Thursday, February 15, 2024

Some old thoughts on the Israel/Palestine situation…

It’s said that those who ignore history are destined to repeat it, and whilst it would be difficult to compare the current crisis in Gaza with previous ones, if only because of the scale of the resulting deaths, those who have observed events there over decades will have shuddered at the prospect of an Israeli response of the type we have seen since 7 October.

But I am reminded that I wrote the following fifteen years ago…

To be blunt, most of those who entirely support the rights of the Israeli people to live in peace and security within recognised borders within our Party are rightfully uncomfortable with the results of the Israeli campaign. Most people will have no objection to Israel defending itself against attack, as long as that response is proportionate. However, the deaths of innocent civilians in large numbers is not something that many people can endorse with a clear conscience, and I would be disappointed if there was a Liberal Democrat who could find it in themselves to do so. 
However, you are entirely right in one sense. Whilst my point about the use of conventional warfare methodology against terrorists said exactly what I intended to say, I could, and probably should, have expanded on that point. So I will. 
In recent years, we have seen a move away from wars of nation against nation towards more random attacks by small, ideology-driven groups of fanatics against predominantly civilian targets. The campaign by Hamas against Israel is, to a great extent, an example of just such a conflict.  
Hamas 'fighters' launch hit and run attacks, and are extraordinarily difficult to confront and defeat by the use of aircraft and artillery in an area such as Gaza. Their willingness to use densely populated areas and public buildings as a base for rocket launches means that any counter-attack using conventional methods will simply lead to collateral losses that are unaccepted to a viewing public easily swayed by pictures of injured or dying women and children. As integrated into their communities as they are, if Israeli forces attack, they can melt back into the populace and disappear, waiting for the next opportunity to probe at possible Israeli vulnerabilities. 
Lest we forget, we are talking about an organisation that has cynically played upon the heartstrings of the world's media. Accusations that Hamas have prevented the injured from being evacuated in order to generate more martyrs demonstrate that all that matters is the ability to generate undeserved sympathy whilst blackening the reputation of the Israeli people in the eyes of neutrals beyond the region. 
But enough of the context. What are my thoughts on how to proceed? Any successful attempt to combat terrorism is based on an effort to deny oxygen to terrorist movements, to cut off the flow of new recruits, to isolate them from the communities they purport to fight for and, finally, to persuade communities that these people present a risk to their peace and security. 
Such a campaign comes in three parts, political, moral and military. In the first instance, it is necessary to stop the bloodshed. Given the imbalance of casualties, it is perfectly legitimate to take obvious steps to achieve quick gains - one presumes that preventing the deaths of innocent civilians is a legitimate aim - and if cutting off the flow of armaments to Israel is one means of doing so, then I'm comfortable with that. If it requires a guarantee from the United States to defend Israel whilst the next stage proceeds, so be it. A ceasefire secured, action is then required to build a meaningful civil society in the West Bank and Gaza. It means investment in infrastructure, in building a politically neutral military and police force, in developing independent media and genuine political parties founded on ideas and not hatred. By building up the Palestinian economy, citizens will develop an interest in maintaining peace. Here, I plead the example of Northern Ireland, where investment flourished and wealth increased accordingly after the bombing stopped. 
Alongside this, work must be done to root out the terrorists. This is, perhaps, an opportunity for the Arab League to demonstrate their commitment to a two-state solution. Whilst a working civil society is being created, those within the community who seek peace need support to overcome those who believe in the bomb and the bullet. Whereas a wholly military answer is unlikely to succeed, an effective police action is far more likely to work. I believe that a contingent from other Arab nations could do the job effectively, if they are genuine in their willingness to find solutions. The European Union, if it can get its act together (and here I am less optimistic), can also play a major role. 
The reward for compliance? More investment, both for Israel and Palestine. In the long run, both sides will be better off, better able to protect and nurture their citizens and, perhaps one day, normalise relations and work together for the good of all. Alright, that last bit might be a bit naive, but it does at least indicate that there is hope for a positive outcome. In return, the Israelis can address those issues which have so inflamed Arab opinion. Illegal settlements can be dismantled, the wall demolished where it lies in disputed territory - there can be no objection to a nation building a wall on its own border. 
Establishing genuine peace requires a different mindset on the part of the two sides in this dispute. An eye for an eye has, so far, left both sides blind, and yet there are so many in both the Israeli and Palestinian communities who yearn for peace and a better life for their children. The regional powers and the United Nations have an opportunity to achieve something that has evaded us all for sixty years, and if preventing the Israelis, albeit temporarily, from shooting themselves in the foot is the price, then perhaps it is a price worth paying. Otherwise, we will, all of us, continue to suffer the costs of international terrorism and instability in a region that influences us all.

It is rather depressing that this might still represent some, perhaps many, elements of a potential way forward, although the prospects of US intervention are probably weaker than they have been in times past. On the other hand, a regional peacekeeping force might have greater credibility than it did given (at least until recently) improved relationships with neighbouring Arab nations, including key power brokers.

That Liberal Democrats are calling for an immediate bilateral ceasefire strikes me as something that is right both in humanitarian and political terms, even if our voice is unlikely to be heard by those with the ability to directly influence events. We’re fortunate to have, as our Foreign Affairs spokesperson, someone with a meaningful perspective on Gaza and who has been remarkably measured in her comments given the personal impact on members of her family.

It will be a long road to recover from the catastrophe that was 7 October and the events that followed. The people of Gaza and Israel will have their lives clouded by it for years and years to come, with lost ones to mourn, the wounded to live with physical and mental scars. But the rest of the world will need to find ways of encouraging a long-term peace in the region, which will include investments in essential infrastructure in Gaza, pressure on political leaders to adhere to international law, encouragement of steps likely to aid reconciliation and efforts to support mutual security moving forwards.

I am not an optimist in terms of the Israel/Palestine situation. There are too many people on both sides in key positions who appear to see no benefit in compromise - at least, no benefit until their side is in a dominant position over the other. And the fear and distrust that has been struck into so many ordinary people in both Gaza and Israel will be difficult to shake.

But the effort must be made, for if the international community is unable to influence events positively, it augurs ill for the future.

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