantissi is being treated. Cars rush into the compound, horns blaring, people hanging out of windows. A man carries an injured girl into the hospital. But most of the Palestinians just stand waiting. They wait for Israelis to stamp their permits, and they wait for a Palestinian state. They are no different from us: deny them human rights and they will respond with unacceptable terrorist violence.

That's what Jews did when they set up the Stern Gang and blew up the King David Hotel in the 1940s. Ninety-four people died. The leader of that terrorist group, on Britain's "most wanted" list, went on to be the Israeli prime minister. Many Jews revere him, even while they abhor the terrorism that ruins their lives today. Israelis must be freed from terrorism - such as yesterday's horrific attack in Jersualem. All terrorism, not least Palestinian terrorism, is abhorrent. But it is also predictable. When the Israeli government chose Tuesday to launch an attack in Gaza (as it did again after yesterday's bombing), it cannot have been ignorant of its effect on the peace process and the certainty of Palestinian reprisals.

The original founders of the Jewish state could surely not imagine the irony facing Israel today: in escaping the ashes of the Holocaust, they have incarcerated another people in a hell similar in its nature - though not its extent - to the Warsaw ghetto.

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