Thursday, 17 December 2009

Recycling and the UK. Then and Now

A long time ago, when fish and chips were really wrapped in newspaper, my mother could take back that empty bottle that once contained dandelion and burdoch, get the deposit back on the bottle and use it pay towards a poke of chips or on a new bottle of the thick, fizzy, dark brown liquid. In those days we walked as a family to the nearest chip shop, which was over a mile away.
Now I don’t take my daughter to a chippy. Too many calories in the deep-fried food, cod has joined the panda on the WWF endangered species list, the food is served in polystyrene boxes, sugar surges and eight-year olds are not a good mix; I would doubtless be told where to go if one were to ask for money for an empty bottle.
Why am I rambling like this? Look back on what we used to do in small businesses and a lot of the packaging was recycled material. But now shops are under no real obligations: if you’re lucky there will be recycling bins available at the end of the car park. Is it any wonder that Britain has terrible record of recycling when compared with are continental neighbours? I would suggest that the reason is that UK governments has not put the burden of responsibility across society evenly: leaving it just up to the individual instead of those that supply the packaging in the first place: the businesses that sell the stuff to begin with.

On the continent it is different and I was reminded of this on a recent trip to visit relatives in Germany. My sister-in-law works for one of Germany’s largest supermarket chains and she filled me in. Shops have to provide recycling facilities for all the packaging materials they sell. This means that some chain stores even refuse to carry certain lines if they decide that it doesn’t make economic sense to deal with the returned packaging. Instead, they leave it to their competitors. The in-store systems have a degree of automation but there is also labour required. I’m sure the businesses don’t like it but that is the law: they have no choice. And yes, there is a deposit system on bottles: both glass and plastic are covered (such a machine is shown in the photographs).
It has been like this for years. The same automated bottle-handling systems were in Norway when I was living there ten years ago. What do we have in the United Kingdom? Some poor individual at the till offering to sell you a “bag for life” but with the usual plastic ones still available for those who ask..

It is just not good enough. Although the government’s Defra website shows that we are recycling more in the UK, about two and a half times more than we were ten years ago, about eighty percent is still going into landfill, (it varies with materials: about fifty percent of paper is reused or recycled). In 2007, Austria was recycling sixty percent of it’s used materials with our northern-European neighbours not far behind.
If Britain wants to lose the dirty man of Europe image, one which we have held for years for various reasons (remember acid rain for example), we need to be doing far more. The individual household is starting to get on board the recycling train: time for business, especially the supermarkets to be made to get on board too. That is not going to happen by voluntary measures: legislation is the only way.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Strange Bedfellows: the SNP, Tories and the West Lothian Question.

07:34 Today Programme. BBC Radio 4 6th October 2009.

"Shadow foreign secretary William Hague, repeated this week the Conservative pledge to stop Scottish MPs voting on purely English or Welsh issues. The Conservatives would complete the devolution settlement by allowing English MPs a veto on legislation the affects only England, and English and Welsh MPs a veto when it affects England and Wales. Shadow Scottish secretary David Mundell, and the SNP chief whip in the Commons, Stuart Hosie, discuss the Conservative's constitutional change proposals."
http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_8294000/8294126.stm

It wasn’t my imagination that Scottish Nationalist MP, Stuart Hosie, seemed intensely relaxed about the Conservative proposals over the baring of Scottish-based MPs on issues that are judged purely to be matters for England and Wales.
On the face of it, the proposals seem fair. The English should have their own representation, just as the Scottish, Welsh and (hopefully soon) the Northern Irish have. Although is this the right way to go about it?
The problem with banning of Scottish members from voting is that it is unconstitutional. The Westminster Parliament is the parliament of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, not just of England. To make it an English Parliament would mean a massive change in direction to our constitution, effectively paving the way to the break up of the United Kingdom. Hence the Tories having the support of the SNP over this issue.

There is a political problem that the Conservatives face and it is one that I do sympathise with. The Tories are not popular in Scotland, just having one parliamentary seat out of fifty nine. The banning of Scottish MPs effectively mean that a lot of Conservative policy will have a much easier ride through the next parliament after the election (assuming a Tory win of course). It would be to the detriment of the people of England if MPs from other parts of the United Kingdom were excluded though. Devolution has allowed certain things to be done differently and why shouldn’t the people of England benefit from the insights on offer from other parts of the UK? Instead of enforcing party discipline, an alternative could be to lift the whip on Scottish MPs voting on English matters. This would allow the individual to abstain or otherwise, allowing MPs to share their experience of their own part of the United Kingdom and allowing them to pass a disinterested verdict on English policies that is beyond party politics. Before devolution, this possible answer to the West Lothian Question would not have been feasible.  Now however it would allow all the people of the Union to enjoy the benefits of devolution while Westminster remains unchallenged as the seat of parliament of the United Kingdom
As the Conservatives stand, their suggested policy would play directly into the hands of the nationalists. For a party that used to known as the Conservative and Unionist Party, this is surely not a tenable position. It also gives the people of Scotland a very strange choice among the parties at the next Westminster elections. Of the four main parties north of the border, a vote for either the SNP and now the Conservatives is a vote in favour of the dissolution of the Union. Labour is a spent force at Westminster, bracing themselves for the oncoming decimation. The only Westminster party that a reasonable supporter of the Union can therefore vote for are the Liberal Democrats, who support home rule for Scotland within the United Kingdom.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Lockerbie: business as usual


It was sometime in 1992 when the tape arrived on my desk. Before the days of plug-in hard disks and easy-use PCs, data would be recorded onto magnetic tapes which was loaded on massive reel-to-reel machines. The tape in question was on blue plastic, seven inches in diameter. The rim was heavily broken with the pieces being held in a plastic bag. The label was from a UK gas well and its original destination was head office in Houston. It never reached Texas because it was freight onboard Pan Am 103, flying on the night of the 21st of December, 1988.

It is odd how one can be just on the edge of large events such as Lockerbie. Seventeen years later, that feeling has returned to me. A couple of months ago I was in the Scottish Parliament when the First Minister, Alex Salmond, was being quizzed about the possible release of Abdelbaset Al Megrahi, the Libyan who was found guilty of the bombing. Despite assurances from Salmond that the decision would be left to the sole discretion of the Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Secretary, the First Minister’s word was widely disbelieved in the chamber. It is understood that Salmond rules the SNP with a rod of iron, with MacAskill been as likely to be able to act in a independent manner as the Westminster Cabinet would have been free to act under the leadership of Tony Blair. In other words, not very free at all.

Anyway, Al Megrahi is free now and at home. Both Salmond and Prime Minister Gordon Brown are swearing until blue in the face that it has nothing to do with oil contracts. Both must be confident that there is no “smoking gun” – nothing that can link the release to oil contracts. Of course, it is entirely coincidental that the UK is the major oil producer in Northern Europe, with most of the industry and jobs being based in Scotland. So my ears didn’t prick up at all when I was in a casual conversation this week, in a furniture store of all places, with a lady whose husband is also working in the oil industry. He is currently in Libya, planning a major new gas pipeline between North Africa and Europe.

