The Palestine Israel Problem

I wish I understood more about the history and root causes of the situation in Palestine and Israel. It is a huge understatement to say it is complicated, but it is complicated. There are factions and interests both local and global. There is history and neither France nor the UK comes out well.

I am not going to give a history lesson. I can’t. I don’t understand it at all. There are plenty of articles and libraries you can go to if that is what you want.

Israel feels under threat and I understand that, but nor is an average stateless Palestinian well placed. When I was in Dubai I met many and over a shisha, they would try to explain their plight. I tried but could never fully understand what it felt like not to have a home country. I can travel on my British passport almost wherever I want. Try and do that when you only have Palestinian papers.

Yesterday 58 Palestinians were killed in Gaza while Israel says it was defending its borders, but you need two sides to fight a war and the PLA and Hezbollah, based in Lebanon are not without fault. They have fuelled the conflict.

Surveys suggest that there is support from the populations in both Israel and Palestine for a two-state solution. It seems obvious but as ever politicians are being held hostage by their own ambitions and fringe supporters.

There was a time when America might have been ‘an honest broker’ between the warring parties, but that is now past. The USA, in moving its Embassy to Jerusalem has shown bias and allegiance.

And there lies the problem. We walk on eggshells when we criticise Israel and run the risk of being labelled antisemitic. We have to get over that, but we can’t. Jerusalem is not just the centre of Israel but a global religious centre. It has importance for all faiths. Israel cannot be allowed to claim it for just the Jewish faith.

First and foremost, this is a humanitarian disaster of potentially epic proportions. With the increasing problem in Iraq and Iran, the focus of the Middle East wars will move away from Syria, widen and has all the signs of becoming global.

I am not going to take sides. Wherever you look there is fault. While I carry on in my cosy, insulated life, today, I feel sad.

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Damascus: Beauty and Beast

Within the last ten years, I have been to both Syria and Libya. Occasionally, I still look at the entry stamps in my passport and wonder how I have managed to travel so extensively without being stopped and questioned.

The Libya trip was sponsored by a direct invitation from Saif Gaddafi the son of the former Libyan leader. These were relatively quiet days, before the war and decline of the country. I was being asked to consider ways we could improve the education system. Of course, we never did the work and my argument with the hierarchy of PwC over this was the start of the end of my working days there.

Libya, or at least Tripoli, was a clean and an almost antiseptic city. It was quiet, the people thoughtful and I remember being offered an alcohol-free beer when I returned to the hotel. It is funny what sticks in the memory.

My invitation to Damascus was again for business but came through an opportunity identified by the New Zealand consulate in Dubai. This was an opportunity to study and recommend changes to the way the Government was managed and targets set.

I loved Damascus and the Syrians I met.

First Damascus. The hotel found for us was in the old city, just down the road from the Umayyad Mosque.

The Great Mosque of Damascus as it is also known is one of the largest and oldest mosques in the world and thought by some Muslims to be the fourth-holiest place in Islam. But it is also a Christian shrine as legend has it that the building contains the head of John the Baptist. The mosque is also believed by Muslims to be the place where Jesus will return. Pope John Paul II visited in 2001.

The roads around the Mosque and the hotel are small, hardly wide enough for our taxi and always bustling with people. The driver didn’t spot the entrance, an unpresuming, single house door among many other similar doors. We drove past it and tried to reverse back through the crowd but gave up and walked. To be honest my heart dropped as I looked at the door and envisaged myself staying in something like a Blackpool guest house.

How wrong I was.

Pushing through the door I was sharing the same feelings as every new adventurer first walking into Doctor Who’s Tardis. That simple door hid something quite different and was the entrance into a huge, only partly covered, courtyard. As one of us said it is like Sheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights. It was opulent. A whole different world lived behind that simple door. The inside was enormous

The people we were visiting, our hosts, were as hospitable as any I have ever met. Apart from giving us their time which they did without hesitation they proudly showed us around their beautiful city. When we left they showered us with gifts.

