Orcadian Column, 19 October 2023

17 Oct 2023

It’s hard to put into words the horror of recent and ongoing events in Israel and Gaza. The murderous rampage and hostage taking by Hamas militants targeting a music festival and kibbutzim across southern Israeli was unspeakably barbaric. Indeed, it was calculated to incense, inflame and provoke.

That response was not slow in coming, delivering yet further bloodshed and loss of civilian lives, this time in the densely populated and deeply impoverished Gaza Strip. Aerial bombardments by the Israeli Defence Forces have already left thousands of Palestinians dead or injured, with almost half a million displaced ahead of an imminent land offensive.

Gaza has long resembled an ‘open prison’, however the closing of border crossings and an Israeli blockade on fuel, medicines and water into Gaza will plunge the territory into the direst crisis imaginable. Under international humanitarian law, collective punishment is illegal, yet it’s difficult to see how such a blockade does not represent collective punishment of a Palestinian population that, it should not be forgotten, is not Hamas.

Of course, in the aftermath of the shocking attacks by Hamas on 7 October, the only right-minded response was outright condemnation and reaffirmation of Israeli’s right to defend itself and protect its people. That right remains, but it is not, nor ever has been, unqualified. The role now of allies and the wider international community must be to use what influence they have to urge restraint and lay the foundations for de-escalation. This starts with establishing a humanitarian corridor and ensuring international law is observed. 

That would also offer the best chance of avoiding this conflict spreading out across the region, something that will be an absolute focus of diplomatic efforts going forward. The 2020 Abraham Accords had seen a recent improvement in trade and ties between Israel and key Arab states, something that doubtless helps explain, in part at least, the timing of Hamas’ attack. Whether those closer ties can help prevent a wider contagion remains to be seen but there will be those, not least Hamas and its sponsors in Iran, desperate to see that happen.

Meanwhile, UK citizens, we know, are amongst those killed and taken hostage by Hamas. There are also many more who find themselves trapped in Gaza, including the parents of Nadia El-Nakla, wife of Scotland’s First Minister. I will not be alone in believing that Humza Yousaf has carried himself with enormous dignity and courage over recent days at what continues to be a desperately worrying time for him and his family. 

He has taken great care to show solidarity with both the Jewish and Palestinian communities in Scotland, recognising the suffering being felt on both sides as a result of this latest bloody eruption of a decades-long conflict. This is unquestionably deeply personal for Humza Yousaf, but he has shown himself to be an able statesman in the midst of this crisis.

Unfortunately for the First Minister, troubles closer to him within his own party and administration show no signs of abating. The SNP have been meeting in Aberdeen this week for their party conference, the build up to which could scarcely have been worse. On the back of a thumping defeat to Labour in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West byelection, Humza Yousaf then saw one of his SNP MP colleagues, Liz Cameron defect to the Conservatives. With a General Election expected next year, this hardly constitutes ideal preparation and betrays an electoral vulnerability that will have many SNP MPs and MSPs deeply anxious.

And so to Aberdeen, where the SNP faithful showed, once again, that there is nothing they love more than debating independence, which took top billing. In the end, the party voted to saddle itself and its leader with a dog’s breakfast of a policy that means even a loss of votes and seats at the next election will see the SNP declare a mandate for separation. I suspect even many SNP voters will despair at this latest rather pointless journey through the looking glass.

At the moment, though, all this pales into insignificance given what is unfolding in the Middle East where peace has rarely felt so out of reach. 

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