This would make sense how? The obvious answer is Russia. Over recent winters, Putin and Medvedev have not been shy about using gas as a political and economic club to wield over the neighbours’ heads. Europe urgently needs another supplier.

America has been understandably outraged about all this. I would have more sympathy with their view if American companies had not continued to trade with Libya during the 1990s. It was widely known within the industry that a lot of business done under the Tunisian accounts was really work which originated in Libya. If managers were needed for a meeting in Tripoli, the road distance is about 500km; not a distance for a regular commute but close enough for an overnight stay. And yes, the authorities in the USA would have been aware of such activity. There seemed to be a fair amount of CIA activity when I was there.

Everybody will give lip-service to the victims and their families. But it looks like their needs are very much second-place to the real-politick of the situation. It may be that justice itself is completely absent. Not only is this a case of a convicted mass-murderer receiving mercy, there has always been doubts hanging over the conviction itself. It was claimed recently by a guest on the Today Programme that the sole eyewitness against Al Megrahi, the Maltese shopkeeper Tony Gauci, had subsequently been resettled in Australia under a new identity and had received payments from the US government to the value of seven million dollars. That is some witness protection scheme.

Seen in the rather ghastly light above, it is little wonder that Gordon Brown has been unwilling to speak on the matter. If it had been only this topic where he has attempted to keep silent, one would have been perhaps been more understanding. But recently Brown has been quiet on all subjects. This is a sign of a leadership dying on its feet. Brown has no new initiatives and can only react to events over which the Labour government is too tired to even attempt to manage.

Media commentators have been advising people to put on their cynical hats when dealing with the entire business. Sadly I cannot advise you any different.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Television Licensing


WARNING: THIS PROPERTY IS UNLICENSED
To the Legal Occupier,
We're writing to inform you that we have authorised Enforcement Officers to visit your home. If they find evidence that you are watching TV illegally, they can take your statement under caution with the relevant criminal law.
We are taking this step because:
  • According to our records, there is no TV License for this address.
  • You must have a TV License to watch or record television programmes as they're being shown on TV.
  • We have tried to contact you about this, but have received no reply.

An enforcement visit is the first step in our action to seek prosecution. Please be aware that should your case go to court, your statement can be used as evidence. The maximum penalty is a fine of £1,000. We take this offence extremely seriously, and catch around 1,000 evaders every day.

We strongly advise that you act to stop our investigation by buying a TV Licence. You can do this in minutes by visiting www.tvlicensing.co.uk or by calling 0844 800 6720. A licence costs £142.50 for colour and £48 for black and white.

Yours faithfully,

Sarah Armstrong

Regional manager

Scotland East Enforcement Team

If you have recently moved home, please transfer your old TV Licence to your new address. You can do this at www.tvlicensing.co.uk/moving or by calling 0844 800 6720. Please have your TV Licence number to hand.

If you don't watch TV, please let us know by calling 0844 800 6720.

* * *

Dear Ms. Armstrong,

Normally at this point, I would take the opportunity to thank a correspondent for writing to me. In this case I am unable to do so. I am deeply offended by the tone of the letter that has been sent in your name.

When I bought the property in question on the 19th of June, there was already a letter from the Television Licensing agency on the doormat. This first letter already contained falsehoods: namely that there had been several previous attempts to contact the owners. How could this be when the house is a new-build dwelling, with no previous occupiers? Using the telephone number supplied however, I contacted a member of the television licensing staff to inform the organisation that nobody would be living in the house until mid-August, and that I would be in contact again when my television was moved from my current address.

That should have been the end of the matter. Instead, today I receive another and, to be blunt, a nasty, threatening letter which simultaneously manages to be inaccurate, self-justifying and bullying.

"We have tried to contact you about this, but have received no reply." This is a lie. I refuse to give you the benefit of the doubt because I contacted your organisation over a month ago. Just how long does it take for you to update your records? You have the temerity to threaten me with legal action because of your own incompetence? You advise me to purchase a television license in order to avoid a visit from Enforcement Officers? Send them round! Waste more taxpayers' money why don't you?

What I hate even more is that the letter assumes guilt and it is up to me to prove innocence. Just who do you think you are? You are a civil servant, working on behalf of the British people. You are not a member of the Stasi.

I have taken the liberty of posting your letter and my reply on my website and I am also bringing your tactics to the attention of the media.

I have no regards for you.

Martin Veart.

Friday, 5 June 2009

The Crisis of Politics in the United Kingdom

In his book, The Great Crash 1929, the economist J.K. Galbraith makes the observation that embezzlement is the one crime with a time lag. There is a period during which the victim is ignorant of the loss and the embezzler is profiting from his gain. Both are happy. It is only during economic hard times that the truth comes out. Galbraith has been yet again proved to be correct, both with our banking and political systems. At least one cannot make the criticism that successive governments have been hypocritical. Until this year, it has been a guiding principle of economic theory that self-regulation is good regulation. Members of the Westminster parliament applied this principle to themselves.

MPs’ pay has always been a problem in the public perception. In the 1980s, there were attempts to link the pay of MPs to that of civil servants. But automatic pay rises have never been popular, especially since it has been long-term government policy to hold down the level of pay for workers in general. I don’t need to remind you that on both sides of the Atlantic; the rich have become a whole lot richer while the main losers have been the middle classes. Of course, the majority of MPs come from the middle classes. As was vogue in the past decades, self-regulation provides opportunities to be creative with what earning potential is out there, with the obvious route being expenses.

It is for that reason that one sees a wide variation in the degree of abuse that members of parliament have inflicted upon the public purse. It ranges from no abuse whatsoever through to the potentially criminal. What is clear is that all members have had the opportunity, many have succumbed to temptation to some degree, sometimes with the result of looking ridiculous, but few have actually been venal.

If the degree of actual corruption has been low, why the massive public uproar? First of all, it is justified. Instead of getting to grips with the issue of pay and expenses, it is an issue that has consistently been avoided by the House of Commons, with reform often being blocked by vested interests. But that isn’t the main reason and let me illustrate the point with a little story.

As some of you may already be aware, I work offshore. My employer used to supply secure parking for the vehicles of those away. Some years ago, this was withdrawn with no alternative being supplied. When I went offshore, I therefore parked my car close to the main reception, in clear view of security. Nothing wrong with that except, as a protest, and against company policy, I did not reverse-park.
Upon my return, I was taken aside by Lachlan, one of the security staff, where I had to explain my vehicular positioning.
“Hmmm. I thought you were up to something Martin. Because you wouldn’t believe the amount of abuse that we have had to put up with. “Can’t you do something about that car?” “Get it towed away!” People were so angry! To them it looked like you were getting something they were not.”
This is the main factor. How often has one heard on recent phone-ins the charge “If I did that with my company I would get fired!” Our MPs have been found guilty of this, the gravest of charges: enjoying privileges, at our expense, which we as common people cannot hope to enjoy.
If true, this insight suggests that our MPs are “out of touch” with the rest of us in the United Kingdom. On one level, this cannot be correct. Our MPs meet with their constituents on a regular basis: listening to our problems and if possible, advising and helping us sort them out. So if many of them are remote, what makes them so?

