MILIBAND: Gaza represents the ultimate failure of politics 13Oct11 October 12, 2011


by David Miliband  -  The Guardian  -  12 October 2011

Government is all about statistics. But life is about people, and the disjunction between the two explains a lot about the cynicism and disaffection with politics. This is true for domestic policy, but also in international affairs, where the confusion and fatigue induced by distance is increased by the seemingly intractable nature of many of the problems.

The people who suffer are those who most need the attention of the world. This is notably true of the 1.5 million people crowded into the Gaza Strip, locked between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean sea.

The statistics say that 80% of the population are on UN food aid. The youth unemployment rate is 65%. The website of the United Nations office for the co-ordination of humanitarian affairs has a comprehensive database where you can see how many trucks, containing different kinds of supplies, have been allowed in by the Israeli authorities.

The situation of the people – or rather the fight about their situation – is periodically in the news, most recently when violence broke the otherwise reasonably effective ceasefire in August. But Gaza has become the land that time – and the wider international community – forgot.

It is for this reason that I took up the offer from Save the Children to visit the Gaza Strip. I had not been able to visit while in government for security reasons. Now I wanted to get a sense of life, not statistics. The purpose of the visit was not to meet politicians or decision-makers, but to get a glimpse, albeit brief, of life for the people.

And there is real life. Boys in western football shirts – mainly Lionel Messi of Barcelona. Restaurants overlooking the Mediterranean. Girls in white headscarves wherever you look coming back from school. Barbers, clothes shops, fruit stalls. And a good deal of traffic – with new cars smuggled in through tunnels underneath the Philadelphi route that runs along the Egyptian border.

But although life is real, it is traumatic and limited. We saw buildings – not just the former Hamas headquarters – still reduced to rubble. There are houses riddled with bullet holes. The electricity supply cuts out for up to eight hours a day. There are not enough schools or teachers, so there are classes of 50 or 60 and the school day is restricted to a few hours to allow for two or even three shifts.

The consequences of war are everywhere, nowhere more so than for those caught in the crossfire. We met the niece and son of a farmer caught in the “buffer zone” between the Israeli border and Gaza. She had lost an eye and he a hand to Israeli shells in the war of 2008-09.

Save the Children, obviously, is most concerned about the 53% of the Gaza population under 18. The statistics say 10% of children are “stunted” – so undernourished before the age of two that they never grow to their full potential.

We saw what Save the Children is trying to do about it, at a nutrition centre serving mothers and children in Gaza City. The needs are basic: promoting breastfeeding, health boosts for young children through food supplies, medical attention for mothers. But not all those who need help are coming to get it, so Save the Children funds outreach workers to go and encourage families to use the services.

There is remarkable work to create opportunity as well as prevent catastrophe. The Qattan Centre for the Child is a privately funded library, drama, computer and youth centre that would grace any British community. The director told me it was dedicated to a philosophy of “building people not buildings”. The centre is a true oasis.

The situation in Gaza represents the ultimate failure of politics. Nearly three years ago, after the Gaza war, the international community was preoccupied with opening up Gaza. Three years on, there is a stalemate – to match the wider stalemate in the wider search for a Palestinian state that can live alongside Israel.

The first responsibility is with Israel. The international call in the UN Gaza peace resolution, which Britain authored, on the Israeli government to open up the supply lines has been heeded only in small part. That is why the tunnels do such a roaring trade – which Hamas then taxes to fund its activities. So there is a real boomerang. In return, the Israeli government would retort that the parallel call in the resolution for the flow of arms into Gaza to be stopped has not been delivered. That’s true, too.

Yet the international pressure is muted. The focus has shifted. But the needs and the people have not moved on.

This is not a party political hit on the British government. The Department for International Development is the second biggest donor to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. The prime minister spoke up about Gaza early in his term of office. There is room for a genuine cross-party drive to make sure that the children and adults of Gaza are not forgotten.

To make the situation even more infuriating, the status quo is actually irrational. It is not in anyone’s political interest. Israel doesn’t become safer, or Hamas or Fatah more popular.

One young mother at the nutrition centre told me that she was just completing her accountancy degree – but there was no work. Yusuf, nine, working on a computer at the Qattan centre, told me he wanted to be a pilot. These people are not a threat to peace in the Middle East. They are actually its hope. But for that they need a chance to shape their own future.

David Miliband is the former UK foreign secretary.

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