David Steel writes… Time to talk to Hamas

Gaza Burns - photo by Al Jazeera EnglishI suspect that there is growing dismay, not to say anger, among our population as they watch on television the daily slaughter and destruction in Gaza, at the mealy-mouthed statements from both our Government and the American’s in response.

Spokesmen for the Israelis regularly recount the huge number of rockets fired from Gaza into Israeli territory, but fail to tell us that the vast majority of these have been successfully intercepted without casualties. In fact, over the entire last decade they have killed two dozen Israeli citizens. Unacceptably dreadful though these were there is absolutely neither political nor moral equivalence with the 1,600 civilians killed in Gaza currently and the 1,400 killed in the previous Operation Cast Lead in 2009. So those “on the one hand and on the other” balanced utterances are made in shameful disregard of the facts.

I write as one who has visited Ashkelon and Siderot – two of the most regularly hit towns in the south of Israel – and talked with their people and their Members of Knesset. So I fully understand their mixture of fear and justified rage at these continuing attacks. Yet as the 2009 operation amply demonstrated, bombing and blasting Gaza does not stop the rocket attacks. I visited Gaza shortly after that and saw for myself the mayhem caused – the destruction not just of lives, but of homes, water and power supplies, schools, hospitals and businesses. The same appalling communal punishment is happening again, with – I predict – the same lack of success in stopping the rockets.

I have only met Benjamin Netanyahu once, and that was in Israel just before he became Prime Minister. He struck me then as an intelligent, articulate and dangerous man, who would need to be watched and reined in by Israel’s allies. Sadly that has never happened – on the contrary after the Cast Lead enquiry by the excellent Judge Goldstone from South Africa, we washed our hands of any condemnation and in Europe we blithely continue our helpful trade agreement with his government, and fail to back the judgments of the International Court regarding the illegal settlements.

I am a member of the ‘Friends of Israel’ because I always seek to draw a clear distinction between the State of Israel and the current Israeli government. It is becoming sadly increasingly difficult to maintain that distinction in today’s world. The damage done to Israel’s standing is incalculable. In my student days, in the late 1950s, many spent their vacations working in kibbutz, fired by the idealism of Israel – that has stopped. Instead we see a revival of vicious anti-semitic incidents all over the world in response to what is seen to be mass murder perpetrated inexplicably in the name of a people who themselves had suffered appalling atrocities and loss during the second world war.

That contagion threatens to spread to terrorist groups fired by distorted views of Islam all over the Middle East and Africa, where our Zionist/Christian axis is characterized as united in uncaring response to the slaughter in Gaza. Our ministers have rightly expressed concern about radicalised extremists returning to our shores and undermining our security. They should wake up to the fact that Mr Netanyahu is their strongest recruiting agent.

The only way to stop the mutual bloodshed is to bring Hamas to the negotiating table and secure an internationally guaranteed peace. John Kerry understands that but gets little support from his own nor our government. But, it is argued, Hamas is a “terrorist organization”. We have been here before. I recall my first meeting with Yasser Arafat in 1981 when the PLO was a “terrorist organization” and no ministers would speak with him. I argued that he should change the PLO covenant, and that came only years later followed by the shake of hands on the White House lawn.

Yet one of the reasons for the success of Hamas in the elections in Gaza was the incompetence and corruption prevalent in Mr Arafat’s Fatah administration. The recent formation of the Fatah/Hamas unity government was a real opportunity to commence dialogue – wholly rejected by the Israeli government. I also recall in the 1970s my discussions with ANC leaders when they too were dubbed a “terrorist organization” with whom neither the South African nor British governments would deal. My colleague Lord Alderdice has also recently drawn parallels with the peace process in Northern Ireland, and I welcomed Nick Clegg’s weekend statement. Talking has to replace bombing.

The Arab Peace Plan which promised the flying of the Israeli flag in every Arab capital was never given serious backing. Last year, we had a presentation in Parliament by an impressive group of Israeli businessmen under the banner of the Israeli Peace Plan. They were likewise never given official encouragement.

The uncomfortable truth is that the Netanyahu government is treating Palestinians as lesser human beings in exactly the same way the South African Apartheid government treated the majority of its citizens. The Balfour declaration of 1917 which first envisaged a “national home for the Jewish people” – an ideal given impetus after the second world war – included the proviso “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. Try telling that to the people of Gaza today.

