Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: July, 2014

Gaza: Only sustained diplomacy will stop this futile bloodshed

John Kerry is back home after his terms for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas were rejected by both sides at the weekend. ( written Sunday 27 July) My heart bleeds both at the indiscriminate killing and violence on both sides and at the seemingly impossible resolution of a conflict that has simmered or raged for as long as I have been alive.
The most moving commentators on this shameful disaster are those who can see both sides, like Daniel Barenhoim, who holds dual nationality of Israel and Palestine and writes that “in this sad conflict, we are all losers. We can only overcome this sad state if we finally begin to accept the other side’s suffering and their rights”.
Or those who have witnessed the suffering among the civilian population in Gaza like Jon Snow who after a harrowing visit to Gaza last week “wept for two peoples with remarkable similarities. Two peoples of extraordinary gifts and ability. Two peoples living in an area far smaller than England, one of which besieges the other, both of which target each other’s civilians”. Read his report at
However, trying to be even handed in commenting on the Israeli Palestinian conflict, runs the risk of overlooking or condoning the scale and ferocity of the Israeli military response of the past two weeks. According to the United Nations, the Israeli offensive has seen over 1000 Palestinians killed, 6000 injured and at least 149,000 displaced. By Saturday, 42 Israeli soldiers had been killed following their ground invasion into Gaza.
In other times and places, such overwhelmingly one sided figures might presage victory or defeat. In Gaza, nobody believes a military solution is possible. Nobody expects the invasion to change anything. Bombings only harden Palestinian resolve and lose Israelis all important public sympathy.
This is the third large scale military assault on Gaza since 2008. Each time the death toll has been borne mainly by innocent people in Gaza under the pretext of Israel eradicating resistance to the occupation they impose. Much of Gaza’s buildings and infrastructure were destroyed during Operation Cast Lead, 2008—09, and building materials have been blockaded so that schools, homes, and institutions cannot be properly rebuilt.
The Israelis complain that Hamas launches its rockets from residential areas and public buildings and so turn civilians into human shields breaking the Geneva Convention. Hamas denies the claim but as Gaza is one of the most overcrowded places on earth – two million people live in an area of 140 square miles – it is impossible to keep civilians out of the line of fire. There is nowhere to hide.
The Israelis also breach the Geneva conventions by bombing civilian areas which the UN Comisssioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay believes could constitute war crimes. The rocket attack on the Beit Hanoun school, run under United Nations auspices, caused 15 deaths and 200 casualties. They included Felastin al-Shinwari, her sister and three of her children. Her other two children were seriously injured. They had nothing to do with politics.
Israel has overwhelming superiority of firepower. Its Iron Dome defensive screen deflects Hamas’s rockets without too much difficulty. The Israeli government could afford restraint and adopt a different approach but seems determined to deploy its firepower to extract revenge for the murder of the three Israeli teenagers which triggered the present dispute.
One of our new Foreign Secretary’s first trips abroad, was to visit Israel. At a joint news conference in Jerusalem with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Philip Hammond put the blame for the latest outbreak of fighting firmly on Hamas while reiterating Britain’s support for Israel’s right to defend itself. David Cameron spoke in similar terms to the House of Commons only last Monday.
Britain bears some historic responsibility for this conflict but our reluctance to speak out against the appalling conditions in Gaza – where 6 out of the 13 hospital are reported to have been severely damaged – allows the Israeli leadership to pursue its aggressive policies without any international censure.
Great Britain sold £7.9m of arms to Israel last year and a much larger amount of surveillance equipment. Israel is the single largest client of the UK arms industry. It is ironic that the same government decries arms sales to Russia and vilifies President Putin – now a man who should not host a football match – while it continues to resource the Israeli military machine. There was an international outcry at the way corpses were left in the fields of Ukraine but hardly a murmur about the bodies left in the rubble in Gaza.
The Israeli offensive will continue until the tunnels under the border have been destroyed and Hamas disabled for the time being. But it will not bring about any resolution of the problems of Gaza and the West Bank.
Israel needs to think afresh about the way it has interned the people of the Gaza Strip since its forces withdrew in 2005. It has still been a virtual occupying force controlling the air space, blockading imports of food and equipment and preventing Palestinians fishing more than three miles off the coastline. A large proportion of the essentials for life, including food, medicine and fuel, have been brought in through tunnels from Egypt.
The internment policy only hardens the opposition. A Palestinian boy wrote on Facebook, “We have nothing left to lose. Now I would rather die with my family under the rubble of our house than have a humiliating truce. No justice, no peace.”
Israel also needs to stop building further settlements on the West Bank and end the constant harassment of the Palestinians who live there. This may be a tall order but it would have to part of any negotiated settlement designed to give Israel the security it deserves and so desperately seeks through armed force. Ultimately, only sustained diplomacy and a change of mind set from the leaders on both sides, will end this futile cycle of violence. Others need to pick up where John Kerry left off.

