Missing in Gaza

We were looking after some of our bairns last week. Then, with the grandchildren peacefully, quietly in bed we collapsed in front of the TV; horrified to see other peoples’ bairns being killed in their hundreds, only a few hours away.
Later we heard the calm, rational arguments of intelligent, civilised men from the most established democracy in the Middle East. They offer reasoned justification – explaining their actions in terms of the self-defence to which they are surely entitled; assuring us that they target their missiles at terrorists and provide warnings to people whose elected Government launches rockets from their neighbourhood and stores weapons in their hospital. We even have the odd apology – for the deaths of four boys playing on a beach. Then they go on with the relentless bombardment of a place about as big as Tyneside but packed with three times as many people.
Sue and I lived in Israel for a few months in 1976. It was our first time outside Europe and the opportunity to work on a kibbutz, experience a communal, sharing way of life and visit places familiar from the Bible was one of the adventures of our lives.
It wasn’t great. Our biggest disappointment was that understandably, the mainly young, largely privileged, very temporary volunteers were kept at arms-length by those whose whole life this was. Reservists in the armed forces when they weren’t on the kibbutz, the Israelis needed our work on the farm and in the factory. However the newly qualified teacher so keen to work with children never got the chance and when your own politics is so febrile who cares about the budding politician straight from university? They were tough people, committed to their collective survival, worthy of our respect. Perhaps none of us had time to get beyond the easy familiarity of work on those sunny early mornings when the ‘guys got on the wagon’ and we went out to ‘cut more bananas than anyone else in the whole state of Israel.’
Assigned to a beautiful place in the Jordan Valley, just south of the Sea of Galilee we were acutely aware of how threatened people were; the armed guard at night, the minefield beyond the banana groves and the air raid shelters which we cleaned out and re-stocked. Weapons were everyday tools; the middle-aged woman shopping in Tiberias with a bag over one shoulder and a sub- machine gun on the other. One Saturday, driving in a lorry to a beauty spot near the Golan Heights; the volunteers took the picnic, the drivers the kalashnikovs. Later, on a public bus travelling through the West Bank we were stopped at an army checkpoint somewhere out in the Judean desert; all the Arab men onboard were made to get off, spread-eagled in the dirt, searched while we watched, then came back to their seats and what was plainly a normal journey carried on.
Israel made us want to affirm life; on coming back to England we started our family. Last week, with our grandchildren asleep, resisting the urge to turn off the images of terrified, injured, screaming children; parents clutching them, desperately trying to keep them safe I thought of Yad Vashem.
Israel’s great memorial to six million people murdered in the Holocaust expresses all its tragedy on an epic scale; strangely uplifting, it reserves its most telling, poignant fact for last. My abiding memory of visiting all of 38 years ago is of turning a corner on the way out, thinking it all over, then coming across a final glass case containing one small, scuffed, well- worn child’s shoe with the simple statement that of all those who died, 500,000 were children.
If you had any tears left to weep this would surely be the time to let them go.
Israel cares for its own children and I believe that its people will be concerned for the children of Gaza. I hope they will spurn the cruel obduracy of leaders who are so self- righteous in their disproportionate pursuit of terrorists that they have lost sight of their duties to humanity. I trust we will soon hear the voices of a coming Israeli generation who don’t wish to spend their whole future in conflict with people scarred by the wicked treatment of children and their families in Gaza in the summer of 2014.
It’s an irony of our time that atrocious suffering can be ever more easily inflicted, ever more easily observed, while it’s ever more easy to feel there’s nothing we can do. Nevertheless we must not turn off or turn away.
Whether we are from Ashington or Ashkelon we live in democratic countries which are part of a system of international law and human rights which needs to be used and supported and developed further to deal with international crises.
Democratic politics is the best weapon and it’s in all our hands. We should invest in our own democracy, take time to meet with our politicians during their recess and take our bairns along. Call for the whole world to do better – and more.