* David Steel was Leader of the Liberal Party from 1976 until its merger with the Social Democratic Party in 1988 to form the Liberal Democrats. He was appointed to the House of Lords as Lord Steel of Aikwood in 1997.

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  • Good article

  • David Steel is one of the finest, if not the finest foreign affairs practitioner we in the Libs and Lib Dems have ever had. Thanks for this wise article, David. I was inspired by his anti-apartheid stance and actions in the 70s, and my son was equally inspired by a wide ranging foreign policy speech at the Torquay Conference (1993 or 1994?)

    Israel needs to be delivered a hard hitting message by the world.

  • Richard Dean 7th Aug '14 - 5:09pm

    It is perhaps the peoples, rather than the politicians, who need to understand the message. Only they really have the power to get the politicians to change. At present the Israeli electorate seem to be overwhelmingly in favour of the present actions. Contrary views are suppressed. I would not be surprised if the same happens in Gaza.

    It has long been said that Arab-Israeli conflict benefit all sides, through the foreign aid the conflict generates, and through the way each side’s behaviours can be used by the other sides’ politicians to keep them in power.

  • A breath of fresh air. Absolutely spot on. However, I have to disagree slightly with a comparison to South Africa. South Africa never sank to the scale of death and destruction the Israelis have wrought on Gaza.

  • I forgot to add.

    ‘So those “on the one hand and on the other” balanced utterances are made in shameful disregard of the facts.’

    Absolutely. I’ve been saying this on here for some time in the face of complete irrationality. Indeed, one of the LDV team wrote the other day that he didn’t welcome one-sided articles on the subject.

  • Talk to hamas – and send to gaza by sea.

  • Richard Dean 7th Aug '14 - 10:39pm

    Is condemnation a helpful way forward?

  • @Simon Shaw. I assume you have never visited Gaza. I think you need to ask yourself what would you do if your home was illegally taken from you or bulldozed to the ground, your business confiscated, you couldn’t make a complaint to the local council about it (because there isn’t one, or if there is, you’d be questioned and detained) and then watch your wife give birth at a checkpoint. I would then like you to imagine that your children are blown to smithereeens while your occupiers cheer from the hilltops. There is an old Hebrew saying my friend “Don’t judge your neighbour until you can put yourself in his place”. Especially after 70 years of this occupation and persecution.

  • Super article.

    Yes, it is high time to talk with Hamas. Surely the Palestinians have ended up with extreme leaders as a reaction to the military pressure from Israel.

    My sense is that the international community has to be 100% behind the seeking of a just peace in Israel/Palestine — which means talking with whoever has power.

  • A Social Liberal 8th Aug '14 - 12:03am

    We talked to the Irish terrorists on both sides after they had surrendered their arms (or had appeared to) and given up their terrorist bent. As someone who has seen in graphic detail the results of terrorist activity on innocents I suggest that we decline to talk to Hamas until they have similarly put down their weapons

  • A Social Liberal 8th Aug ’14 – 12:03am
    “We talked to the Irish terrorists on both sides after they had surrendered their arms (or had appeared to) and given up their terrorist bent. As someone who has seen in graphic detail the results of terrorist activity on innocents I suggest that we decline to talk to Hamas until they have similarly put down their weapons”

    But we talked to the IRA before the ceasefire through back channels (e.g Father Alec Reid) and in secret.

    See: http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2013/nov/22/priest-peace-process-northern-ireland-dies-alec-reid

    And Wikipedia:

    “Following negotiations with the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and secret talks with British civil servants, the IRA ultimately called a ceasefire in 1994 on the understanding that Sinn Féin would be included in political talks for a settlement.”

    Tonge, Johnathan (1996). Northern Ireland: Conflict and Change. Longman. p. 168. ISBN 978-0-582-42400-5.

  • Jayne Mansfield 8th Aug '14 - 6:35am

    Thank goodness for Lord Steel.