I am yesterday’s man

It is kind of you to ask how I am coping. Giving up full time work has been far more traumatic than I anticipated.
I stopped working at Shepherds Dene at the end of last year. I was a duck swimming serenely in a calm pond with feet flapping furiously under the water. It was exhilarating to be so busy but all consuming.
I set up a consultancy practice advising voluntary organisations and so sidestepped being ‘retired’. In this capacity I dust off my suit from time to time as in days of old but I have still found myself disorientated with a lot of time on my hands.
The structure of my life has crumbled away.
I am still the first person out of the house in the morning by virtue of heading off to the swimming pool but then return with the newspapers for a leisurely breakfast watching the world go to work from the front room window.
The week has no routine save for the post falling through the letter box mid morning and the email edition of Third Sector Magazine arriving at lunchtime. I have never read so much junk mail or faced an empty inbox which displays a message to tell me “Looks like you’re done.” Too true.
I sympathise with the way Roger Federer was written off at the age of 32 after he lost the Wimbledon final. I am exactly twice his age but know how he must feel.
I realised with a rude awakening only the other day that I was no longer the boss. I have been fortunate to lead a number of different organisations with a moral cause, where I have been a top man cumulatively for the last 37 years. Some might say I have always been too pig headed to work for anyone else. All of a sudden I am only in charge of the laundry basket.
Running a charity and managing staff can be stressful but there are benefits and rewards. Everyone is obliged to laugh at your jokes and most of the time you are giving the orders rather than taking them. Sometimes you can teach the younger staff a trick or two.
Being the boss is not just about the power. It is a constant state of alert that occupies all waking and sometimes sleeping space. At Shepherds Dene, it literally involved being called out in the middle of the night on occasions.
My best ideas came when walking the dog. I was always chewing away at some problem, looking for an angle or dreaming dreams. That’s what working life at the top of a small pile is all about until the day you collect your cards.
I am now yesterday’s man. The invitations to receptions and nights out have dried up. I always thought that I was invited because I was a witty chap with a charming wife but that doesn’t seem to be the case. It’s the role, stupid, and I’ve no longer got it.
There are some compensations. When you buy your own ticket, you are not on duty and touting for new business. Like T S Eliot’s ageing hero, J Arthur Prufrock, you can say what you like and can dress with your “trousers rolled” .
I have not hidden the fact that I am bored. Advice on how to spend my time has flooded in. “Join U3A”, suggests Veronica. “ Research the family history” says Gordon. “Join the silver surfers on Tynemouth beach” proposes Pauline. All worthy ideas for the day when you don the pale cardigan of old age.
My financial adviser stresses the importance of drawing up a bucket list – things to do before you hit it. I reply that I would like to go to St Petersburg for the weekend and the pension man says it would be in order to do so.
I recall a colleague with an ambition to holiday in every country in the world before he died. I have been lucky to travel the world but apart from visiting friends abroad, I increasingly doubt whether all the hassle of airport departure lounges is worth the pleasure sitting on a warmer beach. I may not renew my passport.
With all this time on my hands, I look up old friends and distant members of the family. I set off on a walking holiday without having to book annual leave. I discover that the mobile library stops outside my house and have already read most its books.
For the first time in ten years, I have managed a day at the test match. Since I was last at Headingly, my favourite stand has been demolished. But at least the opposition is still politely applauded. The cry of “Good shot, sir” rings out in a way you would never hear at St James Park.
I used to treat myself to the cricket when I had earned a day off. As I sipped my beer in the sunshine a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t really feel I deserved to be there. Enjoyment for its own sake is a new experience.
I seek guidance from the Bible which helpfully falls open at that chapter in Ecclesiastes, made famous by the Byrds, which tells me there is a time for everything and a season for enjoyment.
Before the tempting arms of sloth enfold me, I have the privilege of listening to Bruce Kent speaking at the Hexham Debate. Kent was Secretary of CND in its glory days. He is now 84, exactly 20 years older than me, and as passionate, articulate and committed to his cause as ever. That’s the man to follow.
“Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul. We grow old by deserting our ideals” the American poet Samuel Ullman once said. Why are we spending £6bn a new aircraft carrier? I may return to this subject in my next column.
George Hepburn is Proprietor of Bewick House Enterprises