Paul Uppal is MP for Wolverhampton South-West. Follow Paul on Twitter.
To say that this week has been eventful would be a serious understatement. Its events culminated yesterday when rocket sirens went off in Jerusalem where I was staying with a Conservative Friends of Israel delegation. It was an experience I will never forget.
On Tuesday we visited the Golan Heights. The news at the time was that errant fire from the Syrian civil war had landed in Israel; the first time since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. But while we were standing in the mountainous north, Hamas rockets were raining down on the million people who inhabit the desert south.
The escalation began earlier this month following the detonation of a tunnel on the Israeli side of the border which targeted Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) soldiers. An anti-tank missile also destroyed an IDF jeep travelling on the Israeli side of the border fence, injuring four soldiers. More than 120 rockets were fired on Israel between this incident and Wednesday, when phones began to ring during our meetings with Israeli officials.
Something was clearly going on.
In response to the extended missile barrages on its sovereign territory, Israel launched ‘Operation Pillar of Defence’ as part of a series of attacks on Hamas terrorist installations. Wednesday saw the completion of the targeted killing of Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari
While we toured Israel’s security barrier in Jerusalem on Thursday, information trickled through about the escalation in tactics from both Hamas and the IDF. This led to a dramatic moment when our evening meeting in Tel Aviv was cancelled and our bus turned around. Warning sirens were sounding in Tel Aviv. Its massive population was in the line of fire of rocket attacks for the first time since 1991.
As the rockets continued to fall on Israeli towns and cities, including Tel Aviv and the outskirts of Jerusalem, it dawned on me how strategically vulnerable Israel remains. Terrorist groups like Hamas do immense physical and psychological damage and conversely, Israel, with its large and technologically advanced army has been unable to put a stop to the continued assault.
Israel’s military responses in Gaza have been targeted and precise. Hundreds of military installations have been destroyed and civilian casualties have been astoundingly low, considering Hamas is known to hide its terrorist infrastructure deep within civilian areas. The loss of civilian lives is a tragedy, and for the families of those who perished there can be no consolation. The conflict is devastating for ordinary Gazans who just want to live normal, peaceful lives, but it is Hamas who are accountable for this.
The Foreign Secretary’s statement on Thursday made this point clearly when he stated that "Hamas bears the principle responsibility.” Israel has a sovereign duty to protect its citizens from this sort of prolonged attack. Already, three Israelis have been killed by a missile strike, including one pregnant woman. With hundreds of rockets being fired upon Israel each day, it cannot be long before Hamas’s kill count rises.
Israelis are stoic about the circumstances under which they live, but only at a painful stretch of the imagination can Brits understand what this is like. The last time we faced such a threat was over half a century ago.
When running to find the nearest shelter, or just having to duck for cover in the middle of the street becomes part of your daily existence, it inevitably has an effect on your mentality. For the population of Israel, dealing with the terrorist threats surrounding the country is a matter of survival.
For Palestinians, the status quo ante is unacceptable. The emergence of a viable and sovereign state of Palestine that exists peacefully beside the Jewish state of Israel must be the goal. My time spent speaking to Israelis and Palestinians this week has illustrated to me just how difficult this will be to achieve.
Israel’s land for peace policy has been historically successful. Peace with Egypt and Jordan, although frosty, has thus far been lasting. But experience with Gaza has left a lasting scar on Israel’s strategic thinking. For Israel, any peace with the Palestinians will involve giving up tangibles – often in the form of land, for intangibles – the promise of peace. This is a risk that would bear a high price in the event of failure.
I have always been interested in the Middle East. I have read much but never visited the region. My contributions to this debate will now be based on real experiences with Israelis and Palestinians. Visiting the region has enabled me to broaden my comprehension and understand one of the most complicated and protracted conflicts the world has ever seen. The Conservative Friends of Israel are to be credited with such an excellent, informative and balanced visit.