It is certainly wrong to generalise but since the 1970s there has been the rise of a professional class of politician. Now, I wasn’t going to pick on individual MPs in this article but a great and an early example of this trend is Jack Straw, the current Minister for Justice. Unlike many other Labour MPs, he didn’t come through the union route to politics but became seriously involved in his university days, becoming President of the Students’ Union in 1969. Jack Straw practiced law in the early 1970s but most of his career has been political; working for Barbara Castle as a political adviser and effectively inheriting her seat when she decided to stand down in 1977. It is a pathway to the Commons that has been widely followed since.

For a House that is supposed to represent the whole spectrum of British life and population, a class of professional is not desirable. But wait a minute! Should not a politician be professional? Certainly yes, a person can act professionally on behalf of the people but that is not the same as being a professional politician. For instance, in the dreadful case of the murders of the two French students Laurent Bonomo and Gabriel Ferez, would have led an old-school politician such as William Whitelaw to offer his resignation. There has been no such offer from Jack Straw because, apart from being a back-bencher, what else can he really do? It’s been a very long time since he practiced any other trade. Another example is the current implosion of the Labour Party. MPs are railing against the late-night telephone calls coming from No.10 to constituencies of perceived rebels. As one of the targets, Barry Sheerman MP was on the Today Programme (Radio 4, 5th June), telling of an early morning telephone conversation with a local party member after that person had just been called from Downing Street, wishing for the local party to drag Sheerman in and, hopefully, start the de-selection process. It is hot-house politics: alien from most ordinary peoples’ experience.

And so we return to expenses. . Before that, an MP was allocated three thousand pounds (about £15,000 in today’s money) a year for London living and told to get on with it. The system of self-regulation has been going on since the 1980s so for the vast majority of parliamentarians, it is the only system they have known. And for some of those, it is the only real profession they have known too. Is it any wonder that a few sought to maximize their income and otherwise treat the public purse with negligence and even contempt?

There is a deeper reasoning however, which goes to the heart of how our society is ordered. Do we follow Plato’s vision, where we are all specialists, led by a specialist caste of politician? The alternative view is expressed by Aristotle who states that a man should not entertain the notion of entering politics until the age of thirty. In other words, to have worked a trade, become a parent, fought for the state and generally become a well-rounded citizen before standing for office.

With respect to the many young politicians currently active in all parties, some of which I know personally, in general I would suggest that Aristotle has it right.

Thursday, 30 April 2009

Mumbai elections - the Excluded Vote

By Mumbaikar

Election Day is finally here. And no , I did not vote. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I was not allowed to. My name does not appear in the voter list despite several attempts to feature there.

"Did you vote?" I asked a few of my friends. Back came the reply - "No.. our names aren’t on the list." That made me realize I wasn’t the only one. Then as I switched on the News, the ticker read "Kashmiri Pundits lathi-charged on protesting their exclusion from voter list", whilst the screen flashed campaigns of eminent actors urging the youth to vote. Then it was all suddenly crystal clear to me- ‘secular’ politicians don’t want the Hindu vote to meddle in their filthy plans which is why they have figured out this clever way to ensure the ‘minority’ votes. Recently, Varun Gandhi (great-grandson of India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru) was arrested for allegedly making "speeches with an intention to create enmity among people on the basis of religion." In short, for voicing his concern about the future of Hindus in this country also known as Hindustan. But nobody ever objects to the ruling party making pro- ‘minority’ speeches all the time. Hypocrites.

Then comes the issue of buying votes. I remember asking my dad once “Why do the poor come out in large numbers to attend a party leader’s speech? Why do they roam around all the day as part of political rallies? Don’t they have bigger things to worry about?
“Things like, “How do I earn money for my next meal ?” I had answered my own question. Free food, even clothing is handed out as a reward for the support.

Mumbai (South ) is the richest constituency in the country. But the middle class doesn’t care enough to vote. A good portion of the youth demographic is qualified and well educated. But all they want to do is leave the country in search of better prospects abroad (It’s unfair to complain of brain-drain unless something is done to retain these brilliant minds here). It’s commonplace to hear an engineer say ‘Iss desh ka kuch nahi hoga…vote karo ya na karo.. ‘ (This country will never change…whether you vote or not). For young India, politics is synonymous to a feeling of cynicism and disgust ..to a sense of apathy and powerlessness.

With every election that comes my way I can only hope that I get to cast my vote and pray for a better tomorrow.


This blog is from a guest writer. It should not be presumed that I share all or any of the views expressed in this feature.

Mumbaiker is a pseudomyn.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Day Trip to Jerusalem

It has to be said from the start. Our guide was a complete racist.

From when we first past the Arab village outside Caesarea, the first comments came about “dirty” Arabs. It is not the first time that taxi drivers comment on this. In fact, if I am in a car and it is daylight, every driver seems to be have a bad word for the place. So he was not the only one. But if there was an opportunity to pass a slight upon the neighbours, Jacob would take it up with gusto. Here is what I saw. Jisr Al Zarqa is indeed a bit of a dump. And the Israelis seem to use this example to foreigners to express their own superiority. I wish the locals knew about this and tidied the place, especially where it backs onto Highway 2.
We didn’t take the main highway into Jerusalem, rather the 433 back route, that eventually leads to Jerusalem from the north. Palestinians are banned from using this road. Fences and patrols would keep them off. Jacob pointed to the hills, saying that they are pretty but evidence of Palestinian arable backwardness. Or is it an example of how the Palestinians had been left only the most difficult land to farm? It wasn’t any value with arguing with Jacob though. I would learn more through listening. He was receiving nods of agreement from some of the Americans in the group though.



Picture from the highway, showing fence as we passed a Palestinian village. Some of the other fences were electrified.


Harsh limestone hillside terraces farmed by the Palestians.

Enough. I had to get this off my chest before describing the actual trip. Because Jerusalem is beautiful. As Jacob informed us, it was the British who passed the law stating that all the buildings in the city were to be built of the light cream limestone (apparently the one good thing we had done). Nowadays the modern buildings are just clad with the stone. It is very pleasing. We drove into East Jerusalem, parking on the Mount of Olives. I will describe the places and history as Jacob did. That is, I will not qualify statements with “in this of that tradition they say that such-and-such will happen or had happened here. Each rock in this place seems to have a story linked to it.