  • The Energy War Between U.S.A. and Russia and the Threat for Israel’s Survival

  • Iain Sharpe 8th Aug '14 - 9:16am

    @Paul Walter

    It’s not as simple as saying ‘Talking to the IRA = Good, not talking = bad’. On this point I would recommend ‘Talking to terrorists’ by John Bew et al., which makes a strong and in my view convincing case that it depends on circumstances. In the 1970s Willie Whitelaw’s attempts to talk to the IRA presaged a huge escalation in violence, because it created a perception in the IRA that violence was working and more violence might lead to complete victory. There is also a big difference between informal channels of communication and formal TALKS.

    One of the points about the Irish situation was that there was a process of confidence-building from the centre. If the starting point had been saying that Sinn Fein should talk to the DUP it is unlikely that things would have got very far.

  • Eddie Sammon 8th Aug '14 - 12:59pm

    I’m not comfortable with the tone of the article. We need to get tough with Israel, but too many people seem to want to get soft on Hamas.


  • Tony Rowan-Wicks 8th Aug '14 - 5:34pm

    I posted 2 weeks ago: We all want peace in all countries of the Middle East and no amount of firing at each other will bring the objective about. All violent people have to learn to sit down and talk – to reduce the tensions built over many years. Every time ‘an eye for an eye’ operates the peace process is set back for more years – as those who remain alive are being given more reasons to hate each other.

  • Most of the commentators here are missing the point. We talked to the IRA because Northern Ireland is part of Britain. Palestine is not actually part of Israel. Hamas would actually be better off talking to Egypt who by the way also blockade Palestine yet face not a single rocket attack and receive no international condemnation. This is clearly about yet another Islamic group/sect/cult v mostly secular neighbour. and fruity concepts about jihad.

  • Tony Dawson 8th Aug '14 - 10:43pm

    @Simon Shaw :

    “then the Israelis should have done what??? Nothing?”

    They should withdraw to the 1967 boundaries which the foolish Palestinians are prepared to accept rather than demand the overturning of the theft of 80 per cent of their land which started with the armed intimidation in 1947.

  • Jayne Mansfield 8th Aug '14 - 10:53pm

    May I refer people to Combatants for Peace. There is now a Wikipedia page for the group.

    There are people from both sides who want to talk, even though they may have suffered the loss of their children. If there are people like this, then it is not an impossible ideal that the violence might be ended.

  • I don’t like defending the Israeli position as occupation of the West Bank, and building settlements there, must cease for the two sides to co-exist. Israel is at fault. But on this matter, my understanding is that Hamas have been constantly firing rockets into Israel for years, they fire first, they build tunnels to make clandestine incursions into Israel. They hide in one of the most densely populated urban areas in the world. In this case the Israelis are respondents and I don’t see they have any alternative to the action they are now taking. When the rockets stop, the Israeli shelling will stop. Then the sides can talk about lifting the blockade. Responsibility for the deaths in Gaza lies with Hamas and Hamas alone as they can stop those deaths tomorrow. Israel is a modern and generally liberal democracy, and 86.5% of their population sees no alternative to the current action too. Hamas won’t stop the rockets as their non-democratic grip on power relies on stoking up conflict with an external enemy, at the expense of their own children.

  • SteveL

    “Israel is a modern and generally liberal democracy”

    So this means that Israeli arabs have the same voting rights as Israeli Jews? Can the Israeli people vote a non Jew as their Prime Minister? Not sure of the answer to those two points, but in a democracy the answer to both questions would be yes

  • Tony Dawson

    Various arab groups attacked jewish settlements and arab settlements friendly with jewsih settlers from the late 19C and especially in the period 1936-1939. It was the ineffectiveness of the British Army in protecting jewish settlements which led Orde Wingate to form the Special Night Squads using British officers and sergeants combined with jewish volunteers. AS M Dayan said ” Wingate taught the Jews how to fight”. Israel still respects Wingate , whereas the arab nationalists forced K Husssein to sack John Glubb in 1957, who had trained the Arab legion and made it the best fighting unit in any arab army. The Arab Legion was the only arab army unit to defeat the Israelis in 1948.

    Perhaps if the arab armies had been trained by J Glubb, they would have done better in 1966 and 1973.

    The Arab League have attempted two wars of extermination in 1948 and 1973 and created a confrontation in 1966.
    Perhaps it is time the arab world stopped threatening Israel all the time,peace would be more likely. No leader of a country should negotiate with states which threaten it’s existence. The duty of any leader is t protect it’s people.

