Just about the whole of Hong Kong has been transfixed during the last two weeks by events taking place in the Middle East. This is not surprising when you consider the extensive links between our city and that part of the world.
For one thing Hong Kong has a small but long-established Jewish community of about 5,000 which is naturally supportive of Israel. Many of us have friends among its members. The Israeli chamber of commerce is a substantial one and we are an obvious location for business dealings between its enterprises and mainland ones which sometimes go more smoothly on neutral ground. Twenty years ago as head of InvestHK I visited the country many times to target in particular tech and trading companies. There is also a fine Jewish secondary school in Shaukiwan which is open to students of all faiths. (Full disclosure: my youngest son attended there after the local school system did not detect his dyslexia, was steered successfully to his IB, and is now in his final year at university).
We also have a substantial Muslim community of some 300,000, originally a mixture of Pakistani and Chinese origin but buttressed in recent years by a large number of Indonesian domestic helpers. They tend to be more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.
There is also the very large local Christian community of over one million which takes a great interest in the Holy places. Many of its members like to go on pilgrimages there. The Anglican community in Hong Kong in particular has been deeply involved in supporting various charitable works such as the Jerusalem Princess Basma Centre and the Al Ahli Hospital in Gaza. Work was almost complete earlier this month on a rehabilitation unit in Gaza to provide services for disabled children. This was blown to smithereens a few days ago in the destruction of the adjacent hospital. (full disclosure, my wife visited the Centre while on a pilgrimage earlier this year).
More generally I think the whole community has been traumatised by the appalling images and reports from Israel/Palestine. The cold-blooded murder at point blank range by Hamas terrorists of ordinary families in their homes and unarmed youngsters at a music concert shocked everyone. It is unforgiveable uncivilized behaviour. Some aspects of the Israeli response have also earned condemnation. Denial of food, water, medicine, fuel and energy in the first few days after the attack constituted collective punishment of civil non-combatants which many consider a war crime. Some relief supplies are now being allowed in but living conditions in Gaza, already dire, are deteriorating further. Bearing in mind that around half the population are children, the situation is bound to attract sympathy from neutral observers.
The number of dead and injured on both sides is high and as might be expected in urban warfare most of the victims are civilians. Israel suffered about 1300 deaths in the first wave of attacks, the Palestinian deaths were over 2000 in just a few days and are now escalating, reportedly including some of those fleeing south as they had been told to do.
Last week a lot of energy was being expended by the two sides blaming each other for responsibility for destruction of the Gaza hospital. Hamas claimed it was the result of an Israeli air strike, Israel that it came from a misfired Hamas rocket. They say the first casualty of war is truth: we may never know. I hesitate to say this but I’m not sure it matters how this particular incident occurred; such events are inevitable once a war starts. Israel has been bombing targets in Gaza, it might have been a stray or an accident, Hamas has been firing rockets from Gaza aiming at targets in Israel, and rockets do misfire. The only certainty is that disabled Palestinian children are going to be denied rehabilitation services until the Anglican community in Hong Kong can raise funds for another one.
Inevitably with the saturation media coverage worldwide there has been spillover to other countries. There have been Muslim terrorist incidents in Europe; an American killed a six-year-old Muslim child in the United States. Singapore has just banned gatherings on the matter. Fortunately we have been spared such emotional outbursts so far in Hong Kong. This far into the column and no mention of the hostages: the suffering of the individuals and their families must be indescribable, I just don’t know what else to say.
As might be expected the politics of all this is messy. Much depends on where you start your history: Birth of Christ, 1919, 1948, 1973 and so on. Initially after the creation of modern Israel in 1948 many Arab states refused to accept its right to exist. Some have now moderated their position and others may be prepared to do so subject to protection of the Palestinians. Hamas is beyond the pale: its declared objective is to destroy Israel. At the same time some Israelis have established settlements on the West Bank, approved in advance or retrospectively by the government, some are even pushing for the government to annex the whole of the West Bank. Minor parties which espouse this view are members of the current coalition government. Where would the Palestinians then live if not in Palestine?
The solution that seems most reasonable to me is the two-state option: two distinct countries within recognised borders. Both should be contiguous and have access to the sea. Getting there will not be easy. The best way to undermine terrorist groups is to undermine the support they get, explicitly or tacitly, from the general population. And the best way to achieve this is to give the peaceable majority a vision of a better life. At the moment Gaza residents do not have one.