The cemetery on the Mount of Olives will be the site of the Last Judgement. Therefore all interned here will be the first to be resurrected and undergo judgement. To be buried here could be seen as a form of eternal queue-jumping, at the entirely reasonable cost of twenty thousand dollars. But the place gives a magnificent view over the Old City, with the golden Dome on the Mount, the site of Abraham’s attempt to sacrifice his most beloved son Issac at the behest of God. To the left, is the blue-grey dome of the Mosque of Al Aksa. This is where the Prophet Mohammed arrived in Jerusalem, flown on the back of a magical creature. It is the third most holy site in the Islam but is also the site where the Jewish Messiah will build the New Temple after entering Jerusalem through the Golden Gate. Historically, the Muslim rulers of Jerusalem had the Golden Gate sealed, in order to prevent the Jewish prophesy coming to pass. But it is also a site of great tension between modern believers of both faiths.




On the lower slopes of the Mount are the Garden of Gethsemane, now the site of the Church of All the Nations. That is the old Christian Churches : Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Catholic, Coptic, Assyrian and Ethiopian. Sorry Protestants: you guys are merely protesting Catholics. The church itself has the most wonderful mosaics inside and outside still have many of the olive trees which Christ would have walked through. There is a pillar marking the spot where Judas kissed Jesus, thus rendering Him up to the seraphim guard. Across the street is the now empty tomb of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Empty because she ascended directly to Heaven from the summit of the Mount of Olives.
Garden of Gethsemane. Olive trees, some of which are over 2,000 years old.

In order to get to the Church of the Sepulchre, the site of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, one must walk through Bazaar. That was great but there was simply no time to stop and stare. Although the Church outside is nothing special to look at, it is wonderful to be there. And frankly, the city wasn’t busy. For a site of such historical and cultural significance, there was little queuing, apart for the Tomb of Jesus.
Again the church is split into zones of controls, with to my eye the Greeks getting the best of the deal, holding the site of the Crucifixion, the Tomb and even the centre of the world, at least as it was defined in Medieval times. The poor old Coptic Church just had a booth at the back of the tomb; the Assyrians a bare and graffiti-strewn chapel which has the tombs (again empty) of Joseph of Arimathea and Mary Magdalene. I didn’t even notice the Ethiopian section. Catholics and Armenians had the other, larger sections.

There wasn’t time for us to walk the Via Dolorosa but the last few Stations of the Cross were contained within the church. It was at Golgotha that I had a religious / spiritual / psychological experience (delete as appropriate). People can touch the rock at the foot of the cross (see picture to the left). I did so, lightly brushing the stone with my index finger and thumb. Both digits are still currently painful and when I carelessly licked my thumb later during lunch, I was surprised to taste warm, thick, salt blood.

Owing to the Sabbath, the Jewish Quarter was very quiet. Jacob knew his stuff; he led the group to a vantage point overlooking the Western Wall. It is called the Wailing Wall because above these foundations was once the Temple which contained the Jewish Holies of Holies. Only the High Priest was allowed to enter upon two occasions a year, a rope being tied to his leg in case anything happened to him while he was in the presence of the Holies. The temple was destroyed in AD70 by the Romans and because it is not exactly known where the Holies once stood, we were told that some Jews would not walk upon the top of the ramparts in case they accidentally entered the sacred site.



Jacob had nothing really to add about the Al Aksa Mosque but did relate of the recent riots (this decade) that occurred in the area. It was thus an area which we had to pass through security. That confirmed something that I had first noticed at the port of Haifa. The security guy standing point (right at the front) of the port and therefore the guy first to be shot if the area came under direct ground attack is black. Now, I thought this a coincidence until I was there during a shift change. Sure enough, the black security guard was replaced by a black comrade. At the Western Wall all those on gate duty, at both entry points, were also black.

I think most of the group posted notes into the wall. I was wearing my old African bush hat so didn’t have to avail myself of the paper yarmulkes that were on supply, although I would of worn one otherwise. I wish photography was allowed in the area because my colleague Peter looks, well, a picture in his!

The Judean Desert starts where Eastern Jerusalem ends. As the minibus descended into the rift valley, vegetation got scarcer and then almost ceased. The rounded limestone hills, light brown to cream in colour stood out. The Earth looks different without plants. As a geologist I was able to appreciate many of the features as we drove westward, heading towards the Dead Sea, 400m below sea level and the lowest point on the planet. But seeing the barren hills gave me a feeling of unease. It was like seeing one’s parent naked.

Swimming in the Dead Sea is both the most silly and the most relaxing thing I have ever done. There is no beach in the traditional sense of the word. The edge of the water is blue, sticky claystone which sucks at one’s feet until you slide onto one’s back.. And then you just float! Lying flat out, not even my ears got wet. It is amazing just how much of the body is above the water line. Just as well really, as the water is extremely acrid, being nine times the salinity of normal sea water. Getting out is fun! Showers and changing rooms were available, at the cost of NIS35 (about seven pounds / twelve dollars). Across the water rise up the mountains of Jordan.


It was up the Jordan valley that we returned. Once back inside Israel proper, Jacob spoke about returning to civilisation. Again, we were back into rich farmland.

Apart from such constant anti-Arab remarks, Jacob was a good tourist guide. Knowledgeable and efficient, he knew his routes, his scripts and was able to answer questions on other matters with real knowledge. Every mile there was something he could say about where we were. He is not a stupid man, it just amazing to me that how the strong love of one thing, in this case Israel, can lead a person to think so ill of those who do not share their passion and even to cleanse their nation’s own history. It was the lessening of the man but I know he is not the only person in the region who suffers from holding such an outlook.

It seems to me that Israel is the land where fact becomes myth and legends often become fact. Sometimes telling them apart is almost impossible.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Writing Again.

It’s rather alarming how quickly one can become institutionalised. From October I have been travelling; mostly between Edinburgh and Aberdeen at first but then northern Italy, Holland and as some of you who have read earlier blogs, several months in Israel. Within four days of my return from the Near East, I was out again, travelling to a rig off southern Norway with connecting flights via Denmark. The week following my return I was again in Aberdeen arranging for the sale of my house. So, last week is my first complete week back with the family and to be frank, it is a weird feeling. The rolling stone has finally stopped, at least for a little while.

One would think that being in one place would be a wonderful opportunity to catch up and of course I have with my loved one. But mentally I have just not been able to face anything else. This will be the week to catch up on other neglected business, one of those being writing.

I promised to have a think about the best way to approach the recent crimes committed in Gaza. Now, it is one thing for people like me to write that word, it is a very different thing to prove it. But the laws do exist for groups and individuals to take such allegations to a court of law. From Arabic sources, there was some criticism of the International Criminal Court (ICC) issuing an arrest warrant for the Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir. The basis for this criticism is that it was seen mainly as a political act against a Western enemy. I wondered if Sudan was possibly a signatory to the ICC treaty. Of course it isn’t, but neither is Egypt, Syria, Iran, the USA or Israel. This is interesting as obviously the ICC’s remit covers crimes committed outside the signatory countries. Therefore I would suggest that those in the position of bearing first-hand witness to the recent events in Gaza pool their resources and gather evidence with the view of a submission to the ICC. An alternative avenue would be the Spain's courts, as Spanish law allows for an international arrest warrant to be issued against those charged with crimes against humanity, wherever the events were alleged to have taken place.

