The Conflict Never Ends: Bomb Disposal Heroes Die in Gaza

It seems as if there is never any good news emanating from Gaza. Even in the midst of a well-observed ceasefire tragedy struck Wednesday when six people were killed after an Israeli missile detonated during attempts to make it safe. Such occurrences are, unfortunately, fairly common in war zones and the dangers provided by unexploded munitions are often overlooked.

The explosion caused major blast damage
The explosion caused major blast damage

I have written before about the dangers still posed by ordnance buried in the ground from previous wars. However, whilst this still provides a periodic hazard, it is the immediate clearance of battlefields (either of infantry munitions or aerial weapons) that provides an intensified, and more urgent, risk.

Many of the unsung heroes of World War Two worked in bomb disposal. At least 11% of the bombs that fell on the UK did not explode. In a bid to prevent major disruption to the war effort, and ensure the safety of residents, bomb disposal squads worked around the clock to defuze and remove a wide variety of bombs.

A Royal Navy bomb disposal squad removing a UXB in Plymouth during WWII
A Royal Navy bomb disposal squad removing a UXB in Plymouth during WWII

The number of lives these men saved is unknown and their contribution to industry (in terms of securing buildings and preventing loss of work hours) is inestimable. Yet whilst some individuals defuzed thousands of items over the course of the war without coming to harm, others were not so fortunate.

One example is Michael Gibson. On the 14th September 1940, Gibson, of 9th Bomb Disposal, Royal Engineers, made safe a large unexploded bomb in the centre of Coventry, just minutes after an adjacent bomb had detonated.

On the 18th October he was called into action again, removing a 250kg UXB from a housing estate. Still live, the bomb was transported to the open area of Whitley Common for a controlled explosion. During the unloading phase, however, the UXB detonated killing Gibson and six others.

Many of the bombs dropped during WWII were fitted with volatile time-delay fuzes, making their safe disposal extremely difficult. Gibson and his colleagues suffered a tragic misfortune, replicated in Gaza today, which on other occasions they may have got away with.

It is a reminder that even when the missiles stop flying, the conflict is never over. Those working in bomb disposal are heroes in the truest sense of the word.

A selection of munitions rendered safe recently in Iraq
A selection of munitions rendered safe recently in Iraq
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Qatar Steps out of the Shadows to Take Centre Stage: a new power in the Middle East

Qatar has become increasingly assertive in its attempts to dictate affairs in the Middle East. Not one of the region’s historical powerhouses, Qatar has sought to use its economic clout and the media resources at its disposal to play a leading diplomatic role in several areas of political importance.

Qatar is seeking to match its economic power with political clout
Qatar is seeking to match its economic power with political clout

The ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas has intensified security concerns in the region. A dispute often managed and mediated by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, however, now partly rests on the negotiating skills of the Qataris. Having alienated Hamas over its treatment of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s new government has been supplanted by Qatar at the mediation table. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has faced-off against Hamas by proxy in Syria and has also been unable to bring a swift end to the deadly violence in Gaza.

Qatar is ruled by the House of Thani which has controlled the peninsula since the mid-19th century. This was at the time of the ‘Great Game’, when British and Russian imperialists sought decisive influence over Central Asia and the Middle East. It was the ‘British Raj’, based in India, that came to exert a dominant influence over the Persian Gulf creating a maritime truce amongst its states that gave Britain a crucial economic advantage.

In 1971, David Holden wrote:

There is little doubt that as long as the current régimes in Bahrein, Qatar and the seven Trucial States remain in power they will continue to follow the habits of the past 150 years and look to Britain for help and advice, even if direct military protection is denied them.

Qatar only achieved independence in 1971 after years of British dominance in the Persian Gulf
Qatar only achieved independence in 1971 after years of British dominance in the Persian Gulf

Qatar was seen as trapped in Britain’s shadow, even in the post-colonial world. Such a theory has not been borne out. As early as 1957 Qatar had provided a refuge for Yasser Arafat and other leaders of the burgeoning Fatah movement after an agreement between General Nasser of Egypt and the UN to expel guerrilla groups from the Gaza Strip (Rouleau, 1975).

As the country’s oil wealth grew rapidly in the second half of the 20th century, Qatar began to exert greater influence in regional affairs. Any notions that it may remain in the British, or even Saudi, shadow, failed to materialise. 

Offshore oil fields are Qatar's lifeblood
Offshore oil fields are Qatar’s lifeblood

The founding of Al Jazeera in 1996 further strengthened the regional and international prowess of Qatar. Funded by the Thani Emirs, it has become the Arabic mouthpiece across the globe, with news disseminated to suit the priorities of Qatar’s rulers.

Support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other popular Islamist movements in the Middle East has helped Qatar’s rulers dismiss any accusations of arrogant aloofness and provided an important bargaining chip in negotiating on behalf of Hamas. Whether Qatar has the assertiveness to use the tools at its disposal remains to be seen.

To think, however, that a formerly British-Saudi dependent sheikhdom on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula could come to exert such influence in a war-torn region through the use of resources, a powerful media outlet and aid to populist Islamist groups is quite staggering.

Whether this influence will be used for the common good or, as Qatar’s neighbours accuse, national gain, may soon be known.

Sources

Holden, D. ‘The Persian Gulf: After the British Raj’, Foreign Affairs (July 1971)

Rouleau, E. ‘The Palestinian Quest’, Foreign Affairs (January 1975)

Saab, B.Y. ‘The Dishonest Broker: Why Qatar’s Peacemaking Shouldn’t be Trusted’, Foreign Affairs (July 30, 2014)