    Steel has never had to lead a country in war and never been leader of country of country where other nations have threatened it’s survival. From the early 1990s, the senior members of the PIRA were either being killed, captured or were on the run due to collective skill of the security forces , in particular the skill of Senior NCOs. Blair and J Powell could have delayed for another 2-3 years and it would have left the terrorist groups in much weaker position. McGuiness and Adams could see their positions were weakening rapidly but Blair and Powell were desperate for any agreement. Blair and Powell sold out the working class communities of N Ireland and destroyed the SLDP and Uslter Unionists who were moderate voices , giving power to Sinn Fein and the DUP.
    As Col T Collins has said , ” The working class Protestant and Catholic communities have been handed over to the terrorist thugs”.

    HAMAS is a terrorist organisation who inflict a reign of terror on the Palestinians, kills those who oppose it and is happy to sacrifice women and children while the leadership is kept safe. HAMAS is opposed by moderate opinion and democratic opinion throughout the arab world.

  • @malc:

    “So this means that Israeli arabs have the same voting rights as Israeli Jews? Can the Israeli people vote a non Jew as their Prime Minister? Not sure of the answer to those two points, but in a democracy the answer to both questions would be yes”

    Yes, Arab Israeli citizens have the same voting rights. 10% of the current 120 Knesset members are Arab Israelis. Although 20% of Israelis are Arab so, like our own Parliament, they have some work to do in order to reflect the ethnic composition of the population. One of the Supreme Court Justices is a Palestinian Arab. Every state-run company must have an Arab Israeli on the board. Raleb Majadele, an Arab MP, has served in the Cabinet so there is no reason to suppose a non-Jew could not be Prime Minister. There have been two Druze Arab Deputy Speakers of the Knesset and therefore one removed from the Presidency (the Speaker stands in as acting President when necessary).

  • Graham Evans 9th Aug '14 - 7:39pm

    @ Simon Shaw “I’m sorry, but if somebody was trying to kill large numbers of my fellow citizens, but only succeeded in killing a relatively small number I think I would want action to be taken to prevent even a small number being killed.”

    But Israeli military action in Gaza has never succeeded in preventing renewed attacks on Israel or on Israelis being killed. The West accepts that winning hearts and minds is the key to eliminating violence in many parts of the world, but seems unwilling to apply this concept to Palestine, nor forcefully remind Israel that this is the only long term hope of peace. The Arabs world is often its own worst enemy, but that is no excuse for Western nations providing military, financial and politic support to Israel policies that Western nations would publicly and forcefully condemn were they committed by any nation other than Israel.

  • Isn ‘t the point that violence fuels extremism, and that leads to more violence… It does need all parties to talk — and talk BEFORE weapons are put down. That does include the Egyptians. Actually it includes everyone who stands to gain from peace. If extremists are ostracised , they have no alternative to violence.

  • Miranda Pinch 11th Aug '14 - 2:15pm

    Hamas was encouraged and supported by Israel and the USA as was the democratic election that they won in Gaza. It was not an outcome that Israel and the USA wanted, so they labelled Hamas a terrorist organisation, refused all contact with them and then blockaded Gaza. On numerous occasions, when Israel has claimed that Hamas has broken ceasefires, that is not in fact the case. On each occasion Israel has either assassinated members of Hamas within Gaza or made incursions into Gaza often killing farmers in the process and destroying farmland and property, not to mention the numerous fishermen who dared to venture close to the Israeli prescribed limits to their fishing. On each occasion Hamas or other militant groups within Gaza responded to such provocation in the only way open to them as the world seemed to have conveniently forgotten their plight. This latest escalation was caused by Israel accusing Hamas of the abduction of the 3 Israeli students, knowing full well both that it was not Hamas and that the boys had died almost immediately. But under the pretext of hunting for them Israel assassinated Hamas members inside the West Bank and within Gaza, demolished homes, looted property, made countless arrests without charge and killed Palestinian children. Hamas had just formed a Unity government with Fatah, which was non-violent and would have been a moderating influence on Hamas. Israel immediately condemned it and the collective punishment was seen as Israel attempting to destroy it. There is also plenty of evidence to show that the tunnels were built over several years to supply Gaza with supplies restricted by Israel and that where they were used for defence, yes, I did say defence, they were directed towards the Israeli military and not civilians. Mind you, as Israel’s idea of a military objective is the home of an absent Hamas member, as most homes in Israel are that of a serving, or inactive member of the Israeli Defence Force, on Israel’s own definition, they would be suitable targets.
    So we have a situation where an elected government is isolated and imprisoned, assassinated at will, with no freedom of movement or supplies.and no one prepared to negotiate with them directly. Not only that, but without the rockets they were as good as forgotten by the world. Dare I ask what you (plural) would do in all those circumstances? What about instead of always condemning Hamas and trying to destroy them, they were given a chance to govern an autonomous, free people? What about allowing the Unity government to thrive? What about freeing the Palestinians from the tyranny they are living under? All that could begin with actually talking to Hamas!