It is most probable that these processes are already underway. Why they are so important is this: Israel’s collective punishment of Palestinians over the years have been widely and rightly criticised and being both immoral and unjust. By the same logic therefore, I cannot support the call for embargo and sanctions against Israel. Collective punishment is never right. The individuals who directly take the decisions to proceed in a manner that can be shown to be criminal should be the people who bear the responsibility.
Under liberal values, the rule of law has precedence over all other considerations. That fundamental of western society cannot be compromised: when it has been in the past critics have been quite correct in raising charges of hypocrisy.

Below I have included a link for the ICC which lists the 108 nations and territories that has signed its charter. Apart from the USA, other notable non-signatories include Russia, China, Pakistan and India. This is not to say that all is rosy in the gardens of those countries who have signed: members include Brazil and Columbia for instance. But the step of putting the law of law first, at least in principle, is an important one for any nation to take. It is a principle that should be applied equally: to those who are perceived to be our friends as well as our foes.


Chosen Links.

http://www.icc-cpi.int/Menus/ICC/Home
http://www.icc-cpi.int/NetApp/App/MCMSTemplates/StatePartiesIndex.aspx?NRMODE=Published&NRNODEGUID={7A50B016-A0B6-43EB-AFF8-15FCEDC03D02}&NRORIGINALURL=/Menus/ASP/states+parties/&NRCACHEHINT=Guest#B


Tuesday, 27 January 2009

A Little Story of Shame

It’s a fair walk from the top of Carmel, dropping down almost 500m from the top of the mountain to the main coastal highway running south to Tel Aviv. Just before reaching the junction of Ezel and Hahaganna Avenue, however, there is a small collection of kiosks selling sweets, drinks and flowers. And next to that, on a scrap of waste land, is a small shanty hut, a tent and large home-made banners in Hebrew. Welcome to the home of David Alon and his wife of thirty five years, Rena.


In broken English David tells me their story. In 2001 their son, Shel, was a soldier and, from what I can tell, he was with the Shabak HaBitahon Haklali, or Misrad Habitahon as David called it. This is Israel’s internal security agency, known just as the Shabak in English. While he was on duty in Israel, a Palestinian had attempted to wrestle his automatic rifle from Shel, apparently with the intention of turning the weapon on the people around. During the struggle, the attempt to snatch the weapon failed – a good job since it had three fully loaded magazines with forty five rounds – but Shel suffered a stab wound to the neck. His health has not been the same since. Psychological problems have also led to two suicide attempts since the incident.

As David tells me the story, Rena serves us hot strong silty coffee served in plastic cups. I ask David why is he protesting?

“For my son! They have not given him what he needs to live.”
“Compensation?” I ask.
“Yes, compensation! They give him just a little then forget. For eight and a half years, we try to get what is his by right.”
“How long have you being camped here?”
“For six months. This is now all we have! We camp here so that see us every day. To shame them.” David points out the low office block nearby. “There! There is their office. Where they work.”
“Has anybody come to speak to you?”
“Nobody. Nobody speaks to us. But they see you speaking to us. The is a camera over there.” He points to a little patch behind us where a large black dog is tied up and barking. “There. Maybe they come to talk to you after. What will you say?”
“I will tell them the truth. It’s a free country isn’t it?” I answer sweetly.
David rolls his eyes. “Ha! A democrat!” He then goes on to tell me about the press coverage, or the lack of it. Not one local journalist has decided to run the story.



Posters outlining the campaign, the bottom one showing it has been currently running for six months.

“We sleep here for six months. In the wind, the rain. I was a big man before we come here. I lose twenty five kilos. We have nothing. But we do it for my son. I tell him “Shel, I am loyal to you 100%! They are not loyal. You are family. I do this for you.””
“Why do you think the journalists do not cover the story?”
“Misrad Habitahon tells them not to. From Misrad Habitahon, they get money, they get stories. What can I give them? Nothing!”

"Journalists and TV - Why don't you come here? Are you afraid of the truth?"

David asks me whether I am Jewish or Christian. I am puzzled as to why he asks this but tell him I am a Christian.
“Christ[ian]? Good. I want to become. I am ashamed to be Jew in this country. If a person does bad, they give him medals, everything. If he does good, they walk away from him.”

"Terrorist stab me in the neck. Misrad Habitahon stab me in the back"

During our conversation, David asks me several questions. His English is not great and my Hebrew is non-existent so the conversation is a bit laborious. Rena joins in and they speak in Hebrew, with David returning to me with fresh questions. I make it clear that I am not a journalist, that I am interested because I write a blog. Finally they understand. The Alons are desperate for somebody to pick up on their and their son’s story.
“Tell a journalist to come, and somebody who can speak Hebrew and English. If you could speak Hebrew, I would tell you everything. English is difficult for us.”

The pictures show the banners that are hanging around the camp. The translations are based upon what David has told me.

Finally I bid the couple farewell and wish them luck. As I walk back up the hill I have time to reflect. I am a blog writer and not a journalist. A journalist would have asked tough questions, challenged them about their disillusionment with Israel, asked David if it was sensible to be so inflammatory towards his fellow countrymen. A journalist would have been able to check their story. My next move would have been to speak to the press in Haifa and asked them why they have not given the Alon’s story any space. I would have also gone to the press-office of the Shabak and asked them for their side of the story. I tried looking up the story of the initial attack on Shel Alon and the Alon’s six-month long campaign in the Jerusalem Post, Israel National News, Haaretz.com and Israel Insider but drew a complete blank. It goes to show that the Internet is a valuable resource but is still limited.

The flip side of this of course is what if David is right? That the local journalists won’t touch this story because of vested interests and because, although true, it shows Israel in a bad light. How else can such a story be brought to the world, except through a random meeting between a curious foreigner and a family struggling with an indifferent and powerful state?

Israel is a free country. The Alons are free to campaign and the State is free to ignore them.


 David and Rena Alon, outside the tent that has been their home for six months

*  *   *  

The next day I go to work offshore.  When I return the taxi picks me up and on the way to the airport we drive past David and Rena's camp.  
"I'm sorry," I say to the taxi driver.  "But I can't read Hebrew.  What do those posters say?  Is it some kind of protest?"
"It will be to do with the elections," replies Lulu.  "We have an election on the 10th."  He looks over at posters.
"Ah, they are just election posters?" I ask innocently.
"Yes."

Monday, 26 January 2009

Berlusconi Really is an Idiot


“You are kidding Joe! He said what?”
“I know!” Joe was smiling in disbelief. “How can such a man be the Italian Prime Minister? It’s incredible! What an idiot!”

It was during an afternoon walk with my friend that he told me what Silvio Berlusconi had said yesterday. The comments had not been reported on the BBC news so I had missed them.

