A Tense Topic (January 2024)

For today’s assembly I have some difficult things to say, a really tense topic to talk about and I’m a little nervous. Today I’m going to try to talk about the war in Gaza and the situation in Israel/Palestine and there are a lot of people who believe that their side is completely right and the other is completely wrong. People who think like that often also think that everyone has to be on one side or the other and so if you don’t completely agree with them they think you’re an enemy and so it’s hard to find middle ground. For some of you, Israel/Gaza will be just a news-story, a worrying aspect of international affairs, something that makes the world less safe, maybe something that makes London less safe – but for others it will be personal, it will be affecting friends, family, family of friends and friends of family, putting them in immediate danger, or worse. To be clear, I’m in the former group – I’m not happy about what’s going on, but it’s unlikely to involve me personally.

I hope that over the next ten minutes, those of you who don’t know much about the conflict will have learned something; I hope that those of you who do know a lot will go away with something to think about; I hope that those of you for whom this isn’t personal will have an appreciation of why it matters and I hope that those of you for whom it is will be able to see a little more of the other side. Most of all I hope that we’ll all come away determined to work together for peace, to seek common ground and agreement rather than division, to accept that disagreement doesn’t make enemies out of us. The reason that I’m nervous is that these are big hopes and highly functioning adults in the real world often seem incapable of being that reasonable. You’re Harris Clapham students though, and I think of you more highly than most adults, and some of you have specifically requested this so I’m going to get on with it.

Or, at least, I’m going to quote Taylor Swift who says that there’s nothing she does better than revenge and also says:

Did you think we'd be fine?
Still got scars on my back from your knife
So don't think it's in the past
These kind of wounds they last and they last
Now did you think it all through?
All these things will catch up to you
And time can heal, but this won't
So if you come in my way, just don't

Which is a good summary of how disputes last, get prolonged, built on, how difficult it is to forgive the past, and it is in the past that we have to start. In fact, let’s start with a map. Imagine a strip of land, an approximate rectangle 400km long and 100km wide. To the west is the Mediterranean sea, to the east Jordan, country and river. To the southwest is Egypt, to the north Lebanon and to the northeast Syria. This is a fertile land that has been fought over for centuries, millennia and is valued not only for economic purposes but also religious reasons. I absolutely do not have enough time to go back far enough to unpick all of this, so let’s say that between the sixteenth and 20th centuries the land was owned by the Ottoman empire – based in Turkey – between the first and second world wars it was occupied by the British empire under an international mandate, in 1947 a civil war broke out between Jewish and Arabic communities, and in May 1948 the British left, unable to do anything about the fighting, and the modern state of Israel was declared. Immediately, all the neighbours of the new country, plus Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen invaded, rejecting the idea of a Jewish state existing alongside a Palestinian Arab one (what we call the two state solution). The territorial result of this war was that Israel took most of the land that the United Nations had thought would make up Palestine, Jordan took the West Bank (the area across the river Jordan from the rest of Israel) and Egypt took the Gaza Strip, a tiny rectangle within a rectangle, just 40km long and 10km wide. The human result was about 10,000 casualties, and a tragedy on a much larger scale as 700,000 Palestinian Arabs were displaced from their homes and villages and made permanent refugees – fleeing persecution with nowhere to return to. This happened during the fighting, but also in the civil war before the invasion and continued after the ceasefire. This is described by many scholars as ethnic cleansing – and even those who wouldn’t use that term agree on the facts, but justify what happened by the existential thread posed to Israel from neighbours and inhabitants that didn’t accept the country’s right to exist.

These kind of wounds they last and last – and band aids won’t fix bullet holes.

Since then there have been three major wars between Israel and their neighbours in which both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank have been occupied by Israel (along with the Golan Heights, a hilly area on the Syrian border), but recent decades have seen moves towards a kind of peace, with Egypt and Jordan recognising Israel, followed more recently by Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates – possibly paving the way for Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, Gaza and the West Bank have been occupied by the Israeli military. They have their own legislative authorities but limited control and no ability to oppose the Israeli army. Since 2005, Israel has removed its forces from Gaza but has maintained a blockade of the territory (with the support of Egypt) so that no entry or exit is possible by land, sea or air. Since Israel is much richer than Gaza and almost completely surrounds it, they also control many economic aspects such as water and electrical supplies. Since 2007, the Gazan authorities have been in the hands of Hamas – a religious and military organisation accused of war crimes and terrorism which objects to Arab countries recognising Israel. The West Bank is in the hands of Fatah, a secular political group and has been subject to repeated settlement by Israelis – in contravention of international law because of the status of the West Bank as an occupied territory. Israel sees it differently and many Israelis see the West Bank as ancestral land to which they want to return.

