WORCESTER, ENGLAND // The picture-perfect, quintessential English city of Worcester is not the sort of place you would expect to be hearing heated discussions about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
But that is exactly what has been happening in this cathedral city in the heart of England over the past week. The city's council has just put forward a proposal to twin Worcester with Gaza city, in the Palestinian territories. And Worcester's 90,000 residents are not sure quite what to make of it. "I was shocked when I heard," said James Blackledge, 17. "It seems random, and I'm not sure it's right because I don't know if Worcester is qualified to be twinned with Gaza. I don't understand it or see what good it will do for Gaza."
A fellow student, Delcan Sutch, 17, agreed. "It seems a bit strange. Worcester is not in a position to deal with a crisis, really," he said, referring to the situation in Gaza following a three-week-long assault by Israel on the coastal strip earlier this year. The devastating attacks killed more than 1,300 people, injured more than 5,000 and left thousands without homes. Worcester city's proposal to be twinned with Gaza, 3,750km away, was brought forward by Labour members of the Conservative-majority council, as an attempt to show solidarity with the besieged Palestinian territory's 1.5 million inhabitants.
Councillor Alan Amos, who first proposed the twinning, told the UK media last week: "Like many, I have watched the plight of the people of Gaza, seeing them get bombed and bombed by Israelis with advanced military weapons. But rather than sit there thinking, 'Isn't that terrible?', I really wanted to do something about it." The proposal is now up for review by the council's Twinning Committee, which has in the past decided in favour of pairing Worcester with Kleve in Germany, Le Vésinet in France and Worcester in the US state of Massachusetts.
Twinning is a practice that began in Britain after the Second World War. It pairs geographically distant urban centres, turning them into "sister towns" with the aim of developing contacts, potential trade links and cultural awareness between the two. But some residents in Worcester - famous for its royal pottery and Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce - seem nonplussed by the proposal to twin it with Gaza. The Palestinian city has a head-count of 410,000 and is the most densely populated city in the occupied territories.
"There might be a lot of people in Gaza who want to come to Worcester but I don't think there are many people in Worcester who will want to go to Gaza," said 78-year-old Mr Allan, who did not want to give his first name. "When cities twin with each other there will often be two-way traffic as young people from one city will travel to the other," he said. "But in this case, it is one-way traffic."
The British Foreign Office warns that travelling to Gaza is "reckless" and is undertaken at an individual's own risk. Its website's guidelines on safe travel caution on the "risk of violence re-escalating and the extremely poor humanitarian conditions" in the Palestinian enclave, in addition to the threat of kidnapping by terrorist groups. Some residents of Worcester feel sympathy for Palestinians in war-ravaged Gaza but worry about the implications of twinning.
"I would have happily given to any effort to send aid to Gaza," said Ed Monk, 26. "But what I feel twinning does is to politically endorse the Hamas government, which does not share the values and aspirations of the people of Worcester. "It's easy for people to get very upset about what they see on the news, but people need to understand the situation thoroughly before they pick which side they are going to support."
Worcester lies 160km north-west of London in the heart of Middle England, where the populace is often chastised for being "nimby" - an acronym for "not in my backyard" and a pronouncement on selfish and myopic views. But many residents here defy the negative stereotype. "This can only promote relations between the two countries," said Phil Rumsey, 40, a Worcester native. "We only see a part of the story in the media and if we were twinned, they could get their side across."
Alistair Macleod, 33, agreed: "I don't think it's a bad idea. At the end of the day we're all human and we all have to live with one another." Councillor Amos has said that the idea is for the population of Gaza to "look at us and see that the whole world isn't against them, there are people who understand their plight and think what is happening to them is unacceptable". He has commented that the twinning suggestion was "a humanitarian gesture and not a political move".
Labour party local councillors involved in the proposal have since declined to talk to The National, and a local Worcester newspaper suggested they had been "gagged" because of the controversy that ensued after the twinning motion was approved. The same paper, the Worcester News, has been highly critical of the council's bid to twin the cities, which was passed - albeit watered down from a "proposal" to a "suggestion" - with just six out of 35 councillors opposing it.
In a leader comment last week, the paper pronounced the proposal "plain daft". Berating councillors for even discussing the subject while the city is in financial strife, the paper dismissed the idea as unworkable. "Would Hamas have a stall at the Christmas Fayre in Worcester?" it asked. "Would we send schoolchildren from Worcester to one of the most dangerous places on earth on an exchange trip?"
Dr Manuel Hassassian, the Palestinian ambassador to Britain, told the local paper that he embraced the twinning suggestion put forward by Worcester. "I totally endorse these kind of twinnings," he said. "It's of course acceptable to the Palestinians to have twinnings with Britain because it helps with the solidarity and the relationships between the UK people and the Palestinian people." Meanwhile, at the Oxfam charity bookshop in Worcester's main shopping area, opinion was split as to whether the proposal would be the best way to help Gaza.
"Twinning helps in the sense that it raises awareness and makes people more conscious and more likely to do things," said Yvonne Taylor, a volunteer. "Are people in Worcester conscious of anything?" said a second volunteer, Jonathan Beard, 39, before adding: "Worcester can give Gaza a lot of support through donations, aid. Gaza needs a lot of things right now, but probably at the bottom of that list is to be twinned with Worcester."
Barbara Beard, the shop manager, had the final word: "Irrespective of what you think of the Israeli-Arab conflict, there is a lot of suffering there in Gaza," she said. "Innocent people are suffering and anything that raises awareness of that can't be a bad thing." * The National