Were the world’s attention not overwhelmingly fixed on the fate of Flight MH17, it would have more to say about that of the Palestinian inhabitants of Gaza. Bombed and battered by Israeli air and firepower, they are dying in scores, victims alike of their own leadership and Israeli ruthlessness.
Some of the dead are Hamas fighters. But many others are women, children, the helpless old. Israel is exacting vengeance at its usual tariff for Hamas rocketing, and the murder of three Israeli students by terrorists. For each Israeli killed, the lives of many times that number of Palestinians are forfeit.
Israel says: they started it; we have a right to retribution. But much of the world says: the Jewish people have been historic standard-bearers for civilisation. Does
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign in Gaza represent that — or instead barbarism?
A Palestinian man, in clothes stained with the blood of his father, who medics said was killed by Israeli shelling, mourns at a hospital in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip yesterday as Israel’s attack continued
Israel’s tragedy is that the only democracy in the Middle East has fallen prey to a succession of Right-wing governments, which derive much of their electoral strength from Russian emigres and extremist religious parties.
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A historian friend, himself a Jew and an uncommonly astute observer of the world, said to me a while back: ‘Consciously or unconsciously, Israel has decided that it prefers a state of permanent war to making the concessions to the Palestinians that would be indispensable to any chance of peace.’
Israel has become more inward-looking, less receptive to foreign opinion, than at any time in its history. Its economy is booming. Tel Aviv boasts a thrillingly buzzy café culture. Barack Obama, the only recent U.S. president to try to persuade Jerusalem to moderate its policies, has been thwarted by Netanyahu and his friends in the U.S. Congress.
Few Israelis seem to show much concern for world discomfort about the bombardment of Gaza, and indeed about their policies towards the Palestinians.
Yet even so, many other Jews are deeply dismayed. Three years ago, a team of Israeli documentary-makers produced a brilliant film about the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank entitled The Gatekeepers. For this, they persuaded five former heads of the Shin Bet, the nation’s security service, to be interviewed on
The outcome was fascinating, and devastating. Each chief in turn described the ruthless policies he had enforced to sustain Israeli dominance. Most agreed that repression had been counter-productive.
Part of the explanation, they said, was that since the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish fanatic back in 1995, no Jerusalem government has pursued a serious political strategy for peace.
The security forces have simply been left to impose varying degrees of repression, while Jewish settlers grab ever-larger areas of the West Bank and Jerusalem. In a remarkable moment of frankness, one former Shin Bet chief said: ‘Occupation has made us a cruel people.’
Israeli soldiers patrol an army deployment area near Israel’s border with the besieged Gaza Strip
An Israel gunner in an APC on patrol at an unspecified area in southern Israel near the Gaza Strip border
An Israeli 155mm howitzer fires from a position at an unspecified location in southern Israeli into the Gaza Strip
In much the same spirit, Israeli academic Ahron Bregman recently published a history of the Occupied Territories.
He began by describing how he himself, as a boy of nine, was taken by his parents on a drive across the West Bank in the wake of their nation’s stunning victory over Egypt, Jordan and Syria in the Six-Day War of 1967.
After two decades in which Israelis had lived under siege from their neighbours, subject to spasmodic shelling in their homes and the fields of the kibbutzes in the lands beneath the Golan Heights, suddenly a whole new world was laid open to them.
Initially, Israel’s government had no policies for the Occupation, because it had never dreamed of achieving such conquests. Those in charge simply followed impulses.
The general in charge of former Jordanian east Jerusalem, for instance, ordered bulldozers to demolish 137 Arab homes, to clear a plaza in front of that sacred Jewish place, the Wailing Wall.
Israel’s justice minister told Teddy Kollek, mayor of West Jerusalem: ‘I don’t know what the legal status is. Do it quickly, and may the God of Israel be with you.’ Some elderly Arabs refused to leave their homes, and were crushed in the debris.
In those days I, as a passionate admirer of Israel, would have said: the Arabs caused this war. They gambled, and lost. Israel is entitled now to secure its future. Since the Arab nations refuse peace on any borders, why should not Israel’s soldiers set these where they have conquered?
A Palestinian medic carries a wounded boy to a treatment room of Nasser hospital, following an Israeli airstrike at their family house in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip yesterday
A wounded Palestinian girl is checked for internal bleeding by a medic at a hospital in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip yesterday after an Israeli military strike near her family home
I still felt the same in 1973, during the Yom Kippur War when Israel reeled before a devastating Egyptian and Syrian surprise attack. From amid the Israelis’ camp fires, as a correspondent I wrote expressing my admiration for the nation, for what it had created from a near-wasteland: ‘They are a very great people, who have come closer to destruction than blind Europe seems willing to recognise.’ The veteran journalist James Cameron, who had known Israel since its inception, wrote me a generous note after that piece was published, saying: ‘It is quite impossible to work in combat with the Israeli army without this response, if you have any sense of history and drama.’
But then he added reflectively: ‘I have sometimes wondered over the past few years whether this irresistible military mesmerism hasn’t clouded for us some of the political falsities.’
Some 40 years on, I have become sure that Jimmy Cameron was right. Too many of us allowed ourselves to become blinded by military success to the huge injustice done to the Palestinians.
Israelis, confident that they can defeat any Arab military threat, bolstered by almost unqualified U.S. support, assume that they can persist indefinitely with the creeping annexation of the West Bank, and the subjection of Gaza.
A Palestinian paramedics looks at the devastation wrought by Israeli air strikes and artillery during a search for survivors in the Al Shejaeiya neighbourhood, east Gaza City
A Palestinian firefighter rests while searching for the dead and injured during a temporary ceasefire
Uglinesses have mounted steadily since the early Seventies, when the Israeli Army merely demolished Palestinian orange groves to improve its fields of fire. Three Palestinians have been killed in reprisals for every Israeli killed by terrorism.
A few years ago, I revisited the West Bank and Gaza, and like most visitors recoiled from their squalor, the prevailing culture of rage and despair. It is true that the Palestinians, led by men skilled in guerrilla war but little else, speak a language of emotion and unreason.
But I have also watched the soldiers of the Israeli Army that I once loved disport themselves among the Palestinians like other arrogant occupiers through the ages, displaying at best casual rudeness, at worst murderous brutality.
Israel aspires to exploit its military dominance to create irreversible facts on the ground in the West Bank and Jerusalem, heedless of Palestinian rights.
Ahron Bregman, the Israeli whose history of the Occupation I mentioned above, now lives and works in London rather than in his homeland. He ends his book by saying that all successful imperialist powers have sought to persuade subject peoples to work with them, allowing them to gain some advantage despite being conquered.
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators hold a banner and shout slogans, in Paris, France, yesterday
Israel has never felt a need to offer this, says the author. Instead, it treats the Palestinians merely as tiresome blots on a landscape that many Israelis believe is rightfully Jewish anyway. For those who loved what we thought Israel used to be, it is heartbreaking to see what it has become today.
That the current crisis is giving rise to some ugly displays of anti-semitism in parts of Europe is utterly contemptible.
But it is also contemptible that some apologists hurl charges of anti-semitism at all Israel’s critics — many of whom are admirers of so much that this great nation has achieved.
Most of us merely attack Israeli excesses as we do those of Russia, Burma, China, Syria, the U.S. or any other government that deploys disproportionate violence against those at its mercy.
Israel’s people deserve a less unworthy leader than Benjamin Netanyahu, and a higher vision than that of reducing Gaza to rubble. This can breed only a new generation of alienated, embittered Palestinian radicals, who will sustain their desperate struggle through decades to come.