On 7th October last year Hamas-led Palestinian militant groups attacked neighbouring Israeli communities killing 1,139 and taking an estimated 240 hostages. There are reports of horrific crimes taking place during these attacks, more horrific, even, than the obvious mass murder and kidnapping. These are denied by Hamas but reported by generally reliable sources including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Some scholars describe this attack, in the light of Hamas’ founding charter which stated as its goal the destruction of Israel, as an attempted genocide. I don’t know what happened – but I do know that attacking, kidnapping and killing civilians is wrong and that if you condemn Israel’s behaviour without condemning this then you’re being one-sided.

Since then, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) have reclaimed all the land taken and have mounted an attack on Gaza, one of the most densely packed areas in the world – it’s about the same area and population as inner London. 20,000 Palestinians have been killed with a further 7,000 missing feared buried under the rubble. 1.9 million have been displaced from their homes along with half a million Israelis who have displaced from the area around Gaza. United Nations experts have condemned the invasion calling it indiscriminate and collective punishment and many experts have described the invasion as a potential genocide. Israel defends its actions as necessary to degrade Hamas’ military capability and so prevent attacks on Israel happening again. Meanwhile the civilian population faces shortages of fuel, water, medical supplies and food with half of civilians facing malnutrition. Hamas blame the bombing and siege, Israel blame Hamas for taking resources to support the war effort. I don’t know who to blame, but I do know that if you can look at this slaughter and say it’s justified by the invasion in October then you’re being one-sided.

Where does this leave us? What kind of peace can there be when the roots of injustice are so deep? Gandhi is reputed to have said “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind,” but an eye for an eye was written as a limitation on the blood feud and I fear that what we have here is a view that on the basis of what has already happened, each side has to eliminate the other out of some kind of search for justice. The attack on Gaza is more like 7 eyes for an eye. Meanwhile the violence has spread to the West Bank, to the Lebanon and Syrian borders and to London where anti-semitism and Islamophobia have both spiked. There have been arrests for Islamophobic graffiti and pictures of the hostages put up by worried families have been systematically torn down – in a country where nobody would dream of tearing down a picture of a missing cat.

Band aids don’t fix bullet holes. I don’t have a magic wand to wave and I can see no recipe for quick peace. I would like you to be able to engage with the issues without adding to the problems and I’ve done my best to be fair to the situation today. There are, I think, some principles that we can agree on – and from which we can try to work out what we think should happen:

  1. It’s reasonable for people to seek peace and prosperity for themselves and their families – they shouldn’t be blamed for doing that.
  2. The current situation does not represent a fair, peaceful and prosperous situation – not even close – not even before the attacks of October 7th - it’s not ok.
  3. Violence and oppression are unacceptable whichever side is violently oppressing the other.
  4. Peace is a two sided thing – we have to seek common ground.
  5. The human cost is terrible – whatever our political views we can care about the bereaved, injured, cold and hungry.
  6. Finding out the truth can be difficult – all reporters have a bias, even those that try not to – even me. Don’t dismiss sources simply because you disagree with them – don’t believe sources simply because you want their story to be true - trust those who are reliably trustworthy and seek out different views to draw your opinions from.
  7. Remember that for some people this is not academic – it’s personal – and that others might find it just too fraught to express their views – there are good reasons for not wanting to discuss this: please respect those who make that choice.
    And 8. In our own disagreements, let’s be gentle. Taylor Swift is wrong – being good at revenge really means seeking less than an eye for an eye – not seeking retribution but peace.


There’s a poem by a Palestinian poet, killed in Gaza in December. He was called Refaat Alareer and these are his words:


If I must die,

You must live

To tell my story

To sell my things

To buy a piece of cloth

And some strings

(make it white with a long tail)

So that a child, somewhere in Gaza

While looking heaven in the eye

Awaiting his dad who left in a blaze-

And bid no one farewell

Not even to his flesh

Not even to himself

Sees the kite, my kite you made, flying up above

And thinks for a moment an angel is there

Bringing back love

If I must die

Let it bring hope
Let it be a story

What happens next will depend on what you do with this – I hope that this assembly hasn’t made things worse for any of you, for our community – it’s an act of trust in your maturity, in your generosity, in your kindness and in your honesty. If you think I’ve got something wrong then please come and talk to me about it – I’ll make time for you. Otherwise, please read and think and listen and talk – ask questions – but do so kindly, none of us here are enemies.


1. A few years previously a rather more elliptical assembly had touched on the same tensions in History of Asia 

2. Antisemitism and the difficulty of talking about difficult subjects also come up in Disagreement and Doubt

3. There is no recorded precedent for thinking Taylor Swift wrong.