John Howell is Member of Parliament for Henley.
Like many, I am genuinely horrified to see the level of bloodshed and hardship in Gaza. I am also angry about it and my anger is directed at Hamas rather than Israel.
I support the Government’s emphasis on Israel’s right to self-defence but I also support the need for a comprehensive long-term ceasefire. The trouble with writing anything about Gaza is that it appears that unless it is immediately pro-Palestinian you are accused of just listening to pro-Israeli military propaganda. This is as untrue as it misses the point.
I am well aware of the history of the region. I have also been there during a round of Hamas rocket attacks. This round of action started with the firing of rockets by Hamas at Israel. I cannot see that it does much good to claim that these are ‘homemade rockets’ when many of them have been supplied to Hamas from Iran.
The media likes to run a numbers game with the number of people killed. The total number of rockets fired into Israel today stands at well over 3,000 since the beginning of the conflict. 119 rockets fired by Hamas incidentally exploded inside Gaza. Over the course of the conflict, there have been more than 1,900 Palestinian fatalities, of which Israel states 900 were Hamas terrorists. That still leaves 1,000 civilian deaths.
We all want to see an end to the killing that lies behind these numbers. But totting up how many have been killed is not a justifiable comparison. If we simply descend into the ‘one for one’ argument we are descending into something that we should be ashamed of – an ‘eye for an eye’ approach. You cannot anyway count the numbers without looking at the tactics of either side. How does this, for example, relate to the Israeli warnings delivered by leaflet and other means, which Hamas tells people to ignore? How does it relate to the rules of engagement given to the Israeli army?
So, I can understand the need for Israel to feel that it had to defend itself. Hamas were described by a constituent as “a brutal and anti-semitic group which has been accused by Amnesty International and other NGOs of human rights abuses against the people of Gaza and of war crimes”. If you listen to the broadcasts of responsible media you will have heard interviews with ex-Hamas members in which their disregard for the lives of individual Palestinians was made very clear.
The difficulty though for Israel is that Hamas effectively uses the civilian population as a shield for its rockets. It also uses the civilian population as a safe haven from which to fire the rockets. We have already seen three UN schools where rockets were discovered on inspection and the UN has spoken out against these practices. We have also seen one of the Hamas tunnels which connect to Israel and through which terrorists access Israel opening up at a UN health facility. One constituent asked me, “It surely cannot be beyond the capabilities of the UN to ensure rockets are not hidden in their premises?” Sadly, I think it is and this ignores the local political power that Hamas has over the situation. For those who like to compare Hamas with the IRA, I ask whether the IRA ever had such political control of Northern Ireland. So I understand the difficulty Israel faces in trying to take out Hamas positions and at the same time minimise human suffering. I understand too the questions being raised as to whether it would have been better for Israel to find another way of dealing with the problem, if such another way exists.
One of the problems for Israel is the need to be proportionate in its attacks on Hamas. What actually is meant by this, since the public perception goes way beyond any legal definition? It is not clear whether this means that Israel can or cannot fire at all into Gaza even at known Hamas military and rocket positions where these are in the midst of civilian areas. If the answer is that it is not allowed to take this action, where does this leave Israel in terms of being able to end the rocket-firing capability of Hamas? Are we not saddling Israel with the need for ‘proportionate’ to be measured in terms of the action which Hamas takes for example to site its rockets? Is that not rather unfair on Israel in allowing Hamas to set the terms of what will be considered ‘proportionate’?
We all want an end to this conflict. I want nothing more than to see the killing cease. But the Government is right to put its faith in getting a long-term ceasefire into operation and all parties round the negotiating table.
The best way of both bringing this conflict to an end and ending the loss of life, and, of putting pressure on Israel, would be for a lasting ceasefire. It is a difficult task but one which the Government has been working for, and it is right to do so. Sadly, Hamas has rejected the extension of the temporary ceasefire, choosing instead to renew rocket fire into Israel. It is surely time to end the killing. Despite recent events in this country, I still believe that the position set out by the Government in the House of Commons represents the best starting point for this.