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Britain's response to Gaza threatens its standing in the Middle East

Palestine is the broken heart of the Middle East. Without condemning Israel’s crimes against it, everything Britain does in the region is for nothing

Gulf News

There’s an image from November 15 that is likely to come to symbolise this latest conflict in Gaza: It is of Jihad Masharawi, standing in the wreckage of his house, cradling the body of his dead 11-month old son in his arms. The faces around him look awkward, as if at a loss as to what to say. And what could they say?

His son is dead, after an Israeli air strike on an Islamist leader who has nothing to do with him, his family, or most ordinary Gazans. His son’s life has been taken neither for resistance nor for peace. He was too young to know anything about the conflict in Gaza, or its warmongering neighbour.

I used to say that I had never been as ashamed to be British as when Israel invaded Lebanon in 2006: bombing Beirut, that vibrant, liberal and beautiful city that has been a backyard for the proxy wars of its neighbours for so many decades. Britain’s leaders sat by then and said nothing, bar muttering platitudes about Israel’s pursuit of security. But that’s no longer true. Now I am truly ashamed of Britain’s weak, conciliatory, and ultimately self-defeating response to Israel’s destruction of Gaza.

I will put aside for now the twisted logic of British Foreign Secretary William Hague, calling on Hamas to cease its violence — and blaming the group for the Israeli assault — merely hours after the strike that destroyed Masharawi’s family. But to stick doggedly to this position as the civilian death toll in the Gaza Strip rose dramatically is inexcusable. On Monday night, Hague took part in an EU meeting that called for a ceasefire, the first statement of which called “for Hamas and other armed groups to cease [firing rockets into Israel]. There can be no justification for the deliberate targeting of innocent civilians”.

Hague added that Israel “has the right to protect its population”, while dispatching another minister, Alistair Burt, to Israeli towns targeted by rockets. Burt said that he understood what it was like to live in fear of attack. He neglected to visit those towns in Gaza, less than 50 kilometres away, where hard fought gains made inspite of years of economic blockade and international isolation are being wiped away.

British Prime Minister David Cameron and Hague have showed strong leadership in response to the Arab Spring. Britain played a leading role in Libya, along with France, helping ordinary Libyans topple a tyrant who dominated Libya for almost 40 years. The government has likewise taken a strong stance against the Syrian regime.

Last week, Cameron toured refugee camps in northern Jordan, a bold statement that demonstrated that he wants to do more than just issue condemnations. The stage is now set for Britain to play a major role in persuading the world to help Syrians oust President Bashar Al Assad. For the first time since the dark days of Tony Blair, Britain finally seems to have got on the right side of history in the Middle East: on the side of the people.

But what Cameron and Hague don’t realise is that all the good they have done and will try to do in the Middle East risks being undone by their silence on Israeli atrocities in Gaza. Palestine is the broken heart of the Middle East. It is everything, and without it everything Britain does in the region is for nothing.

Without serious efforts to end violence and bring peace and justice to Palestine, regional despots such as Al Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will continue to mock the West’s hypocrisy in its calls for international law, cooperation and justice, while simultaneously permitting Israel to violate these principles in its treatment of the Palestinians.

Israeli attacks on Gaza prevent its society from attaining anything like normal development and create dozens of Masharawis, unable to forget their lost children. Israel’s violence may eventually succeed in stopping the rocket attacks, but how is deepening the misery of the Palestinian people expected to achieve peace? In this latest round of violence, it is becoming increasingly hard to believe that this Israeli government wants peace at all.

For decades, Britain has blindly supported Israel and its abuses against Palestinians. It has got us nowhere. It is now time to open our eyes and do what is right: speak out against it. Masharawi is a BBC cameraman; he’s not a terrorist. He has no more link with Hamas than fellow Londoners do with London-based hate preacher Abu Qatada, and yet he – like dozens of other families in Gaza since – buries his son as we peddle our diplomatic line on the ‘Gaza crisis’. His story is the story of hundreds if not thousands of Palestinians, and the refusal of British politicians to condemn their murder risks staining our reputation in the Middle East for generations to come.

Orlando Crowcroft is freelance journalist based in London.