  • A Social Liberal 11th Aug '14 - 2:23pm

    Graham Evans said

    “But Israeli military action in Gaza has never succeeded in preventing renewed attacks on Israel or on Israelis being kiled . . . . ”

    No Graham, you’re quite right. In just the same way fighting the Irish terrorists didn’t stop them murdering innocents for nearly 30 years. Fighting the Red Brigade didn’t stop them murdering innocents for decades. But, like both Fatah and the PLO before them, Hamas will grow tired of paying the price of ongoing terrorism and eventually will agree to stop killing.

  • @Miranda Pinch

    You are seriously describing the Hamas administration of Gaza as a democratic government? In 2006 Hamas won a majority of seats in the Palestinian elections mainly due to Fatah corruption, but with only 44% of the popular vote, a minority. Internal fighting ensued between Hamas and Fatah. In June 2007 Hamas seized control of Gaza by force. Fatah view that as a military coup. Whatever it was, your “democratic government” tossed their Fatah opponents off the top of apartment buildings in lieu of more conventional execution methods as well as targeting and killing their own civilians. There have been no elections since and Hamas rule over Gaza is absolute. This is not a democratic government committed to democratic principles nor to allowing their citizens to live free and autonomous lives. They deal with fellow Palestinians that oppose them with violence up to and including summary execution. The elections of 2006 have not provided Hamas with any form of democratic legitimacy since 2007. They are as despotic and vile a government as you can get to their own people who oppose them let alone the Israelis. Sitting here in nice safe Britain we can afford to preach appeasement. Israel can’t. There are times when talking merely gives despots and tyrants time to regroup and re-arm. Israel exists because we, and others, kept on talking to Hitler until it was too late to stop him. He was democratically elected too.

    For us the parallel would be Sinn Fein winning a NI Assembly election, then seizing total control of Northern Ireland, reconstituting the IRA, and then executing Unionist opposition supporters before firing rockets across the Irish Sea at Liverpool and Manchester from civilian locations in the heart of Belfast. Then claiming democratic legitimacy and victimisation of the oppressed at any attempt to restore peace. When you ask what would I want our Government to do, I would want them to do whatever it took to stop those rockets landing on my head, and those of my family and friends, even if people get hurt in the attempt. That’s where the Israelis are now.

    Don’t for one moment think you can talk to Hamas as if they are really peace loving democrats if only Israel would give them a chance.

  • Miranda Pinch 13th Aug '14 - 8:53am

    Stevel. The Conservatives got 36% of the British vote at the last election and had to rule by coalition! It is rare for a winning party to get over 50%. Why are your standards higher for the Palestinians? The USA and Israel considered it a free and fair election at the time and then supported Fatah in a coup when it did not go their way. Gaza has been under siege ever since. In fact neither Israel nor the USA have spoken directly to Hamas in all this time. At least the British government realised that the only way forward was to negotiate with the IRA. Israel takes the moral high ground, yet kills women and children indiscriminately both in the West Bank (no rockets) and in the Gaza even during ceasefires.
    As said above, Israel is the occupier, aggressor and blockader in this conflict. Once Hamas has had a chance to govern a free and autonomous Palestine including Gaza in a Unity government, which is what they have attempted, but was immediately attacked by Israel, then you can condemn them.

