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Israel, Gaza and criticisms and controversy in the UK

Israel and the Middle-East are emotive issues and the question of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is no exception. The BBC has prevented the broadcast of humanitarian appeals for funds for Gaza on the basis that it needs to preserve its “neutrality" as a trusted international broadcaster, a stand that has led to further political controversy. The trouble is that there does not seem to be any “neutral" position to occupy when it comes to civilian deaths and humanitarian aid to Gaza. The BBC has found this to its cost. Its decision is seen to be pro-Israeli rather than neutral, as the veteran labour-party politician Tony Benn argued on BBC news just a few days ago. During the conflict itself, Sir Gerard Kaufman, Labour MP for Manchester Gorton gave a critical and challenging speech in the House of Commons comparing Israel’s policy towards civilian deaths as typical of “Nazi behavior". What was his argument and how has it been evaluated?

Kaufman has been consistently critical of Israel over the years but he is also well-informed of conditions in Israel and Palestine. Kaufman was careful to present his credentials as someone brought up “as an Orthodox Jew and Zionist" and as coming from an immigrant family whose grandmother was shot in bed by a Nazis soldier. He cannot be accused of anti-Semitic behavior though clearly he is not pro-Zionist or at least not uncritically pro-Zionism. This has not saved him from being called a “self-hating Jew", an accusation that would seem, given his record on humanitarian issues, grossly unfair. In the speech he flourished his contact with the Israeli establishment (“Golda Meir was my friend") and used his own family’s experience to reject Israeli policy towards civil deaths in robust and indeed startling language: “My grandmother did not die to provide cover for Israeli soldiers murdering Palestinian grandmothers in Gaza. The current Israeli Government ruthlessly and cynically exploits the continuing guilt among gentiles over the slaughter of Jews in the holocaust for their murder of Palestinian. The implication is that Jewish lives are precious, but the lives of Palestinians do not count". This quote more than any other has rattled pro-Israeli groups. Kaufman is no stranger to controversy and has held for many years to the fact that peace needs justice for the Palestinian and willingness to compromise on the part of Israel. He also turns personal family history against Tzipi Livni (Israel’s foreign minister) who has stated that she will not enter into discussion with Hamas. Livni’s father was engaged in terrorism against the British. Kaufman is concerned about peace and quotes Abba Eban’s words: “You make peace by talking to your enemies.".

The speech has promoted controversial discussion and Kaufman has been covered in abuse and not only by the Israeli right. An Israeli spokesperson pointed to the fact that many of the soldiers who were fighting had lost family members in the holocaust but they saw the need to defend themselves. Others responses, taken from various web sites around the world, compare Hamas to the Nazis and pointed out that Hamas used civilians to hide behind. Kaufman was careful to point out that Hamas “is a deeply nasty organization" though he stopped short of calling them fascist, as many in Israel see it. Others dismissed the idea that the Holocaust has anything to do with Israel attitudes and that Kaufman’s speech was the worst form of historical revisionism. The country was simply responding to the missiles coming from Hamas militants. Even if Israel got it wrong, its supporters argue, it warned civilians of intended strikes in an effort to reduce civilian deaths. Kaufman, on the other hand, insists that Hamas grows in a soil that Israel fertilizes by its everyday treatment of Palestinians. So many civil deaths may intimidate but at the same time such a large number of deaths and the destruction associated with them will only enrich the soil on which Hamas grows. Humanitarian aiud is not only good in itself but it can change the political climate as well.

The philosophy of “an eye for an eye" (an aspect but not the sole aspect of the notion of righteousness) suggests proportionality in violent response and it does seem to many people that Israel has been disproportionate in this respect. Israel has the right to defend itself but the size of the civilian deaths and the unintended consequences of military action has exposed it to high levels of criticism and moral outrage of which Kaufman’s speech, is one of the loudest and most startling. 15, 000 people have complained the BBC about its decision not to broadcast the Disasters Emergency Committee’s appeal for aid to civilians in Gaza. Discussion, according to the New York Times, has been heated with staff in the BBC divided on the issue. Criticism of the BBC's stand has come from all sections of society and on Monday 26th January masses of demonstrators took to the streets in protest. The BBC today has decided to set up a committee of its Governing Body to investigate the complaints.