GAZA- Time to ask ourselves a really important question

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By Andrusha Wickremeratne- In the early morning hours of 31st May armed Israelis attacked a flotilla of aid ships in international waters and killed 9 Turkish people aboard the “Mavi Marmara”. Dozens more were seriously injured. The convoy was taking aid, mainly in the form of medicines and food, to the besieged Gazan population.

Gaza, the tiny strip of land overlooking the Mediterranean Sea is a completely sealed entity (officially at least). Even before the siege, the idea that a “Palestine” comprising Gaza and the West Bank on the border of Jordan, with all points of entry and roads between the two controlled by Israel, could possibly be called a viable state, could only be swallowed by those with severe delusions and /or a somewhat high level of indoctrination both ideological and in diplomatic real politik.

Yet despite this, according to many observers, life in Gaza, while hardly a place brimming with affluence, was nevertheless relatively tolerable for its citizens. A decade ago annual per capita income was $2,500 and some $400 of goods was exported to Israel annually. When Israel imposed the siege after Hamas came to power in 2007, per capita income fell to around $900. Last year it was just $600, plunging most Gazans below the poverty line to survive on less than $2 a day.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev, who keeps popping into radio and TV studios to eloquently explain that murdering unarmed people in high seas and keeping an entire population in a state of siege is justified, explained in his best American accented voice to Radio 4 listeners last Sunday morning, that the people of Gaza are not in fact starving. Yes strictly speaking this is true. Enough food and aid is getting through to prevent this from happening. So while this goes on, people, while not exactly starving, are steadily getting weaker. And a weak population has less wherewithal to rise up.

Just as Iraqis were unable to do against Saddam Hussein during the vicious, predominantly Anglo – American  sanctions policy between the two Gulf wars which killed an estimated half a million children. A weak population might even blame their elected leaders (yes Hamas are a democratically elected government lest we forget) for their travails. Although this, by all accounts, seems very unlikely. As Palestinian economist Omer Shaban comments: “we are not Darfur ……. If you removed the siege, people could live as they do in the south of France. We have everything in our homes. But we deserve better lives.”

And so many ordinary people round the world are outraged by this situation. Some are angry, resourceful and committed enough to go on voyages taking aid to the Gazans and getting themselves murdered for their trouble. In the meantime Wayne Rooney supposedly likes to lie on the floor of the aeroplane taking him and his colleagues to the World Cup in South Africa. Apparently the hum of the engine makes him sleep better.

Apart from selected media outlets and journalists, the sense of anger and indignation felt by millions are not represented in what we see, hear and read. Those whose actions which might compel others in power to significantly alter Israeli government policy, have better things to regale us with. Even when they do refer to the killing of innocents in high seas a weird metamorphosis seems to have taken place within large sections of the media.

Within days those aboard the flotilla had turned into “armed peace activists”. And armed commandos shooting at unarmed men and women were doing so out of self defense. By this rationality, if I beat you with an iron bar while you illegally enter my ship and start killing my colleagues, then I am the villain. Yes indeed how dare I do that!

Ultimately though, expressions of legality or illegality are misnomers. These are cloaks of reference worn by the powerful and the relatively powerless. Generally speaking in the eyes of most Western leaders and those citizens concerned about Wayne Rooney’s sleeping habits, Israel is legitimate. Even without going into the “unshakable bond” and “absolute commitment to Israel’s security” (Hillary Clinton) which the US has, once Israel was perceived, in the orthodox narrative, of a lone little democracy in a sea of hostile Muslim polities, and whose credo is inimical to enlightened thought (yes take a bow Samuel Huntingdon and your “Clash of Civilisations”), then anything Israel does is, by and large, alright and legal.

So we have the usual glib platitudes from our leaders who obscenely seek to hijack vocabulary. Our new Home Secretary William Hague speaks of a “tragic event” as does the totally ineffectual United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki – moon. Since when did a state sanctioned killing become a “tragedy”? A tragedy? The people of Indonesia, Sri Lanka and South India certainly suffered a tragedy when struck by the tsunami of 2005. The Turkish people aboard the “Mavi Marmara” were murdered. While it is certainly a tragedy that they are dead, it is murder why they are dead. It is time then to start being more faithful to the dictionary definition of words more routinely when describing events and say that Israel is an apartheid state and those of their citizens who murder others are criminals.

And let’s not leave the attempted righting of wrongs to our leaders elected or otherwise, and learn from history. Nothing that we have come to regard as normal today, be it civil liberties, work place legislation or laws overturning race, gender and sexual discrimination, have ever been handed willingly by our leaders. They have been fought for tooth and nail by ordinary people. So let’s not have any illusions that our political leaders and self congratulating media pundits ( yes that includes you John Simpson of the BBC Afghan Liberation Front), will do the job of highlighting murders of people aboard a ship, or Palestinian suffering in Gaza. They do not really care. Their words will never go beyond the narrow exigencies of their office.

Mathew Parris former Conservative politician and journalist when asked his opinion on BBC’s Question Time last week said that actually he’d stopped caring. To which he got his intended ripple of laughter. Since we cannot expect dullards like Mathew Parris to have the wherewithal or imagination to speak up for the right of parents to get basic lifesaving medicines for their dying children in the prison that is Gaza, we have to do it.

In order to do this many, many more ordinary people have to truly start caring. This is no easy task. People have immediate worries that consume them, and it is facile to argue that compared to the Palestinians of Gaza, your worries are minimal. Problems, hardships, worries are all relative, and many of us can just about put food on the table even in a rich country like Britain. But I don’t believe there is any other way round it, but to try and think more in absolute terms and start caring.

Defeating apathy is the first task, and then realising that truly helping others involves a sacrifice of some sort, whether material or time or both. On the eve of his assassination the civil rights leader Martin Luther King speaking in Memphis in April 1968 in support of the garbage collectors of that city, asked a packed church congregation to think about an essential conundrum confronting people when deciding whether to help others or not. He said that, quite understandably, many people ask themselves the question: “what will it cost me, or what will happen to me, if I help these people?” To which he then urged his listeners to turn the question on its head: “what will happen to the garbage collectors, if you don’t help them?”

So let’s stop wasting time listening to our leaders and the mainstream media: the mouthpieces of the “legitimate”. Ultimately it was the activities of ordinary people which convinced large corporations to disinvest in apartheid South Africa and it was the actions of those people which finally convinced governments to enact sanctions which went a large way to  dismantling South Africa’s racist policies. The same should be done with Israel.

If some good can come of the tragedy which is the murder and injury of those taking relief to Gazans, then maybe it is to galvanise more people into thinking: “what will happen to them if I don’t help them?”

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