Following several brutal rapes in the Italian capital, Berlusconi put forward plans to deploy up to 30,000 troops on the street. But when criticised that these measures would be expensive and ineffective, he replied:

“We could not field a big enough force to avoid this risk [of rape]. We would need so many soldiers because our women are so beautiful.”

As Joe pointed out to me, the logic is we might as well condone bank robbery because it is the fault of the banks having all that money in one place. I just cannot believe the depth of ignorance displayed by this individual.

I’m not going to harp on about why Berlusconi’s comment is so damaging. You are a smart person, dear reader. I’m writing about it really as a follow-up to my earlier article The Shadow Within. In that I discussed the challenges of racism and sexism that we are still facing in the 21st. Century. Berlusconi’s stupidity has given me another opportunity to illustrate the point. There are a lot of human rights issues that seemed to have been won some time ago. That is obviously not the case.

Naturally Berlusconi is unrepentant. Apparently his comment was meant as a compliment to Italian womanhood. “People should have a sense of good humour," he said. We do Silvio; that is why your comments are so appalling.

If a British Prime Minister had said such a ridiculous and insensitive remark, I hope he would have had the decency to resign.

But of course, that thought wouldn’t even cross your sexist mind, would it Mr. Berlusconi.

Selected sources

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/italy/4339817/Silvio-Berlusconi-criticised-for-pretty-girl-rape-comment.html

http://www.presstv.ir/detail.aspx?id=83709&sectionid=351020606


Thursday, 22 January 2009

What Does Israel Want?



I like trivia. Especially quizzes. And the one in the Jerusalem Post that morning in early December was particularly tough. I only got four out of ten correct. One of the questions stuck with me though as particularly curious. “Outside which town is the proposed site of the new Palestinian airport.” I didn’t have a clue. Ramallah perhaps? Isn’t that the capital of the West Bank? No, the answer was Netanya. Now I know that Israel is really a small place, but I’ve been there and that is definitely still in Israel and not the West Bank. A curious fact which I have been pondering since.

* * *

By a telephone call, I had just been snatched from working on my house, again, flown overnight from Edinburgh via London to Tel Aviv and frankly I was pessimistic. My driver Momi was pumping me with questions “Martin, will they find anything? Is there gas there?” Having just left the rig six days previously, I had seen no indication of the major find that was about to take place. But that is the nature of exploration: one day there is nothing, the next the whole world wants to be your friend.
Gas was not the only thing on Momi’s mind that morning. “Our attack in Gaza will be a failure if the Hamas leadership survives. But what do they do? They hide under the hospital! We don’t want to kill civilians. Why can’t they hid somewhere else?”
Perhaps they weren’t very enthusiastic about being killed, I thought to myself. What did people expect? Hamas to move into a field so that they could be decently bombed?
“But Momi,” I said. “All the Arab states have said that if Israel retreats to the pre-1967 borders, there will be peace.”
“Why can’t these people accept that they lost! We won, they lost. Get over it and move on!”

The attack on Gaza is now over. Momi didn’t get his wish: the Hamas leadership did survive. But the effect on the people and the city are terrible and it will take years to rebuild. Personally I don’t think that matters much to Israel, even less now that the Tamar gas find is looming larger and larger in the public consciousness. The Saudi’s have already pledge $2 billion worth of aid to rebuild the territory. As I outlined in my previous article “Israel and Gaza – it’s a gas!”, the Palestinians could be a lot richer than they are if Israel had not been consistently blocking the development of the gas fields offshore Gaza. But on the grounds that profits would go to finance weapons for Hamas, negotiations were ended with BG Group and the company closed it’s offices in Tel Aviv in 2007. That was not the end of the story however: talks were restarted in 2008 in an attempt to convince BG Group to sell their stake in the Gazan gas fields to a new consortium, the Israel Electric Corporation (IEC).

Israel needs gas in order to secure water. The chosen method is the building of new desalination plants which are very energy-intensive. So Israel wants energy in order to deal with the effects of global warming. There is even an alternative to this however. Since I last commented upon this issue, I have been contacted by Terry Spragg who has been kind enough to outline to me a new technology for moving large volumes of fresh water across oceans without the need for container vessels, potable water tankers or laying pipelines. Known as the Spragg Bag, each individual section can hold up to 17,000 tonnes of fresh water, with what is claimed to be the world’s strongest zip fastener linking together up to five of these bags. The real smart trick however is that these bags can then be towed by a vessel as modest as a standard-powered tug boat. I can certainly see the value of this remarkable technology, especially in emergencies such as the one that Gaza is facing at this moment. Whether the Israelis will go for it to solve their own water issues, that is a matter which shall be considered in a moment.





There are a few more apparently random thoughts that I would like to add to the mix before struggling to some kind of conclusion. The first is Israel’s recently built security fence, or apartheid wall as it has been called by it’s critics. I think there is truth in both labels. As far as security is concerned, it seems to have worked. Well I was here in 2000, people were a lot more nervous. I was in a bar in Natanya which was then bombed the following week. Security was very tight within Israel. Now it is a lot more relaxed. But there are negatives to it as well. The routing of the wall was little more than a blatant land grab in many places. It’s main function however is to control, absolutely, the movement of people and goods into the Palestinian West Bank.

Likewise the withdrawal from Gaza. It was true that Israelis did withdraw people, but that is nothing like the same as granting the Palestinians within autonomy. The reason being is that the supply of goods and services remain in control of the Israelis. The bombing of the supply tunnels were justified on the grounds that these were the routes by which weapons were smuggled into the territories. Probably true, but they were also the way that most other supplies moved into Gaza too. Laying siege is not the same as granting freedom.

We finally return to the proposed Palestinian airport and why I love trivia. If the airport is built outside Netanya, it is obvious that Israel intends to remain in full control of the movements of people and goods into the West Bank. Just as in Gaza. Just as it was unhappy with the attitude of BG Group and is now pressing that company to sell out it’s stake to the Israeli-controlled IEC. What Israel wants more than anything else is total control over it’s land and resources. The political implications are even more obvious: there will never be a viable two-state solution because an independent Palestine will be outside the control of the Israeli government and this can never be tolerated.

Let us return to water. The gas is so valuable to Israel because it will allow the planned desalination plants to be powered independently of Egyptian supplies. The is an alternative however in the form of mass-importation of water from Turkey (a close ally of Israel) via giant water bags. But we have already seen the case for Israel’s love of control. I therefore think that importation of such a vital resource will not be looked upon favourably by the Israeli government. The only ray of hope I can offer Terry Spragg is this: it is Israel’s stated aim that the planned desalination plants are intended not only to supply the country with it’s water but are also to be used to replenish the depleted aquifers beneath the land. What if the fast-track to refilling the aquifers was not the desalination plants but by limited term importation from Turkey? This would mean that the desalination plants would not have to produce so much water and that the new finds off Haifa will last the country even longer. Hell, it would even be good for the environment!


