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BBC TwoNewsnight
Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 August 2006, 12:10 GMT 13:10 UK
Middle East debates
In the midst of the conflict in Lebanon, Newsnight held two debates in order to gauge opinion on the situation among British Jews and Muslims.

The debates provoked much reaction, so we asked two of the contributors - fashion designer Bella Freud and former Conservative Parliamentary candidate Ali Miraj - to reflect on their experiences.

Read their reflections:

Bella Freud
Ali Miraj

By Bella Freud

Fashion designer Bella Freud
Bella Freud on Newsnight

For the last 15 years I have come to care passionately about what is happening in Palestine. Being angry and shouting at the TV brought me little relief so I began to inform myself as much as possible.

In 2003, two friends and I started a charity called Hoping Foundation (Hope and Optimism for Palestinians In the Next Generation), to offer support and encouragement to Palestinian children living in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Visiting occupied Palestine and Lebanon, and seeing with my own eyes the provocative and crushing conditions under which the Palestinian people live, I realised there was so much that was not being reported.

Not the politics but the way one race is being treated by another. It exasperates me to hear the lack of responsibility and evasive language used in news reporting when Israel makes another incursion into Palestinian land.

Being invited to come on Newsnight was a terrifying and exhilarating prospect. I was asked to give my opinion as a British Jew on what Israel is doing in Lebanon. I don't have an opinion because I'm Jewish but because I'm a human being.

What made me decide to come on the program is that everyone I talk to is outraged at what is happening in Lebanon yet none of the politicians are saying the obvious thing that we can see: the targeting of civilians and the utter disregard for human life.

What we have been seeing in Lebanon has been happening for several months in Gaza, where a humanitarian crisis was created when Israel bombed its power plant, leaving little or no electricity and water for one of the most densely populated areas in the world. It is so overcrowded because it is filled with refugees from 1948.

Alain de Botton and Bella Freud
Alain de Botton and Bella Freud
I was overwhelmed by the response I received
Bella Freud
The people are trapped, sealed in except for one crossing - an Israeli manned checkpoint, which is regularly closed against all Geneva conventions, preventing food from coming in. Hundreds of Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli military in Gaza in the last two months.

I was overwhelmed by the response I received: over 100 emails, with more still arriving from people who think and feel the same as I do. Some very funny and honest: one man wrote,"Hi Bella, I've never seen you on TV before so when the discussion started I was very tempted to switch channels and watch ancient repeats of Top Gear episodes! But I was glad I persevered because everything you said was so refreshingly different and to be honest, honest!"

A woman wrote: żGiven that my great grandmother was a Israeli Jew and my great grandfather a Palestinian Christian I have longed to hear someone who shares the same views as myself and have often felt like the loneliest 22 year old in the world. Despite my Jewish heritage I find myself called a Jew hater every time I criticize Israel amongst my peers, when I am simply speaking out about the immense atrocities."

Another wrote, "I share her views and as a Muslim often find myself explaining to other Muslims that it is the Zionist ideology which is the problem and not the Jewish religion or Jewish people... I am glad that I can now point to at least one famous Jewish person who does not dogmatically follow the policies of the Israeli government."

It is vital that people speak up on this subject and not be bullied into silence by being told they are not experts and that they don't understand the issues.

The positive response that I received from Newsnight viewers was about exactly that. They thought I had expressed what is almost a hidden agenda in politics but which is, in reality, the only screaming headline of the story - the obvious and horrendous effect on the people on the ground of the insane politics and violence over which they have no control.

Bella Freud is a fashion designer

By Ali Miraj

Ali Miraj

I had hardly left the Newsnight studio before text messages from friends began clogging up my phone giving me feedback on my performance on the programme.

Discussing the politics of the Middle East is always a tricky business. It is even more so in a week that has seen the killing in Qana of 56 innocent Lebanese civilians, 37 of whom were children, and the firing of over 200 rockets from Southern Lebanon into Israel in a single day.

It was no surprise that the texts I received fell neatly into two categories. One set, highly positive - including adjectives such as "thoughtful", "balanced" and "sensible" came somewhat unsurprisingly from my non-Muslim chums.

The other - negative and full of concern including the accusation that I was a "sell-out" - came from a number of my Muslim friends.

Perceptions

The difference in perceptions serves to underline the challenge posed by two groups of individuals, Muslims and non-Muslims, who see the world very differently.

There is little doubt in my mind that Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah sent his fighters across the border into Israel on July 12 where they killed several soldiers and captured two. This was, as Israel pointed out, an unprovoked attack.

It is as if there is an anti-Israeli default setting that most Muslims will automatically switch to
Ali Miraj
Notwithstanding the disproportionate nature of its response, Israel in my view, has the right to take action to protect the security of its citizens. That, I believe, is a view held by a minority of other Muslims.

There is a complete lack of desire and ability to see things from the point of view of the other. It is as if there is an anti-Israeli default setting that most Muslims will automatically switch to.

Security

However, the Israelis must realise the action they have taken has done nothing to enhance their own long-term security. A more far-sighted approach, grounded in the strategic realities in the region, would have been welcome.

After all, in 1979 when 18 British soldiers were killed by two IRA bombs in Northern Ireland, the British government did not respond by bombing Dublin and crippling the infrastructure of the whole of Ireland.

As Walid Jumblatt, leader of the most powerful clan in Lebanon's Druze community, has pointed out, the conflict has dealt a fatal blow to Lebanese hopes of establishing a strong independent state, free of Iranian and Syrian influence.

Mr Jamblatt, whose protests last year helped force Syria to withdraw its troops after 22 years in Lebanon, is now supporting Hezbollah against "brutal Israeli aggression".

Arab opinion

Ali Miraj, Asim Siddiqui of City Circle and Aki Nawaz of Nation Records
Ali Miraj, Asim Siddiqui of City Circle and Aki Nawaz of Nation Records
Whilst the "neocons" in Washington may be dancing around the Oval office, Hezbollah leaders must themselves be rubbing their hands with glee. They are now seen by many Muslims as champions of the Muslim world.

Opinion on the Arab street is enraged and in light of the recent Times poll that over 50% of British Muslims view the War on Terror as a War on Islam, there are a number of angry young Muslims on the streets of towns such as Bradford and Watford.

Blair and Bush must understand the alienation, anger and frustration that results from the foreign policies they pursue. The neo-Conservative grand strategy, of which the latest events in Lebanon are a part, is failing.

The policy being pursued of forcibly democratising the Middle East is doomed. British and American leaders would do well to remember to lessons of the cold war. It took nearly half a century to defeat Communism through a mixture of containment, deterrence and above all patience.

It was not conflict that led to victory but the desire of people living under repressive regimes in Eastern Europe to change.

Covert support for those who shared Western ideals was a powerful tool but the fundamental force and commitment for reform came from within.

With Iraq engaged in a civil war in all but name, a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan and the Palestinian issue persisting like a gaping sore wound, an unstable Lebanon with a new generation radicalised by Western foreign policy is the last thing the world needs.

Ali Miraj was a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate at the 2001 and 2005 general elections and is a Board Member of the Conservative Party Policy Review on International and National Security.


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