by Alex Brummer, City Editor, Daily Mail
More than a year has passed since the ceasefire which brought an end to Operation Protective Edge but the deep scars remain. Here in Britain the 50 day Gaza conflict, Israel’s longest, starkly changed the community.
On the Israeli borderlands the shock of heavily armed Hamas tunnellers popping up in a tranquil field of swaying sunflowers remains vivid. In Gaza there is the paradox of a five star hotel arising Phoenix like on the Mediterranean coastline while promised funding and cement for housing reconstruction remains scarce.
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In the UK long suppressed fears about a resurgence of anti-Semitism rapidly spread through the community like a virus during the Gaza conflict and found expression in disgust with the established Jewish leadership.
Even now, as we approach 5776 and the ‘Days of Awe,’ some 12 months on, the wounds have not healed. As I travelled the length and breadth of the country during this year’s Board of Deputies elections one was made acutely aware of the deep seated anxieties of Britain’s Jews exacerbated by the traumatic events at the kosher supermarket in Paris and the Great Synagogue killing in Denmark.
A leading media figure, the BBC’s director of television Danny Cohen, stated in the wake of Gaza that he had ‘never felt so uncomfortable as a Jew in the UK.’ Across the nation we saw the rise of grassroots activists including the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism and Sussex Friends of Israel. These populist movements were able to tap into the immense dissatisfaction with the response of the established administration to the tide of events. The bitter truth is that the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council failed to tap into the forebodings and misgivings of a community under siege in the blogosphere; on national television (during the normal news vacuum of summer) and in their local branches of Tesco and J Sainsbury where panicky local managers gave in to boycott protests.
This is not say that the leadership did nothing. Of course it did. It encouraged the Cameron-led government not to veer away from unconditional support for Israel. Controversially it reached out to the Muslim Council of Britain. It intervened with the supermarket chairmen for reassurances that Israel and kosher products would remain on the shelves. And it won extra funding for the Community Security Trust to help make life safer for Jewish schools and institutions.
But it blatantly failed in communicating its actions to the community. It never fully lanced the boil of helplessness felt by the Jew in the pew and those unaffiliated Jews who are rarely go near a pew. And with the intense focus on the government it failed to keep the Labour leadership of Ed Miliband on side. In this it sowed the seeds of the subsequent vote in the Commons on Palestinian statehood.
If it couldn’t restrain a self-proclaimed Zionist sympathiser like Miliband it is hard to imagine it will have any success with an unapologetic Palestinian supporter like Jeremy Corbyn.
Have the lessons of these failures been heeded? One would hope so. The need for a 24/7 response to crisis, including a much stronger social media presence, is recognised. Funds have been obtained and are being mobilised for a far stronger regional presence for the leadership organisations.
But I firmly believe that the tendency of the organisations to focus on looking up to the political leadership rather than addressing directly the fretfulness and the neurosis of ordinary Jews up and down the country is work still undone.
The ability to rapidly organise local rallies and meetings, with expert and knowledgeable speakers who can deal not just with the immediate conflict but with broader issues of geo-political context and anti-Semitism in Europe is critical.
I was part of such a gathering organised by the UJIA in south-west London at the height of the Gaza campaign and saw how separating the facts from the urban myths can assuage fears and help guide people through the thicket.
Gaza itself remains something of an enigma. On the credit side efforts by Islamic State to target the vulnerable and alienated, of which there are many, have not been notably successful.
The jihadist ideology has not found the same resonance among Gazan citizens as in Iraq, Libya and some Muslims in the UK. Nationalist aspirations trump the concept of a Caliphate and it is the perceived economic and political siege, by both Israel and Egypt, which is most troublesome.
In October of 2014 international donors met in Cairo and pledged $5.4 billion towards the rebuilding of housing and infrastructure damaged or destroyed during the war. So far little of the cash has been disbursed. Some temporary prefabricated homes have been erected and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (the independence of which was compromised in the 50-day war) has begun to clear some of the rubble away in a project funded by Sweden. The UN reckons that 9,161 Palestinian homes were destroyed and a further 5,066 damaged during the conflict.
In the rebuilding operation cement, largely passing through the Israeli crossings, has become the most desirable commodity. It is intended for house building but Israel rightly fears that it could be used for building the tunnels that gave Arab terrorists direct access to nearby communities. So access is being strictly controlled.
Nearby Jewish communities, such as Kibbutz Nahal Oz, still suffer the after effects of the conflict. Some 16 families have moved out permanently in the last 12 months traumatised by the death of four-year-old Daniel Tregerman. He was killed by shrapnel from a mortar shell as he played at home just days before the war ended.
Israel’s attempts at economic isolation of Gaza have in the past been hindered by the freedom of movement of people, goods and produce through Egypt’s Rafah crossing in the Northern Sinai. The infiltration of Islamic State and other jihadists into the Sinai has led Egypt to keep the previously open border closed.
A queue of some 17,000 people requesting permission to pass through, including those with serious health problems, has built up. So what was once perceived by the outside world as an Israeli siege has become as much an Egyptian blockade too.
Remarkably, against this frustrating background, last month saw the opening of the $47 million eight story, luxury al-Mashtal hotel with 222 rooms overlooking sandy beaches and the Mediterranean.
The resort is the result of the ambition of the Palestinian investment company Padico controlled by the billionaire Munib al-Masri. It demonstrates that with willpower and resources nothing is impossible even in Gaza. There may be a lesson there for the struggling aid agencies as they seek to restore housing infrastructure.
A year after the Operation Protective Edge the peace is uneasy and fears of renewed conflict remain. Hamas is accused by senior Israeli military officials of building new tunnels and accumulating a new stash of rockets and sophisticated weaponry.
This is all the more reason for the British Jewish leadership to be better prepared if and when the next battles in this long war of attrition and propaganda flare up.