Selected sources

IEC control
http://www.tradingmarkets.com/.site/news/Stock%20News/2133287/?relatestories=1

Spragg Bags (and photo credit)
http://www.waterbag.com/

Please refer to my previous article “Israel and Gaza – it’s a gas!” for other references.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

The Shadow Within

This blog entry will not be a comfortable read. The title of this article isn’t about the inauguration of Barack Obama. That for me at least seems to be a joyful and hope-filled occasion in a world where hope has been having a hard time of late. No, the shadow that I refer to is the racism that one still encounters.

When I was growing up, I was taught by my father that people are people and that basically we all want the same thing: a reasonable standard of living, good health and education for our children. That was somewhat at odds with what some of our neighbours were willing to grant us, growing up as we did in England of the 1970s during the Troubles of Northern Ireland. Having a Irish-Catholic background, people were not racist to our face, but often were behind it. My father was not perfect himself: he thought South Africa was the best-run country he had been to on that continent since it brought a better standard of living to more people, both black and white. On that basis, he was content to support the white apartheid government there. Being a marine engineer, he also did not have much time for Indian radio officers and electricians he encountered; considering them mostly lazy and inefficient. For that reason, I came to learn that he too was considered a racist.

It was when I was in my early twenties however, I took a trip down to London with a couple of friends. I had known one of them for years, but the other was relatively new to me. It was all very nice and very civilised until we got to the outskirts of Brentwood. There, they saw the first black man of the day. These nice, civilised people changed instantly. “There’s a nigger! You smell! You stinking gigaboo!” It wasn’t meant as a joke: there was real hatred in the voices. Sometime they were almost screaming. I had heard racist jokes before and had repeated them myself. That was the first time I had encountered serious, heart-felt hatred and I did not find it attractive.

When I was twenty four, I joined the oil industry. I liked it instantly as it was the first really decent job I had and also background did not seem to matter; as long as one could do the work, you would be accepted. Just what I needed. It is one of the aspects of the industry I still like today, but I have to temper my enthusiasm somewhat. Things were not and are still not today perfect. I was told by Pat, a wily and tough accountant, that I could go far. I pointed out to her that she too should be leading her accounts department, as her boss was considered weak and ineffective. “Yes Martin,” she corrected me. “But unlike you, I don’t have a pair of balls.” She was right. When I left the company to go to university, I was enlisted by my otherwise excellent boss to help select my replacement. We got the shortlist down to two and the outstanding candidate happened to be female. I pressed him upon his reluctance. His reason was that he “would not feel comfortable working with a woman.” At least she was hired, but only after intervention from above. Even when I rejoined the industry, sexism still continued to be an issue. I still remember managers who, when faced with a c.v. from a female applicant for an offshore position, would instantly throw it in the bin. I am glad now that things are changing, but female workers are still under-represented in offshore roles by a considerable degree.

As a strange coincidence, the last location where I spent both Christmas and New Year away from home, was also the place where I first witnesses hard-edged racism in the industry. That was in Cabinda, geographically part of the Congo but politically belonging to Angola. Not all the white fellows there were racist but many of them were. When challenged about it, or signs of disapproval were made, the stock reply was something like “I can be racist because I have to work with the fuckers ever day.” It was at that time a local employee had turned off an alarm that had sounded at the oil storage depot at one o’clock in the morning. The result was a discharge of up to 40,000 barrels of oil into the Atlantic, which polluted 180 miles of coastline. I raise it in context here because of the reaction of many of the ex-pat workers. Chevron would only admit in public that thirty nine barrels of oil had leaked, thereby avoiding the need to announce an international pollution incident. A government minister was reported to have angrily said “We may be black, but we are not stupid!” You can imagine the response that this brought privately among many of the white workers.


President Obama taking the oath of office withMichelle looking proudly on. Photo credit AFP


So we come to today’s inauguration, or “niggeration” that it has been called among most of the American employees on board this rig. Note I write “most”, not some. And it doesn’t seem to be a generational thing; all age groups are represented in voicing abuse. Most of the humour centred around President Obama potential for being assassinated, with one view that “I hope he gets a year in power so people can ask “what have we done?” before he gets offed.” I guess the new president didn’t receive much support from the eligible voters on board.

I hope such comments represent an decreasing view point, not just among Americans but among the peoples of the world. Obama spoke today of boundaries falling, of people realising their common humanity. I’m reminded of another fellow from Louisiana. It was a couple of months after Hurricane Katrina had devastated large parts of the state. I attempted to commiserate with him about the damage and loss of life, especially in New Orleans. He looked at me as if I was mad. “Them people were told to get out!”

None of us are perfect; even I have been, correctly, brought to book recently for one of my comments that showed poor judgement and understanding. But President Obama and his staff still has much work to do. I support him in the struggle ahead and wish him luck, success and a very long life.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Gaza and Israel: it's a gas!

The semi-submersible drilling rig on location over the Tamar-1 well



It was bound to happen. Israel can’t carry on indefinitely it’s ruthless bombardment of Gaza. With only three days left before the inauguration of Obama and the 44th President of the United States of America, it wouldn’t look good if there wasn’t as least some form of ceasefire on the table by then. The last thing that Israel needs is to get off to a bad start with the new president.

It is therefore by total serendipity that the upcoming ceasefire follows on from one of the most fortunate events in Israel’s recent history: the discovery of potentially the largest hydrocarbon reserves the country has known. Since I am directly involved in the project, I cannot say much. But I can refer you to the various press releases made by partners and a government website, The Israel Export and International Co-operation Institute.

“The Tamar-1 drilling, some 90 kilometers west of Haifa, is considered the most promising of the potential drilling sites off Israel's coast. Initial estimates were of a 35% chance of finding a reserve of 87 billion cubic meters of natural gas.”

This is relevant to Gaza, as Michel Chossudovsky points out in his article The Israeli Invasion & Gaza's Offshore Gas Fields, there has been a long-running feud between Israel and Gaza as to the exploitation of the large gas reserves that were discovered off the coast of Gaza in the late 1990s. To this day, these gas fields lie unexploited because of blocks put on development by various Israeli governments. Following the election of Hamas, efforts were redoubled to ensure that the Palestinian authorities would not see any of the estimated $2 billion that the project would yield for the Palestinian people. These blocking efforts culminated in the intervention of Tony Blair with the operators BG Group (formally British Gas) when they finally lost patience with the Israelis and approached the Egyptians instead.
Chossudovsky puts the case that Israel, increasingly desperate for natural resources, planned Operation Lead Cast to be rid of Hamas, not to prevent a few rockets being fired, but to install a Palestinian authority which would be a more suitable partner for the exploitation of Gazan gas. In other words, effective annexation of the most valuable resource the Palestinians have.

