Letters: Talks with Hamas

Palestinians have been punished enough; time to talk to Hamas
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The Independent Online

Sir: With the continued refusal of Hamas to meet the requirements of the international community - recognise Israel, cease violence against it, and recognise previous agreements between the PLO and Israel - it is clear that the policy aimed at punishing the Hamas-led Palestinian government through the seven-month aid freeze has failed.

It is also clear, from the violence in Gaza and the West Bank, that the terrible conditions resulting from the embargo of financial aid and goods imposed by Israel and the international community, and the constant harassment by Israel of the Palestinian population, are near to causing a breakdown in Palestinian society. Such a breakdown would benefit no one, least of all Israel.

Is it not time to review the international embargo as called for by former President Jimmy Carter a week ago? He said: "The attempt to coerce Hamas leaders by starving the Palestinian people has failed, and it is time to alleviate their suffering and resort to diplomacy."

Perhaps surprisingly, there is support for this from both the Israeli and Palestinian populations. A survey by Hebrew University's Truman's Centre and the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah found in September that 67 per cent of Israelis (and 59 per cent of Palestinians) supported talks with a Palestinian unity government.

Failing that, 59 per cent of Israelis were prepared to speak to just a Hamas government. If Tony Blair wishes to make the Israel/Palestinian conflict a priority in his last months in office, he should work to persuade Israel, the EU and US to loosen the financial embargo, persuade Israel to ease conditions for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and encourage exploratory talks with the Hamas government as well as Mahmoud Abbas.



Saluting a brave Army commander

Sir: I was delighted to see the comments by General Sir Richard Dannatt (article, 14 October) concerning the British involvement in Iraq. As a former Army officer and Iraq veteran, I find it refreshing that a senior commander finally has the courage to stand up to his political masters and reflect the views of the majority of serving soldiers.

General Dannatt has already suffered opprobrium from politicians who, while happy to place members of the Armed Forces in harm's way, have never seen service themselves.

The general is not a politician, they say, and should steer clear of politics. They are correct, but when the advice of senior representatives of the Armed Forces is repeatedly ignored, what other avenues are open to him? He could resign, and make way for another "yes man", or stand up and be counted.

Any commander in the Army, from corporal to general, should hold the well-being of the men and women under their command as their primary concern. When this well-being is endangered by political imperative rather then military necessity, a commander should speak out.

The British Army is fighting a war on two fronts, which it is woefully under-resourced to prosecute. An illegal occupation in Iraq, combined with deepening involvement in the historical mire that is Afghanistan, have stretched personnel and resources to near breaking-point. The Government may well wish to continue its "stay the course" policy, but this will result in many more Service personnel doing as I did, and voting with their feet.



Sir: If the British people are to be protected from a serious constitutional crisis, the government to whom he is accountable should dismiss General Dannatt.

Undoubtedly, if this is done, many of the people who were opposed to the war in Iraq, or who have demanded that the troops be withdrawn, would be enraged by such a decision. People would feel, as I do, that he spoke the truth as he saw it and he had the courage to express it knowing, as he must have done, that he was putting his career on the line.

This is a dangerous precedent which could lead to a most disturbing split in the British people. The Armed Forces must remain accountable to parliament if we are not to risk government by junta, yet we need courageous people in authority to speak out on the morality of our government's actions.

So what should be done?

First, the Government should allow a short period for its deliberations about the general's position and to allow him to reflect on the implications of what he has stated.

Second, the general should resign, no "offer", no apology, no qualification, his honour intact by standing by what he has said.

Third, the week after, the Government should work intensively on a strategy for urgent withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

Thus there would have been no compromise of government control of the Armed Forces, and those opposed to the war would not feel the general's statements had been made in vain.

The grief of the relatives and friends of courageous British soldiers who have been disabled or killed is unlikely to be assuaged through perpetuation of this increasingly bitter encounter.



Sir: General Sir Richard Dannatt is correct over his appraisal of the military situation in Iraq. But a senior military officer voicing truths that most mainstream politicians are eschewing exemplifies what can happen when there is meagre ideological difference between the mainstream parties.

In essence, the general is simply an opportunist because his criticism of government policy began only when the violence escalated after the invasion and occupation of Iraq. He clearly intends at the outset of his appointment to initiate a populist serviceman's appeal to imbue a feel-good factor in a disgruntled rank and file. By doing so, he hopes to eradicate an emerging degree of radicalism that questions the morality and double standards of foreign policy due to experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Thus the principal issue that emanates from the general's comments is that if a senior military officer can apparently transgress unhindered from his alleged political neutrality by entering the political fray for his own reasons, then why cannot all ranks of the Services be permitted to do the same, enabling them to openly question the merits of whatever deployment they are tasked to undertake, particularly if it is illegal?



Sir: General Dannatt is quoted as saying his troops "stood shoulder to shoulder with the Americans". At least, that is a lot safer than having them standing behind you.


GP care in town and country

Sir: An excessive preoccupation with uniformity is at least part of the problem in the provision of out-of-hours GP services (Extra, 10 October), among other things. What is intended to work well in conurbations is not certain to work as well in sparsely populated areas.

