Books: Fine account of prison camp Gaza

Written By: Denis MacShane
Published: February 13, 2018 Last modified: February 13, 2018

Gaza: Preparing for Dawn
by Donald Macintyre
One World £20

There is no British equivalent of Pulitzer prizes for books by journalists who narrate important events or current affairs topics and add significantly to our understanding of current problems. If there was, then Donald Macintyre’s superb account of Gaza would be walking off with the prizes.

After a distinguished career first as labour correspondent when he refused to cross NUJ and print workers picket lines during the Wapping strike when Rupert Murdoch set out to destroy newspaper trade unionism, Macintyre then became a political editor of the Independent  chronicling with key insights the renaissance of the Labour Party under John Smith, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and others who helped shape the longest serving Labour government in history.

In 2004 sensing  Labour’s glory days were over following the Iraq intervention he went to report the most intractably divided region of the world – where Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians, have never been able to make a peace that permits co-existence and normal human development. Now he has poured more than a decade of living in the region, visiting constantly the Palestinian especially in Gaza, into this remarkable book.

Macintyre has the born journalist’s skill for telling a complicated story through scores little personal stories many of which are heart-breaking as both Israel, Egypt and Hamas have a joint interest in turning Gaza into a prison camp without zero time off for good behaviour.

The book was published to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Balfour declaration which promised the Jews of Europe a homeland in the lands whence Judaism came from. In fact, the Balfour declaration came four months after the near identical Cambon declaration made by the French foreign ministry official, Jules Cambon. Both London and Paris wanted the support of German and more broadly European Jewish communities as part of mobilising to win the first world war.

At the time both the Cambon and then Balfour declarations were no more than a continuation of the European belief that Europeans could go off to other parts of the world – Australia, Canada, what became the United States, much of Latin America – and ignore the rights of local people who had lived there for centuries in the name of superior European civilisation. But the Middle East was different. Macintyre’s sympathy for people of Gaza is on every page of the book. But he is honest in pointing out that time and again, the Arab populations in the 1930s, in 1948, after 1967, at Oslo in 1992 have been offered peace and land and opted for war and terror.

In 2005, the Israeli government pulled out of Gaza and dragged weeping, furious Jewish settlers out of their homes. But the response in Gaza was the election of a Hamas government which rejects the existence of Israel  and opened a war of missile salvos and other terror attacks on Jews.

Israeli obsession with “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” – a sense that the only way to deal with any attack by Palestinian is massive military response – has led to three devastating wars on the people of Gaza. Macintyre  brings to life the human stories of the Israeli assault. He tells us about  Nader al-Masri Gaza’s top marathon runner who hoped to run in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. He trained and trained in the Gazan desert but could never get an exit permit. When he did it was the Tory government that wouldn’t give him an entry permit into the UK because he would add to the immigrant numbers that Thesera May obsessed over in her years as Home Secretary.

But there is a sense in his book that to reverse Abba Eban’s dictum Israel never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. But Hamas has a wider ideological goal based on its Islamist ideology. Macintyre reports how Hamas bans contact between unmarried women and men with its police hauling couple out of a car after they’ve been for a drive. Hamas has stopped Gazan hotels and restaurants from serving alcohol and do all their power to make life miserable for all under its rule. Hamas shares traditional Islamist and sadly much Muslin clerical backed homophobia. Even if by some political miracle they gave up killing Jews, borders were opened, and trade was normal, Hamas will never allow Gazans to enjoy core freedoms enshrined in international conventions.

One interesting British figure emerges.  Tony Blair has met several times with Hamas leaders in Doha. While Trump and Netanhayu blast Hamas as terrorists conjoined with the Islamic State and Al Quaeda, Britain’s former prime minister, much reviled by the bien pensant left, has been quietly engaging with Hamas and treating the Gaza party as a valid partner for any future peace process in Israel and Palestine.

The strength of this important book is that it argues both Israeli Jews and Gaza Muslims have both right and wrong on their side. The West End play, Oslo shows how Norwegians helped bring together Palestinians and Israelis in the 1990s. Today under Trump America is not interested in peace in the region. But one day, a new peace process will have to get under way.  Macintyre’s book will be essential reading for anyone involved.

About Denis MacShane

Denis MacShane is a former Europe Minister