Nothing prepares you for it. Now that the worst of the damage inflicted by Israeli planes and tanks during Operation Cast Lead has been cleared away, and now that a year has elapsed in the onslaught in December 2008 and January 2009, the destruction has about it the calm air of a natural disaster. This changes when one observes the schools, classrooms with great holes rendered in their sides and the wire reinforced concrete protruding towards the blackboard and the display units still in place within the buildings.
Nothing quite prepares you for the sight of a parliament building with one half blown open. With a fine sense of theatre our hosts in the Hamas Government organised lunch within the building. It was a very good lunch with extensive views over the city of Gaza through the walls which no longer existed. A little like dining in the House of Commons with scenic views of Westminster Abbey. Nothing prepares you for it when you listen, standing above the sight of ruined houses, to the first hand testimony of atrocity. Of families being removed from their homes and shot in cold blood by Israeli soldiers. No one who listened to it doubted the veracity of what was said. There is, indeed, a calm dignity about the Palestinian people who have now suffered five years of blockade and deprivation.
What you do see is compelling evidence of the truth of the Goldstone Report. 1,400 people killed, countless more injured and traumatised. Among the dead 400 children and 300 women; 60% of agriculture wantonly destroyed including three quarters of the chicken farms on which Gaza relies heavily for its sustenance; the destruction of industrial areas and the deliberate bombing of sewerage plants which pollute the three miles of sea which the Gazan fishermen are allowed by the Israeli Government. Our hotel was a good modern hotel overlooking the Mediterranean and the bombed port. In the morning when we had the best breakfast that could be provided by the blockade (boiled eggs and cheese) we heard, suddenly, the gunfire of Israeli warships patrolling the three mile limit. The guns are unnecessary and are intended only to cow and intimidate a broken population. Some of our colleagues heard the sonic boom of Israeli F16 planes over-flying the Gaza Strip in order, again, to destabilise and traumatise a population, 50% of whom are under 16.
That is the initial impact of Gaza. The wider impact lies in the dignity and friendship of the Palestinian people. The Foreign Office ritually warns any travellers of the dangers of travelling to the Gaza Strip but I have seldom felt more safe, albeit surrounded by European politicians including the Rt Hon Gerald Kaufman MP – who led the delegation with enormous diplomacy and charm. A Jew whose family was murdered by the Nazis in Poland he brought to the delegation an authority and historical wisdom which enabled political dialogue at both an individual and collective level. We spoke to the democratically elected leaders of the Hamas Government. If these are terrorists they are the best educated terrorists in the world. Middle-aged men with sad, wise eyes, some requiring translators, others not, in order to welcome you into the wreckage of their Palestinian Parliament. When they observe that it is difficult to see the military potential of the debating chamber it is both a necessary and obvious reflection.
To our delegation, the Prime Minister of the Hamas Government stated unequivocally that the position of Hamas was that Palestine and Israel should return to the 1967 borders which should then be legitimised by all sides.
The Egyptians who allowed and facilitated our visit spoke in their own Parliament to us of the intolerable political difficulties in which their own country is faced. Allowing a border perforated by tunnels in order to maintain some livelihood at least in a near starving Palestinian population. Finding themselves the unhappy recipient of criticism for the necessary but illegal humanitarian aid which is made necessary by the strength of Israeli blockade.
The conclusions were obviously mixed but the anger in our entire delegation was palpably real. The actions of Israel towards Gaza are intolerable and indefensible at any level. The irony of Jews creating a ghetto of misery and despair is all too obvious and beyond civilised comprehension.
One thing is clear and that is the abundant evidence of war crime and atrocity which supports and underpins the extensive detail of the Goldstone Report. This, in turn, underpins the necessity for us to retain universal jurisdiction to arrest and prosecute those war criminals from the Israeli state who come to the United Kingdom. If we do not do so, we will find ourselves colluding in what we as Europeans have so dramatically placed before us. Nothing prepares you for it but what we can do is prepare for the justice that it must bring.
Bob Marshall-Andrews QC was MP for Medway and is a member of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East.