Mark Steel: Not a shopping spree, just a taste of freedom

'My goodness, have you seen the spring collection in the Sinai branch of Debenhams?'
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The Independent Online

Occasionally there's a news story that can be presented as so jolly everyone must find it heartening – Havant and Waterlooville scoring against Liverpool, kittens rescued from chimneys, that Indonesian dictator bastard dying this week, that sort of thing.

You might think the escape of hundreds of thousands of people from the siege in Gaza would come under this category. On the point of starvation, with almost no fuel, electricity or medical supplies, they've blown up the wall at the border and danced into Egypt, smiling and waving at the reporters. They're such merry scenes you imagine reporters spluttering the way they did when the Americans marched into Baghdad, when they came out with stuff like "This old man behind me is so jubilant he has quite literally burst into flames with joy."

Especially as you'd think the middle class in Britain would say: "Oh I can see what Hamas were trying to do by pulling that wall down, they've knocked the ghetto and the desert into one which will give them so much more light in the summer." Maybe that will put them in huge demand, so Hamas will get calls all day from people saying: "Hello, I wonder if you could give me an estimate for knocking down a dividing wall between a living room and reception room, I hear you're very reliable."

But instead it's been reported as just about acceptable, but not the sort of unruly behaviour to be approved of. Or it's seen as frivolous, such as the report in The New York Times that reads: "Palestinians used a bulldozer to knock down a portion of the wall and continue a shopping spree." A shopping spree? Do they think the leadership of Hamas said: "Oooh my goodness, have you seen the spring collection on display in the Sinai Desert branch of Debenhams? They've got the cutest little calf-length boots that were made with me in mind. If I don't have them I'll die – get the Semtex and the detonator."

Or maybe there were radio adverts across the occupation with a couple of actors gasping "Where is everyone running to?" "We're all off to the Sinai springtime sale where prices are so crazy they're not just up the wall, they're through the wall. So hurry hurry hurry and remember – you can afford a smash through the border."

The Palestinian "shopping spree" has kept them from starving, freezing or otherwise dying. Because for eight months the whole place has been shut off from the outside world, deliberately. Even yesterday, an aid convoy consisting of Israelis who'd brought five tons of food was refused entry into Gaza by the Israeli authorities. Maybe they'll claim the rice created a "security risk". Because Palestinian terrorists could place it by the border and pour boiling water over it, making it expand into Israeli territory and covering the settlements with starch.

This approach has been described by the Israelis as "collective punishment". So Prime Minister Olmert said: "We must show the population it cannot shed itself of responsibility for the situation." This could lead to an unexpected development, because that sounds similar to the crazed logic of the jihadist who blows up civilians on buses and Tubes. So maybe the next twist in Middle-East politics is that the Israeli government will join al-Qa'ida.

The problem for the media is that people escaping for bread, diesel and fags are spoiling Israel's strategy, so that can't be celebrated, as that would appear biased. It's as if, after Comic Relief night, the BBC had to have an evening in favour of starvation in the interests of being neutral.

And yet by every account it's a classic feelgood story. It's even a marvellous example of religious unity, as Hamas have followed the lesson of Moses by leading people out of danger through Egypt. One woman was reported as saying: "Now I can visit my daughter who I haven't seen for four years." When the Berlin Wall came down, that sort of comment signalled universal rejoicing, but this meets with disapproval from Western governments, mostly because they've denounced Hamas as terrorists and refused to talk to them, even when they've won elections.

But maybe blowing up walls to save people's lives is the sort of thing that makes Hamas popular. Politicians here are always complaining they're disconnected from the population, so this might be the way to engage with the voters. To start with, they could blow up the border between first and second class on inter-city trains, and as reporters gasped "behind me are the most astonishing scenes, as these poor wretched creatures, crammed against each other in corridors for so long have literally poured into the empty caverns of first class, where they can at last breathe, and see close-up for the first time the puffy headrests and peculiar posh purple lamps", their popularity would soar.

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