On the Monday 6th June 2015 the Bishop of Chester, the Rt Revd Peter Forster spoke during a debate on the future of Gaza. The Bishop spoke of his experiences visiting the region and suggested that addressing the economic disparity between Israel and Gaza was the most pressing concern in preventing history repeating itself.
The Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, I have visited the Holy Land of Israel and Palestine five times since 2000 and I have commitments to lead study tours or pilgrimages next year and the year after. I have yet to go to Gaza but I hope to go to the border next January. What strikes the modern traveler most is the sheer contrast between Israel and the Palestinian areas. To pass from one to the other is like passing from a really up-to-date and modern first-world state to a third-world state, living cheek by jowl with it. In economic and other terms, modern Israel has of course been an extraordinary success in a brief period of just 65 years or so. Although recent economic growth in the West Bank areas has been encouraging in patches, in Gaza the World Bank estimates the per capita income to be 30% lower today than 20 years ago. The contrast just gets greater over time, which sets up a huge instability. I understand all the arguments for a two-state solution—I think I believe in that myself—but will two states so closely linked geographically and yet on such divergent paths easily exist side by side? I always return to that question when I have been to the area.
There is so much about modern Israel that I admire and respect. Given that it has had to fight for its life three times in its brief history, I can understand the toughness that is often manifested in the modern Israeli psyche. I so well remember sitting down with a senior member of the Government there, soon after the wall was built. He turned to me and said, “I don’t like the wall but I have five daughters. At least they’re not going to get blown up on the school bus”. We have to respect aspects of that element in modern Israel.
I do not at all defend all the Israeli tactics in the recent conflict in Gaza—how could one?—but in a funny way I sort of understand them. I greatly regret what happened but what is one to do when thousands of rockets are fired at one’s civilian population from an area controlled by political forces that are dedicated in some degree to the destruction of the country? So there is much that I can understand about modern Israeli attitudes, even if I do not always like or approve of them. What I cannot understand from the Israeli perspective is the settlement programme. It is acknowledged on practically all sides outside Israel that it is both illegal and ill judged. In a certain way it is a parallel to the political mistakes in South Africa, where the South Africans simply dug themselves in and could not see the misjudgment. It took a very long time for them to come to terms with it and, for all the differences between those situations, I often see a certain parallel.
How are we to go forward? We have to work with Hamas. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, that working with it must be the future, difficult though that may be. We also need to recognise the danger of the more militant strands of Islam. As soon as the Syrian conflict quietens down, as we all hope it will, the real danger is exporting it to the northern border with Lebanon or into Palestine. However, on the economic issues, unless something can be done to address the disparity between modern Israel and the Palestinian areas, one way or another history is destined, sadly, to repeat itself.