John Kerry is back home after his terms for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas were rejected by both sides at the weekend. ( written Sunday 27 July) My heart bleeds both at the indiscriminate killing and violence on both sides and at the seemingly impossible resolution of a conflict that has simmered or raged for as long as I have been alive.
The most moving commentators on this shameful disaster are those who can see both sides, like Daniel Barenhoim, who holds dual nationality of Israel and Palestine and writes that “in this sad conflict, we are all losers. We can only overcome this sad state if we finally begin to accept the other side’s suffering and their rights”.
Or those who have witnessed the suffering among the civilian population in Gaza like Jon Snow who after a harrowing visit to Gaza last week “wept for two peoples with remarkable similarities. Two peoples of extraordinary gifts and ability. Two peoples living in an area far smaller than England, one of which besieges the other, both of which target each other’s civilians”. Read his report at http://blogs.channel4.com/snowblog/bring-israelis-palestinians/24316
However, trying to be even handed in commenting on the Israeli Palestinian conflict, runs the risk of overlooking or condoning the scale and ferocity of the Israeli military response of the past two weeks. According to the United Nations, the Israeli offensive has seen over 1000 Palestinians killed, 6000 injured and at least 149,000 displaced. By Saturday, 42 Israeli soldiers had been killed following their ground invasion into Gaza.
In other times and places, such overwhelmingly one sided figures might presage victory or defeat. In Gaza, nobody believes a military solution is possible. Nobody expects the invasion to change anything. Bombings only harden Palestinian resolve and lose Israelis all important public sympathy.
This is the third large scale military assault on Gaza since 2008. Each time the death toll has been borne mainly by innocent people in Gaza under the pretext of Israel eradicating resistance to the occupation they impose. Much of Gaza’s buildings and infrastructure were destroyed during Operation Cast Lead, 2008—09, and building materials have been blockaded so that schools, homes, and institutions cannot be properly rebuilt.
The Israelis complain that Hamas launches its rockets from residential areas and public buildings and so turn civilians into human shields breaking the Geneva Convention. Hamas denies the claim but as Gaza is one of the most overcrowded places on earth – two million people live in an area of 140 square miles – it is impossible to keep civilians out of the line of fire. There is nowhere to hide.
The Israelis also breach the Geneva conventions by bombing civilian areas which the UN Comisssioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay believes could constitute war crimes. The rocket attack on the Beit Hanoun school, run under United Nations auspices, caused 15 deaths and 200 casualties. They included Felastin al-Shinwari, her sister and three of her children. Her other two children were seriously injured. They had nothing to do with politics.
Israel has overwhelming superiority of firepower. Its Iron Dome defensive screen deflects Hamas’s rockets without too much difficulty. The Israeli government could afford restraint and adopt a different approach but seems determined to deploy its firepower to extract revenge for the murder of the three Israeli teenagers which triggered the present dispute.
One of our new Foreign Secretary’s first trips abroad, was to visit Israel. At a joint news conference in Jerusalem with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Philip Hammond put the blame for the latest outbreak of fighting firmly on Hamas while reiterating Britain’s support for Israel’s right to defend itself. David Cameron spoke in similar terms to the House of Commons only last Monday.
Britain bears some historic responsibility for this conflict but our reluctance to speak out against the appalling conditions in Gaza – where 6 out of the 13 hospital are reported to have been severely damaged – allows the Israeli leadership to pursue its aggressive policies without any international censure.
Great Britain sold £7.9m of arms to Israel last year and a much larger amount of surveillance equipment. Israel is the single largest client of the UK arms industry. It is ironic that the same government decries arms sales to Russia and vilifies President Putin – now a man who should not host a football match – while it continues to resource the Israeli military machine. There was an international outcry at the way corpses were left in the fields of Ukraine but hardly a murmur about the bodies left in the rubble in Gaza.
The Israeli offensive will continue until the tunnels under the border have been destroyed and Hamas disabled for the time being. But it will not bring about any resolution of the problems of Gaza and the West Bank.
Israel needs to think afresh about the way it has interned the people of the Gaza Strip since its forces withdrew in 2005. It has still been a virtual occupying force controlling the air space, blockading imports of food and equipment and preventing Palestinians fishing more than three miles off the coastline. A large proportion of the essentials for life, including food, medicine and fuel, have been brought in through tunnels from Egypt.
The internment policy only hardens the opposition. A Palestinian boy wrote on Facebook, “We have nothing left to lose. Now I would rather die with my family under the rubble of our house than have a humiliating truce. No justice, no peace.”
Israel also needs to stop building further settlements on the West Bank and end the constant harassment of the Palestinians who live there. This may be a tall order but it would have to part of any negotiated settlement designed to give Israel the security it deserves and so desperately seeks through armed force. Ultimately, only sustained diplomacy and a change of mind set from the leaders on both sides, will end this futile cycle of violence. Others need to pick up where John Kerry left off.