  • Miranda Peach
    The security forces and particularly SAS/SBS and 14th Intelligence Company and Special Branch were rapidly reducing PIRA’s capability: recognising this, Adams and McGuiness were only too happy to negotiate while they had a few cards. If Blair and Powell had held on the another 3 years the PIRA would have been in much weaker position. By agreeing too rapidly, the Blair government destroyed the SDLP and The Ulster Unionists which represented moderate opinion. The working class Protestant and Catholic communities have been turned over to the thugs of the PIRA and UDA/UFF. Proof is that a PIRA supporter was able to murder Robert McCartney in a pub and the PIRA removed all forensic evidence and started a riot to prevent the arrival of the PSNI.

    Miranda , you support HAMAS , an organisation which kills Palestinians.

  • Miranda Pinch 13th Aug '14 - 8:32pm

    You support the Israeli occupation and blockade;, an Israeli government that assassinates, murders, imprisons, destroys, and loots Palestinians at will. It also continues to steal land and resources and seems to have given up all semblance of morality. Whatever your arguments about the IRA above, the British Government did not bomb innocent men women and children to smithereens to get at them. My case rests.

  • Richard Dean 13th Aug '14 - 9:22pm

    Here’s an interesting take on the number of civilian casualties in Gaza. Is it correct?

  • stuart moran 13th Aug '14 - 9:39pm

    I am really dismayed reading this thread

    There seems to be a belief within the British establishment, including this party and it supporters, that Israel has no case to answer for dead civilians

    Oh yes we may see a few half-hearted condemnations but every day more settlements are being built, more Palestinians are incarcerated without trial and more land is taken

    It is true that Israel is by far not the worst regime in the region but surely comparing themselves to Hamas and Syria amongst others is no great shakes

    Israel also have acquired weapons of mass destruction and tried for years to cover it up. This itself leads to tensions with the other regional powers

    Support Israel unreservedly if you want, but do not be surprised if more and more Palestinians look to radicalism and violence as there is no conviction that talking will do much good. Israel, if it wants to stay a viable state in the long-term needs to address some fundamental issues it has.

    I do not see any posters unreservedly saying Hamas are the good guys in this, but plenty (Charlie and others) see nothing wrong with the approach of Israel

    Israel itself was founded by, and its early leaders were, terrorists – guilty of bombing and assassinations. Extrajudicial execution is also commonplace – Apache gunships killing people in the street! Liberals are happy to criticise the US for doing the same but Israel…..

    The reasons why the IRA, Hamas and other violent organisations manage to survive is that they are supported by enough of the populace who see them as protectors. This is usually due to the failure of non-violent protest previously.

    The rise of IS is, in part, linked to the treatment of the Sunni minority in Iraq .

    When will we ever learn….

    This will probably be one of my last posts here. I had joined the site in the hope of seeing some good radical liberal discussion. Instead I see the same neo-liberal policies that have been the bane of the majority of the people for 35 years being actively supported

    Very disappointed and feeling a bit sad about the state of politics in the UK at the moment…..you lot don’t deserve my vote!

  • @Miranda Pinch

    The Conservatives don’t rule; they are just one part of a coalition that jointly rules. Our current Government was elected by 59% of voters. They have, nevertheless, so far resisted escorting Labour opponents to the top of The Shard and throwing them off the top and claiming an electoral mandate for so doing. That’s democracy. Hamas murders more Palestinians than Israelis. They have no more legitimacy than the Nazis in 1930’s Germany, also elected. My case rests.

  • Miranda Pinch 14th Aug '14 - 1:14pm

    Richard. I have asked someone I trust on the ground to look into that article for me. But I make 2 observations concerning it. Just because many of the killed are men of military age, does not mean they are all militants. It is logical that many would be out recovering bodies, digging people out and getting supplies. More so than women or older and younger Palestinians. I am also inclined to believe the terrible things that International care workers are saying on their return from the field. AND putting both of these aside, the very fact that a huge amount of Gazan homes and infrastructure have been destroyed is just as an indictment on Israel as deaths are. Gaza has suffered terribly due to the blockade and the frequent assassinations of Hamas officials as well as the murders of Farmers and fishermen trying to earn a living. Most of these go unreported. this is not a black and white clear-cut situation as much as you would like it to be..
    SteveL is not really worth responding to anymore as the comparisons are just getting ridiculous. If Germany had won the war and we were occupied, maybe there might be something valid there, but it didn’t and we are a free, autonomous State, with a modern army, defence system and we control our own fixed borders.

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