04/12/2012 09:47 GMT | Updated 02/02/2013 05:12 GMT

Gaza: More Than a Game of Chess

I think NUS and its officers in the past have shied away from addressing the issue of the Israel-Palestine conflict, motivated at times by the best of intentions; nervousness about the extreme emotion and heated rhetoric the conflict often evokes.

Yet all too often, it has been motivated by sometimes unwarranted fears that you cannot "talk Israel" without fear of offending someone.

While I appreciate these concerns, and in part often suffer from them myself; in my time as Vice-President Society and Citizenship I've tried to ensure NUS engages more on the Israel-Palestine issue.

Not always blocking the debate, but actually just having it. I stand by the fact we showed leadership in passing policy supporting a two-state solution.

I recognise the strength and depth of feeling from students on this issue, and feel it would be wrong to ignore it or shuffle it aside. The student movement's foundations are after all strongly internationalist, NUS being formed in 1922 by a generation living with the scars of the shadow of the First World War.

With international students from across the world, education institutions can be unique settings for dialogue and an environment for the intellectual exchange of ideas and views.

Despite all this, those who regularly refresh the NUS website or avidly follow my tweets, will notice that I didn't rush to release a statement on the situation on Gaza when it began.

No I haven't, before anyone asks, been silenced by a fear of offending someone, annoying my faction, or by a Zionist conspiracy.

I also haven't just been waiting for this week's NEC meeting. Although wanting to take a collective position and allowing others to have their say, rather than just expressing my own views was a factor (and just to note we passed policy unanimously yesterday to condemn the situation and end the siege).

The main reason was that I believe releasing a statement primarily because some would expect it and the fact that it might make me feel better about myself, would have been a bit self-indulgent and unhelpful. Organisations making statements on Israel-Palestine can often quite frankly, be about simple political posturing often just for the sake of appearances, while I'd rather do something practical, however small.

I expected criticism over this and was surprised to find, I simply didn't get it. Maybe it existed, but to my knowledge I didn't receive one direct request for a statement, either in my inbox or on social media.

Collective Guilt?

Every human life is as precious as any other and so in a sense when a human being is killed, what is termed an 'appropriate' or 'proportional' response is almost impossible to define. But on that very point, I think the Israeli Government has shown a shocking disregard for the effects on civilians in what they insist was a security operation, and the international community should make it clear that this is unacceptable.

And I refuse to accept that it is ok for the Jerusalem Post to publish an article, saying that the people of Gaza are not innocent, as they elected Hamas. Or for one of their Ministers to claim that they should aim to send Gaza back to "the Middle Ages".

I think the concept of collective punishment being applied to the people of Gaza, is one of the most troubling aspects of the conflict.

I also despair at the mirror image of it when a few people ignorantly assume that all Israelis are guilty by association, like a friend who turned to me on Friday night and said, "I just don't get how anyone could support Israel."

I asked him what he meant by that, and he replied, "85% of Israeli's support the massacre in Gaza." Oh right, those pesky Israelis eh?

It is deplorable, and let's be clear- it does happen- that students on campuses, sometimes Jewish sometimes Israeli, have at times been made to answer for the Israeli Government's actions.

And don't get me started on the group of people who interrupted a Sadler's Wells performance by an Israeli dance company, to protest at the air strikes on Gaza.

Should I be held to account for example for Iraq and what my government did?

A concept of collective guilt also leads to the idea that some people are literally born terrorists, which we know is not true - people are not born terrorists, and while Hamas are certainly not innocent, how can people deny that they are not a product of a terrible political situation?

The Israel-Palestine debate is often infuriating, laced with hypocrisy and venom on both sides, characterised by an astonishing shallowness and lack of nuance at times - by participants determined to display their chosen side as entirely righteous and pure, while the other side is entirely wrong and purely evil.

I know this is not the case - and while the situation may be as complicated as a chess game, it is anything but black and white.

A way forward?

I still believe that campaigning for justice for both sides is not mutually exclusive, however much the extreme agitators for both sides might privately like it to be so.

The first night I spent in Jerusalem, was a number of years ago with a pro-Palestinian group. We stayed with some Jewish migrants who were originally from Austria, who despite a fervent belief in the right of Jewish self-determination, spent every Friday protesting at the wall.

But what sticks in my mind is the bumper sticker on their front door, "A free Palestine for a secure Israel." That's still a view I hold today. Until the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza comes to an end, there will be no peace.

I recognise the very slight silver lining that with the help of Egypt; Israel and Hamas were at least able to negotiate a ceasefire (well 'ceasefire' is up for debate I suppose) last week, and I welcome the news that Britain is moving towards backing the Palestinian bid for statehood in the UN vote this week, as a step forward, however slight.

I want to continue putting my time into what I've done on the issue this past year, supporting students running campaigns to disinvest from companies complicit in illegal settlements and their expansion.

I'm not saying we can get a Palestinian state tomorrow, or even in the remainder of my time in office, or that Netanyahu, Abbas or Hamas will eagerly follow our policy positions passed this week.

But I believe we have a moral duty to try, rather than giving into the easy answers of extremes or the cynicism of those who say nothing will ever change; as they could have said of South Africa in the 1980s, or Northern Ireland in the 1990s.

It may not be easy. It may certainly be dispiriting. But we owe it to the oppressed people of Palestine, the endangered and often vindicated people of Israel, and indeed we owe it to ourselves to at least try.

Further reading and worthy contributors to this:

Jonathan Freedland

Paul Blomfield MP

And another: