Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 December 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Why Israel can't besiege Gaza and have peace

Palestinians fleeing their homes
Palestinians fleeing their homes

As Gaza is devastated by a new paroxysm of violence, what has Israel achieved by its 28-day bombardment and ground intervention? The outcome so far is similar to that of past Israeli wars in Lebanon and Gaza: massive firepower is used to inflict heavy losses on the other side, the great majority of the casualties being civilians.

But, as the war goes on, Israeli leaders find that Israel's military superiority is failing to produce comparable political gains.

Worse, from the Israeli point of view, it is the Palestinians and, in this case Hamas, who are in a stronger position than they were a month ago. By its actions Israel has put the Palestinian issue firmly back on the international agenda from which it had largely disappeared since the Arab uprisings of 2011.

Usually the sufferings of the four million Palestinians penned into Gaza and the West Bank are invisible to people in the rest of the world. But over the past month we have seen, night after night, pictures of Palestinian families, with their maimed and terrified children, vainly seeking safety amid shattered houses and hospitals.

Of course, we have been here many times before, the most notorious Israeli intervention being the invasion of Lebanon in 1982. But not everything is the same today in Gaza as it was in Lebanon in 1982, or in Gaza in 2008.

A crucial difference is that, at those points, the countries neighbouring Israel were relatively stable, or at least had governments in firm control. Nothing could be less true this summer.

One reason for Israel launching these mini-conflicts is to demonstrate its raw military power. But, each time round, it simultaneously shows the limitations of that power to get anywhere in ending Israel's long confrontation with the Palestinians.

For all the devastating firepower of Israel's air force, tanks and artillery deployed against a few thousand Hamas gunmen, it is unlikely to permanently eliminate them and thus win a military victory.

And, even if it did, the victory would not be conclusive since the Palestinian sense of oppression is so great that some other armed group would soon take its place.

Every opponent of Israel, however puny, is treated by Israeli governments (and much of the Israeli media) as representing an existential threat. Any retaliatory violence is, therefore, justified.

This sense of permanent persecution – born of pogroms and the Holocaust – is understandable, but makes Israelis peculiarly vulnerable to demagogues manipulating their sense of threat. Paradoxically, deliberate threat inflation by the Israeli Government redounds to the advantage of Hamas.

Israeli leaders do Hamas's work for it by telling their people that Hamas is a threat to their very existence. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks of the "tunnels of terror", as if they undermined every home in Israel.

A story spread on the internet claims that thousands of Hamas fighters dressed in Israeli army uniforms had been planning to surge through the tunnels into Israel in a sort of underground D-Day landing.

A great weakness of Israel is that Israelis believe so much of their own propaganda. Dr Arbuthnot, the 18th century writer and satirist, said that "all political parties die at last of swallowing their own lies". The same is true of nations when they see the world around them only through a lens distorted by the myths of their own propagandists.

Israelis are diverted from the simple fact, proven so often since the war of 1967, that they are not going to enjoy permanent peace so long as they occupy the West Bank and besiege Gaza.

As the Israeli historian Tom Segev says: "It is not easy to understand why so many Israelis still believe that a large Israel without peace is better than a small Israel with peace."

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