One day I particularly remember was a lunch. As with most Middle Eastern food the meal sumptuous. You could taste the freshness and love put into its preparation. If anything could be better, it was the setting. We were eating outside, under a flimsy awning. Some children, tired of sitting still were running, laughing and playing around the tables. To the side, hidden from the sun a baby was asleep in a pram. It was mid-afternoon, and we were high on a hill, looking out over the city spread below us as light glinted off the gold on a distant minaret.

There is a point to this reminiscence.

I don’t know but it is more than likely that from that restaurant vantage point I was looking at Eastern Ghouta today the centre of a humanitarian disaster. I can tell you what it was like eight years ago but only others can describe the horrors of today.

That baby in a pram will now be eight or nine. The children running around in their teens. Maybe, they are no longer running, maybe they have lost a leg in a bomb blast, or maybe they have been killed in the war.

This is a harrowing, eyewitness report on the BBC website from a doctor in Eastern Ghouta.

Dr Hamid, 50, leaves the makeshift shelter three times a week for a nearby hospital, where he is a trauma doctor. Each time he kisses his wife and five children goodbye, he tries not to think that it might be the last time. He cycles to the hospital through deserted, rubble-strewn streets, mindful of the danger of being outside even for a few minutes. If the bombing is heavy, and there are many injured, he might work for more than 24 hours without a break. When he is treating wounded children, he thinks of his own children, and in the short pauses between patients he prays for their lives. There is no respite.

On Thursday, Syria entered the eighth year of its civil war. More than 400,000 people are believed to have been killed or are missing. Three of Dr Hamid’s own children and many of the children brought to his hospital have never known peace. The injured children arrive with penetrating shrapnel wounds, missing limbs, severe burns, or sometimes with no visible injuries at all, and yet lifeless, with a lingering smell of gas on their bodies.

“Most of the children who die have been shelled in the head or have injuries in their abdomen or bowels. And I have seen some cases of penetrating wounds directly in the heart,” said Dr Hamid.

“These children need specialist surgeons and seven or 14 days in intensive care,” he said. “Many could be saved. In London, they could be saved. In Ghouta we cannot do anything. We try to stop the bleeding and make it OK for them, then we allow them to die.”

This week, a five-year-old boy arrived at Dr Hamid’s hospital with multiple trauma wounds and fractures in both his legs and arms. Dr Hamid sutured the boy’s wounds and amputated one of his arms and one of his legs at the upper thigh. “That is his future,” Dr Hamid said. But the boy is alive, that is a success.

The same week, five young children who were brought to Dr Hamid died. “When we are dealing with children, we hope God will look to them,” he said, letting out a long, deep sigh. “I’m sorry, words cannot express this.”

Atef, 36, a radiologist lives in a basement under a public building, with his wife, children, and 100 other people. Mohammed, a 23-year-old medical student who was forced to abandon his studies to become a full-time war medic, lives with his family in a neighbour’s basement, where 30 people are crammed into three small rooms and there is no electricity or water. “The patients are also our family,” he said. “We will carry on treating them until all the medication is gone. Until we stand with nothing. Until the last minutes.”Dr Hamid estimated that the hospital could have as little as a few weeks’ worth of anaesthetic left, raising the fearful prospect of amputations with no pain relief. “We are working with stitches that were used before, disposable gloves that we wore before, chest drainage that was used on other patients,” he said. “Most wounds get infected and need bandages, but we are using bandages that we used before.”

The place where Dr Hamid was born and raised had been abandoned to its own slow death, he said. It was a place that people came to from Damascus, with their wives and husbands and children, for weekend picnics, or to shop for cheap merchandise in the bustling markets.

“They came here from all around to smell the fresh air and the rivers and the trees,” he said. “To me, it was a paradise on the Earth.”

Now he prays in his cramped shelter at night that his children will one day see the place he can still conjure in his mind, “as green as it was when I was a boy. It may be too late for me,” he said, “but God willing, our children will see these days.”