In urban areas, there may be up to a dozen miles between patient and service base but in rural areas, such as Northumberland, an out-of-hours (OOH) visiting doctor may have a round trip of 100 miles or more to see a patient and the nearest hospital may be 30 or 40 miles from a patient. The general practice may be no more than a dozen miles from the patient.

Although the recruitment crisis in general practice was undoubtedly severe and is not resolved, there are enough willing hands to provide alternative models of service in some areas.

My practice was among the last to relinquish its own OOH work, reluctantly, and I have relinquished voluntary OOH work too when it degenerated into a massively over-bureaucratised, call-centre operation. Had a proportion of the funding lavished on NHSDirect and the OOH services been given to practices that wished to provide their own OOH care we would have had a useful and instructive plurality of services; a choice, in fact.



Sir: I take issue with Dr Naeem Toosy's claim that GPs providing out-of-hours emergency care are an anachronism in a modern NHS (Letters, 13 October).

GPs meet patients with no clear diagnostic labels and make assessments. That is part of their job. The problem in many cases of out-of-hours care is not so much with the individual doctors and their training but with the poorly funded and poorly organised system of OOH care some primary care trusts provide.

Professionals in emergency medicine are valued and have their place, but they cannot supplant the value of general practice, crucial to the success of a 21st-century health service.



No option but to cut the use of cars

Sir: There is no choice but to cut car use by 90 per cent (Letters, 12 October). To replace even 5 per cent of the fuel consumed annually in the UK by bioethanol would require turning over about 6,300 square kilometres of arable land for the purpose, or 10 per cent of the total arable area of the UK, which would conflict with food production.

The Royal Society of Chemistry mentioned, in their recent policy bulletin, converting waste products from existing agriculture to ethanol, for example, wheat straw. This sounds a perfect solution but it would provide the equivalent of just 6.5 per cent of the total fuel presently used.

There is no way we can produce enough ethanol to match our present level of fuel use, either using biomass waste or without compromising food production. On the other hand, if we move to systems of energy efficiency, living in localised communities, which would cut fuel demand (that is, car use) by 90 per cent, then 6.5 per cent of that remaining 10 per cent begins to look significant.

Otherwise, we can neither break our dependency on imported fuels nor meet the government's targets to reduce CO 2 emissions. Details of these and other calculations on biofuel energy provision and other renewable sources can be found at http://ergobalance.blogspot.com.



Sir: Michael McCarthy's doubts about the value of carbon offsetting (Opinion, 12 October) are not strong enough. For a start, anyone who has planted trees knows they are not going to start absorbing significant amounts of CO2 for years. It is absurd to suggest that removing carbon from the atmosphere 50 years hence can possibly compensate for today's pollution.

But much more important is whether the world has enough fertile land to grow these trees as well as feeding a projected extra three billion humans by mid-century, plus new demands on the world's farmers to produce vast quantities of biodiesel and ethanol.

In the previous day's Business section, there was a report on the soaring price of wheat as drought devastates the world's prime croplands; months ago, it was the American Midwest and now it is Australia, Argentina and Brazil where crops are withering. Yet this is only the beginning of the changes in climate.

It is becoming increasingly clear that long before rising sea levels ruin vast tracts of the world's low-lying farmland, the greatest threat from global warming is to our food supplies. The UK and EU must begin an urgent programme to increase our food security and conserve our fertile land.



Ailment spotted

Sir: Tony Kirwood (Letters, 14 October) identified "those strange shapes which float across my vision when I stare at the sky" as technically known as "floaters". These are a symptom of what Chinese medicine refers to as "liver blood deficiency". He can contact an acupuncturist or Chinese herbalist who could address this imbalance.



Future shock

Sir: Much space has been devoted to the pension time-bomb without thought about how future generations will regard us, the baby boomers. A future society may not feel as obligated to look after a generation that has made little to no sacrifice for them, as we are to those of our parents' generation who suffered the Thirties and Second World War to give us a better life. Future generations could be damaged by our prevarication on climate change, massive end costs of PFI and our pollution. The mass of unwritten contracts and moral obligations that maintain society's caring momentum risk being severed.



Reward courage

Sir: Anna Politkovskaya's work is of supreme importance in so bravely exposing what the Russian government has done and is still doing in Chechnya (article, 13 October). It is relevant to the whole "war on terror" with military bludgeoning that cannot achieve peace but is so rapidly spawning new terrorists. Can Ms Politkovskaya be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, or if not, is there another award she could be given posthumously?



What about England?

Sir: The Government seems most anxious to devolve powers to an Assembly in Northern Ireland although the politicians there seem reluctant to accept them. But why does Westminster continue to refuse to even consider devolving power to the people of England when there is a growing demand to have a level playing field for democratic devolved government throughout the United Kingdom?



British view

Sir: It was not the America Farnsworth system that was adopted by the BBC in 1937 (Extra, 11 October) but after a trial against John Logie Baird's semi-mechanical system, it was the British all-electronic Marconi-EMI system, which was developed at EMI's Hayes Laboratories by a team led by Isaac Shoenberg, who was later knighted for his services.



Just a girl

Sir: Your article (Opinion, 12 October) states that by 1793 Marie Antoinette was an "old woman of 48". In fact, she was still only 38.