Comment: Ending the Gaza blockade

Historical one-upmanship in the Middle East risks being never-ending. Britain must encourage leadership on both sides to end the destructive blockade of the Gaza strip.

By Julian Huppert MP

When people talk about the conflict between Israel and Palestine, the conversation often turns quickly to historical one-upmanship. On my recent visit to Gaza, discussions of the past were all too prevalent, going back as far as 1286. But I want to focus on the present and on the future.

There are shared goals that we all wish to see. Israel has a clear right to exist, and for its citizens to live in peace and security. The Palestinians have a clear right to a fully functioning state, with total autonomy. Unfortunately I fear that both sides are headed away from those goals.

In my visit to Gaza, I saw a population under siege, trapped inside a small, overcrowded strip of land, desperate for education and opportunity.

Thanks to the work of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) the humanitarian crisis has been partially alleviated. However, UNRWA does its amazing work in spite of the continued difficulty in securing essential construction materials. The money for vital housing projects and new schools is available, but UNRWA says that just 1.7% of the required materials are allowed into Gaza. While we were there, 47 of 48 trucks bringing in such materials were turned away.

Israel’s argument is one of security – that these materials could be used by Hamas for terrorist purposes. That is superficially legitimate, but falls apart on close examination. The tunnel network under the border with Egypt allows Hamas to acquire all the materials it needs, while the only effective constraints appear to be on the UN, NGOs and legitimate businessmen. This is surely counter-productive to Israel’s interests. It serves to weaken UNRWA, which risks losing support through its inability to build, while others do so using illegal materials.

There is a need for better leadership on both sides. Fatah and Hamas must put aside self-interest and work together for the good of Palestinians. The rocket attacks must stop. But Israel must also turn aside from inflammatory rhetoric and disproportionate violence.

If we are to avoid a perpetual state of conflict, a perpetual siege of Gaza, and a neverending cycle of violence, then both sides must up their games. We in Britain must support them in taking the difficult steps necessary. We must not allow the people in Gaza to bear the brunt of collective punishment. The siege must end.

Julian Huppert is the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge.

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