Yesterday, I asked you to send money to Sport Relief. If ever there was a good reason this is it.


You’re about to do something incredible…


Kiev Day 2: A country at war

I am now in Kiev with Sasha. She met me at the airport and the anticipation and wait was worth every moment. She looked as beautiful and wonderful as ever.

I have been to Kiev many times, but the excitement is still there. Like all cities, it changes with the seasons. Sometimes it is very warm and sunny, but today it is very cold and snowing. Unlike last summer, this week it is very unlikely we will be enjoying a trip on Sasha’s father’s boat on the river Dnieper.

Last night we had dinner with our friend Tatiana at Carpaccio on the left bank. The food was as good as ever but the temperature as we left the restaurant to pick up the taxi was way down low. It was at -9oc.  This week will be much more scarves, gloves, and woolly hats. The temperature today is going to be a little over -3oc, but the sun is out.

Kiev is an ancient and beautiful city dating back to the 5th century although there were clearly earlier settlements. Despite significant damage in the second world war there are still many historic buildings. I enjoy walking around Kiev.

On a summer’s day, a couple of years ago, I walked around an open-air market in the shadow of the mainly 17th Century, Saint Sophia’s Cathedral. It is an architectural wonder. Around the church there are restaurants and shops. I hope this week I will find out if the market also opens in the winter. Like all markets around tourist attractions there is a wide range of tatter, but rarely elsewhere do you find old Russian Army great coats, fur hats and soldier’s jackets.

The plan is that later this week Sasha and I will go there, walk a little and then stop for a coffee or hot wine in the shadow of the St Sophia.

I like to walk around and although now Kiev is a sprawling city, the middle is compact. It is also a green city and there was a saying that in the summer you could almost walk around the centre of Kiev in the shadow of a horse chestnut tree.

Sasha was always concerned when I said I liked to walk around sightseeing, particularly at night. She is concerned for my safety and that is made worse because of the war.

From our cosy sofas in the West of course we know that there are problems in the East of Ukraine and now that the Russian invasion of Crimea is no longer in the headlines you may have even forgotten there are problems. Ukrainians don’t talk about it as a ‘problem’. At least in Kiev they talk about war.

Many have forgotten that there is a continuing war in Ukraine.

This is what the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth says on its web site offering advice to travellers. The security situation in the south eastern parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of Ukraine remains highly unstable with ongoing clashes between Ukrainian armed forces and Russian-backed armed separatists. The UN calculates this has resulted in approximately 10,100 deaths and the internal displacement of between 800,000 and 1 million people residing permanently in government-controlled areas of Ukraine. Civilians continue to get caught up in the fighting.

The Kiev Post in December 2017 reported ( Russia’s war is still going on, now in its fourth year with no end in sight and casualties — more than 10,000 people killed already — continuing to mount. Ukraine remains no closer at the end of 2017 to regaining control of Crimea or the Russian-controlled areas of the Donbas, an area of 46,000 square kilometres, or 7 percent of the country’s territory. The peace talks didn’t make any progress and 2017 marked the first year of the war without any Ukrainian hostages being released by the enemy. Russian-occupied Donbas moved further away from Kyiv economically, with shortages of food reported on both sides of the war front.

The situation may be even worse. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (FAZ) newspaper reported: In 2015 “Germany’s special services estimate the probable number of deceased Ukrainian servicemen and civilians at up to 50,000 people. This figure is about 10 times higher than official data. Official figures are clearly too low and not credible,” the newspaper reported on Sunday, citing its source.

This is not just a problem. It is real war and it has led to increasing numbers of injured or homeless returning to Kiev and this is the threat that Sasha worries about for us walking late at night in central Kiev.

When I took that trip back from Malawi and stopped off in Addis Ababa in my naivety I was unaware of their ongoing civil war. Maybe tanks stationed all around the airport should have been a clue, but I wandered around, as I now try to do in Kiev.

With more knowledge and a proper guide I take far more care of our safety, but nothing takes away the enjoyment of being in Kiev.