By Ben White
Special to PalestineChronicle.com
The news that BBC journalist Alan Johnston had been freed from his kidnappers after 114 days in captivity was greeted with relief and celebration by all those concerned for his fate. Exactly one week prior to the end of his ordeal, however, the news that another Briton, ex-PM Tony Blair, was to become Middle East ‘peace envoy’ was met with incredulity and derision.
Why juxtapose these two men, and these two events?
Those ultimately responsible for Johnston’s kidnapping remain his kidnappers, the members of the Army of Islam group based in Gaza City. Yet the conditions under which Johnston became a target owe more to his fellow countryman, Tony Blair.
That Johnston, as a British national, was considered a target at all, is a sign of the depth to which Britain’s reputation has sunk in Palestine, as a direct result of Blair’s foreign policy. In Palestine last summer I felt uncomfortable about my nationality for the first time in four years of visits. Even in 2003, as Iraq was invaded, and Palestinians were assessing the damage from several years of brutal Israeli military operations, Britain was not considered in the popular mind to be in the same league as the USA.
But something changed. Perhaps it was the years of occupation in Iraq, and the sight of British soldiers murdering and torturing Iraqis. Or maybe it was the spectacle of Blair shielding Israel while Lebanon was pummelled from above and hundreds of its citizens bombed to death. Even with all that, 99% of Palestinians continue to welcome with open arms the Britons and other internationals that still come to the Occupied Territories for humanitarian, media or solidarity purposes.
But last year, in the wake of the Israeli assault on Lebanon, I was advised for the first time when visiting a particularly tense city in the West Bank not to say I was British. When staying in the Gaza Strip, I didn’t go out at night. When I did meet people, and they discovered where I was from, their first comment was always about Blair.
There is something more going on here, however. That foreign nationals, including journalists, now risk being kidnapped in the Gaza Strip is an indictment of the Quartet’s policies since Hamas’ parliamentary victory – tactics of isolation and boycott that have radicalised and fragmented Palestinian society. Poverty and unemployment have all served to fracture the traditional bonds that hold the society together. When a living wage is hard to come by, shortcuts are tempting.
Of course, the assumption that this represents a failure of the Quartet, as opposed to being the intended outcome, might be too generous. Israel is happy, for all the anxious punditry about having a ‘Hamastan’ or ‘Somalia’ ‘next door’. From the old women gathering scrap metal in the streets, to the young men fighting with each other for positions of privilege, the Palestinians are hungry and divided, unable to focus on resisting Israeli colonisation. The population has been duly punished for daring to reject at the ballot box the corrupt elite Israel relied on to police its occupation.
As Johnston begins his much needed time of rest and reflection, and signals his intention not to return to the Gaza Strip, Blair packs his bags and prepares to go in the opposite direction.
The talk is of ‘state-building’ and mobilising international aid for the Palestinians. The reality though is that the Middle East’s second most-hated Western politician has been charged with the responsibility of consolidating apartheid while muttering about justice. The strain of the contradiction might prove too great for some, but it’s a remit for which Blair is at least highly qualified.
-Ben White is a regular columnist for PalestineChronicle.com; he is a British journalist who visited and reported from Palestine over the course of several years; his work is also published in other Middle East related publications.