Why does Israel need this energy so badly? On top of the normal needs of a modern society, Israel is having to face another more pressing crisis: the lack of water. With climate change leading to less rainfall in recent years and an increase in population (a growth of over one million, mainly from Eastern Europe in the 1990s), the country has been growing increasingly thirsty. Development of existing aquifers has met with limited success so the authorities have turned to desalination to solve their water needs. A plant opened at Ashdod in 2006 with supply five percent of the country’s needs and more are planned. Desalination has long been used in the Arabian Gulf, where the energy required for this process has not been an issue. The same cannot be said in Israel. As the old joke goes, Moses may have led the chosen people to the land of milk and honey but it seems to be only place in the Middle East without oil. Israel is already dependent on Egyptian gas supplies and are willing to do anything to avoid becoming even more dependent on a neighbour which is still viewed as a potential enemy.

If the hopes for this discover are realised, the Tamar project may be just what Israel needs: a large supply of energy, independent of Arabic sources.

In the meantime, the people of Gaza are still dying. Expect the number of sorties to increase right up to the ceasefire being signed because there is a lot at stake. But the Tamar gas project may not just benefit Israelis but may supply what all the people of the region need: a little respite.

Let us all hope the time is used searching for a long-term peace, and not just another ceasefire.



Selected sources:

Tamar gas project
http://www.export.gov.il/Eng/_Articles/Article.asp?CategoryID=391&ArticleID=10137
Waterhttp://www.water-technology.net/projects/israel/
www.waterwebster.com/documents/desalinationreportjune2007.pdf (page 28 - Israel)
Gaza gas
http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0901/S00101.htm

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Traveling Back


From the East, flights to London always seem to demand getting up at ungodly hours.  Flying from Israel is no exception, even when the airplane’s departure time is a not unreasonable 07:30. 

My alarm had been set for 02:30 but as it happened I was awake way before that.  Working offshore without a back-to-back means one has to be ready to work when they need you.  A couple of nights previously I had started my surveying at midnight so my sleep patterns, having to switch on demand from day to night and back again, do get messed up.

The taxi was ready at 03:00hrs outside my hotel.  The night receptionist had kindly made me a cup of hot instant coffee, which I carried into the leather-upholstered Mercedes cab.  A good job it was, as I managed to spill some of it onto the front seat.  Not a good start but many apologies and the use of a ‘wetwipe’ later, we were off.

I didn’t get the name of my driver but like all those on contract to the oil company, he is from Ashdod in the south of Israel.  He had already had a two-hour drive up to Haifa but at least Ben Gurion Airport, just outside Tel Aviv, was en-route back home. 

The radio was tuned into a late night phone-in show to which the driver was listening intently.  Being in Hebrew, I had no idea as to content, so I asked him what the topic was.

“It’s about Gaza,” he replied.  “It’s people phoning in from all over the world.”

“What are they saying?”

“It is messages of support.  Prayers for the safety of our kids who are fighting and hope that the rocket attacks are stopped.”

“What do you think of the attack on Gaza?” 

There was a silence for a while.  I thought that he would not reply but then an answer came.

“I live in Ashdod with my family.  I have four children, the eldest of which is eleven.  Three boys and a girl.  Ashdod and the other towns have been closed for business in the past week. No schools, nothing.  Nobody goes outside because of the rockets.  My wife says to me tonight “Don’t go!  Stay inside where it is safe.”  But I have to work.”

I agreed with him that life has to continue but didn’t he think that it was heavy-handed for the IDF to be killing so many when Israeli casualties had been so low?  At that point in time, four Israeli deaths had been reported.  Of course, that was four deaths too many.

“Yes, but you have to understand we have been getting rockets every day, every day for the past six or seven years.  Our argument is not with the Palestinian people but it is with Hamas.  They hate us and it has been worse when they came to power.  What else can we do?”

This fatalism by the Israeli people seems to be the attitude of pretty much every Jewish person I spoke to on the subject.  The new bout of blood-letting seems to be accepted as part of the cycle of things.  “What else can we do?” is the usual reply from pretty much every Israeli I have heard voice an opinion on the topic.

I have been wondering about this attitude of acceptance.  On the Friday night before travelling I had met a couple of guys in the Bear Bar in Haifa, Anwar and Carmel.  Really nice lads; age-wise probably in their late twenties, maybe early thirties. Anwar had been a commander in the IDF for five years.  But as their names may suggest, they are not Jewish, rather they come from the local community of Druze Christians.  In childhood they had not been sold any dream of ‘a little piece of land for our own.’  But I am certain that if they had still been in the military, they would have played their required part in Operation Cast Lead.

It seems to me that it is their time in military service of the state that unites the people of Israel, regardless of ethnic or religious background.  Those three years (minimum) does more than anything else instil a sense of nationhood and solidarity.  It also allows individuals in Israel to look on at the suffering of their closest neighbour with detachment because these people do not have that shared experience.  They are in effect, “other.  Not one of us.”  After all, that is exactly what military training sets out to achieve.  I cannot see what else it can be because otherwise the Israeli people are warm, friendly and so hospitable.

The killing in Gaza has been continuing all week now.  Since the friendly-fire incident of a few days ago, I have not heard any news of further Israeli casualties.  Really that is a good thing.  But I so wish I could say the same about casualties and suffering of the Palestinians of Gaza.  The Israeli Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Ron Proser, was on the Today Programme (BBC Radio 4) this morning, defending the IDF’s attack on the UN school which killed sixty and injured many more.  He made the claim that several days prior to the attack, Hamas had used the school compound as a site for mortar battery.

Meanwhile, in this morning’s Independent, Robert Fisk has written these lines

And I write the following without the slightest doubt: we'll hear all these scandalous fabrications again. We'll have the Hamas-to-blame lie – heaven knows, there is enough to blame them for without adding this crime – and we may well have the bodies-from-the-cemetery lie and we'll almost certainly have the Hamas-was-in-the-UN-school lie and we will very definitely have the anti-Semitism lie. And our leaders will huff and puff and remind the world that Hamas originally broke the ceasefire. It didn't. Israel broke it, first on 4 November when its bombardment killed six Palestinians in Gaza and again on 17 November when another bombardment killed four more Palestinians.”

At least the BBC presenter on Today had the gumption to question the ambassador on who had really broken the cease-fire.  But really even that is missing the point.  The real question should have been “why was there a siege around Gaza to begin with?”  Let me offer a possible answer.  In recent history a blockade has been used to “soften up” a country or territory prior to war being waged against it.  Iraq is the best example of this.  So, with this in mind, it can be presumed that eighteen months ago, Israel knew that they were going to attack Hamas in Gaza at some point in the future.  The ceasefire of the past summer held reasonably well; at least the rocket attacks upon the southern towns were much reduced.  It was only following the two Israeli attacks in November (killing ten Palestinians) that the vast majority of the three hundred or so rockets were fired before the cease-fire was officially ended.

There is an election due soon in Israel.  Before Operation Cast Lead, the ruling coalition looked set for defeat.  Now the polls show that they have a fighting chance of being re-elected.

There is nothing more cynical than politicians laying down the lives of people simply to win an election. 

Cited report:

Robert Fisk in the Independent newspaper, 7th. of January 2009.http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/fisk/robert-fisk-why-do-they-hate-the-west-so-much-we-will-ask-1230046.html