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Paul Vallely: View of Gaza depends on where you start

03 November 2023

Empathy is required to see events from the viewpoint of others, says Paul Vallely


Palestinians in Gaza wait to cross into Egypt at Rafah on Wednesday

Palestinians in Gaza wait to cross into Egypt at Rafah on Wednesday

ONE of my most treasured possessions is an embossed leather photo album with a cover made of olive wood. It contains photos of the Holy Places taken by my father with a box Brownie during the Second World War. Tucked inside is an official letter from the Royal Engineers Record Office, stating that his “gallant and distinguished service in Palestine” had earned him a mention in dispatches.

The view that you take of events in Gaza depends in large measure on what you take as your starting point. You might, like the former Cabinet minister Rory Stewart (Feature), on his podcast The Rest is Politics, go back 3000 years to assert that the Jews were the original inhabitants of this contested land (though presumably the Canaanites would have something to say about that). The Arabs, in contrast, might claim two millennia of continual residence.

Zionists can look back to the 1890s to the modern idea of creating a Jewish nation state. Both sides can find grievance in the contradictory promises made to Arabs and Jews by the British during the First World War — with the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916, the Balfour Declaration of 1917, and the League of Nations Mandate from 1922. The Mandate provoked, first, an Arab revolt against the British for allowing mass Jewish immigration — and then, in the 1940s, came Jewish terrorism (as it is branded by Britain’s National Army Museum) in protest against the limits set on that immigration.

That was the era in which my father served in Palestine, although he never uttered a word to me about any of this. So, what, I’ve been wondering, is my starting point?

In the present moment, it is the atrocity of the 7 October attack by Hamas on peaceful civilians, unambiguously shaped by the detailed stories of the survivors, the anguish of the hostages’ relatives, and the terrible footage of the murders and kidnaps.

But, as the days passed, I became aware of a disparity in the media accounts. The stories of the Israeli victims were repeated, in increasing heart-rending detail, recounted in easily comprehensible English. In contrast, reports from Gaza were of scenes of general chaos and wailing, as children were pulled from buildings, alive or dead. The heavily accented commentary of Palestinian doctors made intuitive connection more difficult. Only a few journalists, such as the BBC veteran Fergal Keane, have attempted to tell the stories of individual Palestinians with the same humanising empathy.

It is easy to find attitudes and actions to object to: such as the Home Secretary’s mendacious assertion that Israel’s critics can be motivated only by “hate” — or the refusal of self-righteous Palestinian supporters to see that shouting “jihad” hardens hearts rather than softens them. The insistence of the Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations on wearing a yellow star on his chest vividly demonstrates the peril of what the Israeli academic Raz Segal has called “weaponising the Holocaust”: taking the memory of a powerless people facing genocide and applying it to justify devastating high-tech bombing by a powerful state.

Something more difficult is required. It is to set aside the place from which we start and, instead, make a conscious effort to see the world from the starting point of others.

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