Sunday 8 October 2023

Israel-Gaza: again

First, the horror. Men, women and children, overwhelmingly civilians, who have been living their lives as best they can, now slaughtered, kidnapped, brutalised.


Second, the anger. Fury at the cruelty, the futility, of yet more killing, more destruction. 


Third, the despair. How much longer must this continue? Is there no one who can stop it?


You can have boundless sympathy, as I do, for the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who have lived in fear for decades, unable to enjoy anything resembling a normal life, unable ever to hope for a better future for their children.


You can believe, as I do, that successive Israeli governments have behaved with a reckless sense of overweening superiority towards the Palestinian people, convinced that their military prowess will protect them against any imaginable threat.


And you can struggle, as I did on 9/11, to suppress the unworthy, unspoken, nagging voice in your head. ‘What did they expect?’


So it’s important to be clear about where we must plant our flag as we confront the new war between Israel and Hamas. No amount of injustice, no history of oppression, can ever justify the indiscriminate killing of civilians. It was true when the Provisional IRA were blowing up pubs in Birmingham and Guildford, or a Remembrance Day event in Enniskillen; when Kurdish extremists or the Islamic State group were murdering dozens of civilians in Istanbul; and every time the Taliban or a Taliban-affiliated group blows up civilians in Pakistan.


And here is something else that is equally true. Israel’s siege of Gaza (aided and abetted by Egypt) has been unconscionable, utterly inhumane and contrary to international law. It has turned a tiny sliver of land bordering the Mediterranean into, as the cliché has it, an open-air prison. And we all know what happens when the pressure inside a pressure cooker becomes unsustainable.


The never-ending seizure and occupation of Palestinian land on the West Bank as Israeli settlements have expanded has been the final nail in the coffin of any hopes of a so-called ‘two-state’ solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The arrogance and – yes, let’s call it what it is – quasi-fascism displayed by some of the current Israeli government’s most extremist ministers has added yet more fuel to the fires of resentment that have burned for so long among the Palestinians.


And as if all that wasn’t enough, let’s not forget those unlovely regional super-powers Iran and Saudi Arabia, each with its own interests in the region and each perfectly prepared to countenance extreme brutality to further its aims.


Iran backs both Hamas and Hizbollah, which is a constant threat to Israel from across its northern border in Lebanon. Regional analysts are agreed that an operation on the scale of that which was launched by Hamas on Saturday morning could never have been undertaken without a green light from Tehran.


Why? Perhaps because Iran is desperate to prevent Israel and Saudi Arabia stitching up a deal, encouraged by the US, which would further isolate Iran and further strengthen Israel.


After the failure of the Oslo peace process in the 1990s, Israel decided it would have to learn to live with a restive Palestinian population on its doorstep and under its control. It came to believe, idiotically, that an endless low-intensity conflict, kept at arm’s length from most of Israel’s population by draconian and humiliating security measures, wouldn’t be so bad. Outsiders who warned them that this was a strategy of the utmost foolishness were dismissed out of hand. ‘You don’t understand the Palestinians like we do. The only language they understand is force.’


So now the low-intensity conflict has become a high-intensity conflict. Don’t believe anyone who says this escalation came out of the blue. Everyone – with the exception of Israel’s myopic government – knew that sooner or later, the steady increase in Israeli military and settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank would produce a reaction. They just didn’t know where or when.


Two wrongs never make a right. Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people is unjustifiable. So is the Hamas response. And if there are any Hamas leaders with a sense of history, perhaps they should reflect on this: thirty years of political violence by the Provisional IRA did not end with a united Ireland. Decades of Kurdish political violence has not ended with an independent Kurdish state. The brutality of the Islamic State group in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere has not brought about an Islamic State.


But perhaps that’s not what matters most to Hamas’s leaders. Perhaps what matters most is ensuring that the world does not write off the Palestinian tragedy. The message from Gaza, perhaps, is as simple as that: ‘We are here. We exist. We have rights.’


So what can they hope to achieve, at the cost of hundreds of lives lost, both Palestinian and Israeli? 


Message received.