Last week, as the dust began to settle after three weeks of Israeli military action in Gaza, I flew to Israel and the Palestinian Territories to see for myself the situation on the ground. No one doubts the urgent need for humanitarian aid. But is it getting through and what more can be done?
There has been endless claim and counter-claim about whether aid is getting through. I found a mixed picture. I was told that although Gaza needs at least 500 trucks of aid every day, only 120 are getting through. Shortages of even basic goods there have made prices skyrocket. Clearly we need to get more aid in – and British NGOs have an important role to play.
Some supplies are coming in from Egypt through the warren of tunnels dug under the border. Some of the tunnels are so large that cars can be driven through them. Israel insists that the tunnels must be closed down before it opens its borders – they argue that otherwise weapons and military supplies will come in through the tunnels, letting Hamas rearm and taking us back to square one. This is a legitimate concern – but it is also vital that Israel allows unfettered humanitarian aid through the official crossings into Gaza.
Thanks to the United Nations, 80% of children in Gaza are back at
school, though the curriculum is being kept light in order to help ease
the psychological burden of recent events. They are giving £20 to every
schoolchild to replace school uniforms and school bags.
The UN is currently the only means by which cash is allowed into Gaza:
Israel fears that if it lets cash through the crossings it will end up
in the hands of Hamas. Yet this has grave consequences: NGOs and the
Palestinian Authority are unable to pay their staff in Gaza, while
Hamas receives cash through the tunnels. This helps Hamas win support,
and further weakens the moderates in the Palestinian Authority.
A few miles from Gaza I visited the Southern Israeli town of Sderot, a
community which has been hit by over 8000 rockets in the last nine
years. The bus stops which line the streets have been turned into bomb
shelters so that pedestrians can run to safety in the event of the
siren signalling an incoming rocket. They have 15 seconds to run for
cover. The constant threat has had a deep psychological impact on the
citizens of Southern Israel. Hundreds of thousands of children missed
out on school while taking refuge in the bomb shelters, and parents
have endured sleepless nights, for weeks on end, worrying whether their
homes will be hit by the rockets.
In the West Bank I visited Balata refugee camp in Nablus, Ramallah,
which was established in 1952 and is home to 25,000 Palestinian
refugees. Despite some pressure for a third intifada against Israel,
the West Bank has remained relatively peaceful. As I walked around the
camp meeting angry and dispirited Palestinian refugees I was told that
a year ago I would not have been allowed in as it would not have been
safe. The relative calm in the West Bank should be credited to the
Palestinian Authority. In Ramallah I met the Palestinian Prime Minister
Salam Fayyad, who made clear that Israel needs to deliver what he
called a "political deliverable" – in particular, an end to illegal
settlement-building in the West Bank – if Palestinian confidence in
negotiations is to be restored.
The recent bloody situation is part of an ongoing conflict that
requires a long-term political solution. There must be a renewed effort
within the framework for peace which has already been established.
Unless Hamas makes progress towards accepting the Quartet principles of
renouncing violence, recognising the state of Israel and accepting
previous peace agreements, it cannot be part of this process. After
all, we all know where we need to get to: a peaceful two-state
solution, with a secure and recognised Israel living alongside a viable
and sovereign Palestinian state. The Palestinian quest for nationhood
is just. But it won’t happen unless they have the institutions of a
functioning state. Britain currently provides support to strengthen the
capacity of the Palestinians to negotiate. This is exactly the sort of
activity we should continue and build on.
Gaza is already fading from the headlines. But the ceasefire is
perilously fragile and the violence has continued in recent days. Who
can doubt that we must now raise our eyes to the wider peace process.
President Obama has dispatched Senator George Mitchell as his new envoy
and he arrived in Egypt this week. Mitchell’s work in Northern Ireland
was much admired. The task in Israel and Palestine will be the hardest
he has ever faced. But the frightened and miserable people in Gaza City
and in Sderot have waited long enough. Progress must now be made.