Just three recent wars: Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, the Argentine Junta’s of the Falklands, and Putin’s assault on Ukraine, have been started ex nihilo. All others are tragic in the classical sense. Justice cannot be done, and innocent people will suffer because their leaders are but men.
So with the latest round between Israel and Gaza. The world would be a better place if Hamas were not in charge of Gaza; if the Iron Dome were so effective that Israelis would not need to take shelter every time Hamas fired a missile, V2-style, in the general direction of one of their cities; or if an Israeli fanatic had not assassinated Yizhak Rabin, and peace had been concluded in 1996. It also wouldn’t be our world.
Yet the urge to parcel this war up into neat packets of responsibility, delivered by philosopher’s drone, appears irresistible. At its most superficial, it is reduced to counting the dead, without asking whether the dead were taking part in hostilities, or what measures had been taken to protect them – by their own leaders as well as by the opposing forces. Nick Clegg brought debate to its lowest point, when he described the Israeli bombings as “deliberately disproportionate” because of the differences in the ratio of Palestinian and Israeli dead.
War is fundamentally different from a street brawl, in which it might be appropriate to count the injuries and the level of force used. You would scarcely notice that in the British TV coverage, but it is undertaken with a political purpose, and begun by politicians who have to work within political limits (The Israeli TV station, i24news.tv, which broadcasts in English, French and Arabic, provides a depth and diversity of analysis unavailable on British or American networks).
One of the reasons Israel finds itself in this war is that a people whose government doesn’t try to protect them, will soon find itself another. Had rockets been falling on Sheffield, we might suspect Mr Clegg would have found himself defending “deliberately disproportionate” attacks on their launch sites. My aim here is not to illustrate his hypocrisy, but to point out the constraints within which the Israeli government operates. It’s a horrible, but inescapable, fact that a government can find itself in a situation where protecting its own citizens is impossible without also killing innocent people, however unintentionally. It isn’t just, but it cannot be avoided.
None of this will serve as a justification that the mother or son of a Palestinian killed in an Israeli air strike will ever consider adequate. Their pain will never ease, and is another reason to do the hard political work required for effective peace.
When soldiers and international lawyers speak of “proportionality” they don’t count the dead. Proportionality is not a matter of weighing the force used on either side, but of assessing the methods that each side uses against its aim in the conflict. Calm reason can be exercised at the level of operational command – are there alternative methods of fighting, perhaps using ground forces instead of aerial bombardment, that will kill fewer civilians? – and it applies to strategy or even procurement decisions – how many extremely expensive smart bombs should we buy? But it’s horribly difficult in the heat of battle in a residential area. You are in the middle of chaos; you have no time to think; you’re utterly terrified. Before pronouncing on it, any commentator should watch Waltz with Bashir.
That is why the Geneva Conventions place such an emphasis on soldiers not hiding among civilians. Doing so is not only dishonourable, but deliberately tries to entrap the other side into committing unspeakable murder. It is, if anything, seen as even worse than deliberately targeting the enemy’s civilians. For the fanatics of Hamas are so convinced of the justice of their cause that they cast Islamic military ethics aside in what has become a desperate struggle for political survival.
Hamas is deep trouble indeed. They picked the wrong side in both Egypt and Syria and find themselves alone. This explains the odd nature of one of their conditions for stopping their fire on Israel: that Egypt open its border. Refraining from lobbing missiles at Israel hardly provides Cairo reason to concede. Hamas’s only real friends are Qatar (where life as a migrant worker building a stadium for the world cup is scarcely safer than under Israeli bombardment) and the increasingly embattled Turkish Prime Minister.
The cease-fire that Egypt proposed reflected Hamas’s weakness and made the opening of the border conditional on the return of Palestinian Authority personnel loyal to Mahmoud Abbas to police it. Had Hamas accepted it, they would have recognised their own defeat. Their difficulty is that Cairo and Ramallah are happy to tolerate Israel pounding Gaza until they do. Abbas and al-Sisi have maneuvered the Israel Defence Forces into fighting a Palestinian civil war. And if Cairo and Ramallah are willing to tolerate the Israeli operation, Washington will not waste political capital putting pressure on Israel to end it.
Hamas’s last hope is that Israel commits a terrible mistake (bombs a school full of children) or is mad enough to listen to Nafthali Bennet’s demand to reoccupy the territory. Otherwise, it will only be a matter of time before they are defeated, and can look forward to a future that involves little more than being rounded up and left to rot in one of the PA’s unlovely prisons.
Let’s hope they surrender soon, before the movement descends into recrimination and anarchy or they are tempted to stage a desperate last stand. Hamas deserve what they will get, but the Gazans whom they have brutalised with a cult of violent resistance don’t. If they care about Palestine, they should accept Egypt’s terms.