Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian

freedlandThis piece, by Jonathan Freedland, is from The Guardian.

All those involved, and most of those following the bloodshed in Gaza from afar, are sure who is in the right and who is in the wrong. They know who the innocent victims are and who are the wicked perpetrators. These certainties are held equally firmly by those who will be demonstrating in solidarity with the Palestinians in London today and those who plan to stage similar shows of support for Israel later this month.

Both sides see the conflict in moral terms. For supporters of the Palestinians, it could not be clearer. Israel is committing a war crime, killing people in their hundreds, hammering a besieged population from the sky (and soon perhaps on the ground too), claiming to aim only at Hamas but inevitably striking those civilians who get in the way.

Israel’s cheerleaders are just as clear. Israel is the victim, hitting out now only belatedly and in self-defence. Its southern citizens have sat terrorised in bomb shelters, fearing the random rockets of Hamas, since 2005, longer than any society could tolerate without fighting back.

Both sides say they would have maintained the six-month ceasefire that had held – albeit imperfectly – until December 19 had the other side not broken it first. And who did break the deal first, Hamas with its rockets or Israel with its blockade? Both sides point at the other with equal vehemence, a Newtonian chain of claimed action and reaction that can stretch back to infinity.

So perhaps a more useful exercise – especially for those who long for an eventual peace with both sides living side by side – is not to ask whether the current action is legitimate, but whether it is wise.

Israel, say its spokesmen, seeks not to trigger an Iraq-style “regime change” in Gaza but simply to alter Hamas’ calculus, so it concludes that hurling rockets is against its own interests. Israel hopes thereby to reassert its long-cherished deterrence, so damaged in Lebanon in 2006. Hamas will be taught a lesson, abide by an enduring ceasefire and leave Israel’s southern border quiet. Israel can then get on with pursuing a pact with the Fatah-led Palestinians of the West Bank.

That sounds coherent, but does it make sense? After this first phase of the conflict, Israeli officials say yes. They boast that Hamas’ command and control systems have been shattered, and that its leaders are in hiding 4m under ground.

But there are immediate questions, eerily similar to the ones that surfaced in Lebanon two years ago. How exactly does this end? If Israeli tanks go into Gaza, won’t they get bogged down in the mud and narrow streets of the refugee camps, terrain known intimately by Hamas?

And these are only the most obvious, current concerns. The grounds for questioning the wisdom of Operation Cast Lead, even from Israel’s own point of view, go much deeper.

First, even if Israel gets the quiet it wants there is every reason to believe it could have got that without resorting to war. The longtime Palestinian analyst and negotiator Hussein Agha says it would have been “straightforward: if they had lifted the blockade, the rockets would have stopped”.

Some diplomatic sources dispute this, arguing that Hamas actually saw an advantage in the sanctions regime: “opening up would have loosened Hamas’ grip,” says one. Hence the cases of Hamas firing on border crossings as they were opened. But most Palestinians insist that a relaxation of the blockade would have granted Hamas its key objective – a chance to prove it can govern effectively – and it would not have jeopardised that with rocket fire. It would have had too much to lose.

Put that to Israelis, and they admit that prospect was unpalatable too: they can’t allow Hamas, a movement whose charter drips with antisemitism and calls for Israel’s eradication, to gain the appearance of legitimacy. But if, as Israel insists, its chief objective is quiet in the south, then there was at least another, non-military path it could have taken – one that those who know Hamas best insist would have stopped the Qassams. Besides, any ceasefire will involve easing the blockade, so Israel will end up making those concessions anyway.

Second, if Israel hoped to break Hamas’ hold on Gaza it has gone precisely the wrong way about it. Its leaders have done this many times before, repeatedly misreading the way Arab societies work. They believe that if they hit Gaza (or Lebanon) hard enough, the local population will blame Hamas (or Hezbollah) for bringing tragedy upon them. But it doesn’t work like that. Instead, Gazans blame Israel – and close ranks with Hamas. “Anything which doesn’t kill Hamas makes them stronger,” says Agha, noting the way the organisation has been lionised in recent days across the Arab world, hailed as a defiant party of resistance, turning it into a “regional phenomenon”.

Third, Israel’s best hopes lie with the so-called moderate Arab leaders. But they have been badly undermined by this exercise, and none more so than the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, whose peace talks with Israel now look like consorting with a brutal enemy.

And this is without mentioning the fresh supply of hatred Israel has stored up against itself, creating a new generation of Gazans bent on revenge. Every child who witnessed this week’s bombing is another recruit for the violence of the future.

So, yes, there may be short-term advantage for Israel’s politicians, eyeing the election calendar, in hitting Hamas hard. But the senior European official who told me that this is “tactics, not strategy by the Israelis, who are expert in dealing with symptoms, not causes” is surely right. This is the act of a nation that has plenty of tactics for war – but no strategy for peace.

If it did, it would realise that Israel cannot pick the Palestinians’ leaders for them, that Hamas – however repulsive its charter – is part of the Palestinian reality and will eventually have to be accommodated. Such a peace strategy would see a decision to withdraw from almost all of the West Bank and end settlement expansion, thereby making Abbas – and the peace process – credible in the eyes of his own people.

But there is no such peace strategy, only an Israeli leadership so dazzled by its own military might that it has come to believe that force is almost always the answer – and the way to avoid the toughest questions.

This piece, by Jonathan Freedland, is from The Guardian.

Howard Jacobson in The Independent

howard_jacobson1This piece, by Howard Jacobson, is from The Independent.

Here’s a question. Who said, about whom, “It is a shameful spectacle to see how the whole democratic world is oozing sympathy for the poor tormented Xs, but remains hard hearted and obdurate when it comes to helping them”?

Answer: Hitler. Which makes the poor tormented Xs, of course, the Jews. He liked a joke, Hitler. He saw the funny side of things. In this instance what he was seeing the funny side of was the Evian conference called by Roosevelt in 1938 to address the issue of resettling refugees from Europe, the majority of them Jews. By any standards the conference failed. America insisted its quotas were already liberal enough. Britain said it was not “a country of immigration”. And the German papers exulted, “Jews for sale – Who wants them? No One.” Only Hitler managed an observation that could by any stretch of the imagination be called moral. But then it’s easy to take a high satiric tone about the world’s empty gestures of compassion.

Were I a Palestinian living in Gaza right now, and wondering if I might live to see another day, I would be just as scornful. So many friends, so little help.

Of the countless tragedies which have befallen humanity since that conference in Evian, the confining of Palestinians to hellhole refugee camps ranks high. Israel should without doubt have done better. Shown more imagination and magnanimity as victors in no matter how many wars it was made to fight, been more courageous, attended less to its own fanatic religious minorities. Zionism was intended to disburden Jews of religiosity, not find another forum for it. But it was up to the Arab world to do better still. It closed its doors as firmly as America and Britain did in 1938. Defeat and dispossession, whatever the circumstances, leave men bitter. But freedom to move and find a world elsewhere can alleviate some of the misery. Better to be an exile than a prisoner. And there should have been a whole brave new world for Palestinians to move freely in and, yes, if that was what they wanted, imagine their return, just as Jews had imagined theirs for centuries. But the closed borders with Israel were closed borders with Arab states as well.

As propaganda, it has worked splendidly. The festering sore of Gaza and the West Bank has disfigured Israel’s reputation. Who, outside of America, has a good word to say for Israel now? In this country infants in their prams lisp anti-Zionist slogans. But what good has this propaganda done the Palestinians? What single advantage has accrued to them as a consequence of those millions and millions of gallons of oozed sympathy?

The lesson should be that it never helps to misunderstand or simplify a complex situation. Don Quixote teaches the harm that misapplied kindness always does. The well-meaning knight blunders into the middle of events the historical whys and wherefores of which he grasps nothing and then rides away on Rocinante leaving everything more problematic than it was before. Don Quixote is a comedy bordering on a tragedy. Those who demonstrate outside the Israeli embassy, comparing Israel to Nazi Germany, apartheid South Africa, or the Hunnic empire at its most savage and rapacious – the quick to be disgusted or enraged, the ill-taught and the ill-teaching, who do not know where else to wear their consciences but on their sleeves – are similarly comic bordering on tragic. People are ridiculous when they perform actions automatically, say what you know they are going to say, and believe in the moral value of their own tears. Self-righteousness, as Dickens and Ben Jonson knew, is savagely preposterous. The tragedy lies in the waste of human energy, and in its failure to produce anything but the opposite of what it intends.

If the ultimate aim of those who would sooner express contempt for Israel than breathe is the cessation of hostilities, or even the cessation of Israel, they have little to show for their efforts. Israel is grown hard by our incomprehension of its rights and fears, and Hamas and Hizbollah are grown illusioned by our sympathy for theirs.

Tragic to behold, and yet a sense of the tragic is precisely what we lack. Oh, we do lamentation; it would appear to be in weeping and wailing – half the time over matters of no more importance than whether we are going out of a dance competition – that the 21st century has found itself. Ours is a society forever on the brink of tears. But we have no imagination of catastrophe as ovewhelmingly beyond and above us, of suffering and sorrow as inevitable or foreordained, determined by the discordant music of the planets, or in the giving and withholding of the gods. We do not, or we will not grasp that there exist differences which are eternal and intractable, needs that will never be satisfied or reconciled. Someone is always to blame in our understanding of human affairs, some politician, some social group, some country. David Hare is our dramatic poet of choice, whereas we need Aeschylus or the author of the Book of Job.

Once we walked through the valley of the shadow of the death, now we go on marches and demos and write letters to the editor. We cannot grieve for our fellow men without pointing a finger. Politics has overtaken metaphysics, and more often than not it is the politics of the simpleton.

It is easy to understand how we got to this. Liberalism promised an end to all our ills, but television nightly shows the same cruel, unequal world. We cannot bear the slaughter. Someone must pay. But is it beyond us to feel and think at the same time? I play the blame game myself. Try telling people living in range of the rockets Hamas is still firing into Israeli towns and cities – I say to those who cry foul or “disproportion” – that they have not died in sufficient numbers yet to equalise the world’s compassion. Try telling them to wait until their casualties make better television. But I know the rocket firers believe they too have a score to settle, so back and back we go into the retaliation logic – “we will tear the Zionist enemy into pieces of flesh” is Hamas’s latest stirring promise to its people – of a conflict too obdurate and ancient to disentangle.

Israel could not have done other than it is doing, but that makes its action neither right nor wise. Rightness and wisdom are sometimes nowhere to be found. Israel has walked into another PR trap because there is nowhere else to go. But what have the Palestinians walked into? Tragedy, nothing less.

This piece, by Howard Jacobson, is from The Independent.

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