Alex Massie

Hopeless in Gaza; Israel’s tragically futile war

Hopeless in Gaza; Israel's tragically futile war
Text settings

Travelling back from holiday yesterday we had Jeremy Vine's show on the car radio and the Radio 2 man was talking about the fighting in Gaza and as is often the case with such matters how the subject is framed is at least as interesting as anything that is subsequently said during the discussion.

In this instance, the debate was pitched on the premise that there was something unfair about the fighting. Even something grotesque. Israel, after all, is so very strong and Gaza's Palestinians so terribly weak. What's more even if you accept - and not everyone does! - that Israel has been sorely provoked there's still the question of the proportionality of its response. I mean, aren't they just flying off the handle just a teensy wee bit? Aren't Hamas's rockets little more than glorified fireworks anyway? And, lordy, who thinks it's fair for a heavyweight to fight a featherweight?

You get the idea.

I did my best to suppress the suspicion some people think this would be a better, fairer struggle if, like, more jews were killed but I don't think I quite succeeded.

Don't we know by now that weakness is often strength disguised and apparent strength actually weakness? Have we learned so little from this century's wars?

But perhaps this is part of the problem too. We spend so much time arguing about responsibility and blame, so much effort constructing excuses for this or that or reasons to explain why such and such an action is, if viewed in the correct context, understandable to the point of being legitimate that we lose sight of the greater truth that none of it helps and none of it really matters.

All that really matters is that time is running out. Everyone 'knows' what a two-state solution would look like; no-one knows how to get there. (Though how can Israel make peace with Hamas?) The New Republic has just published a magisterial account of the latest American attempt to broker new talks between Israel and the Palestinians. It is a grim, depressing, vital read. Consider this snippet:

[Netanyahu] opened the meeting by playing Kerry a video on one of his favorite topics: Palestinian incitement. It showed Palestinian children in Gaza being taught to glorify martyrdom and seek Israel’s destruction. “This is the true obstacle to peace,” Netanyahu told Kerry.

“It’s a major issue,” Kerry replied. “And nothing justifies incitement. I hate it. I’ve read Abbas the riot act about it. You know I have. But it is worthwhile to try to understand what life looks like from the Palestinian point of view.”

“This has nothing to do with the occupation and the settlements,” Netanyahu said.

Kerry pressed on: “When I fought in Vietnam, I used to look at the faces of the local population and the looks they gave us. I’ll never forget it. It gave me clarity that we saw the situation in completely different ways.”

“This isn’t Vietnam!” Netanyahu shouted. “No one understands Israel but Israel.”

Kerry tried explaining himself again: “No one is saying it’s Vietnam. But I’ve been coming here for thirty years, and I’m telling you, what’s building up in the Palestinians has only gotten worse. I’ve seen it. It doesn’t matter if it’s right or wrong; it just is. It can’t be solved if you can’t see it how they see it.”

Kerry is right, of course. 'It doesn't matter if it's right or wrong; it just is' stands as about as useful a summary of the whole ghastly business as anything else. Israel's tragedy - or rather, one strand of the several tragedies threatening Israel - is that it feels obliged to follow a course of action in which it cannot quite believe. It must do something, make some response to Palestinian provocation even though any such response offers at best a period of temporary relief and, quite probably, will make matters worse in the longer-term. But what else can she do? Doing nothing is not an option either.

The rockets fired from Gaza are a kind of trap. Hamas knows that and so does Israel and so do all the rest of us. But Israel will fight anyway because it cannot avoid doing so even though if fights on ground that is not of its choosing and on terrain upon which, in terms of international opinion, it cannot possibly win. Is is futile and counter-productive and unavoidable. Tragic, in other words.

Both sides, in truth, are besieged and Israel's military strength conceals its weakening strategic and political position. As Hugo Rifkind wrote in this paper earlier this month, Israel is drifting away from us. If by 'us' you mean western liberals and, rather importantly, Israel's idea of itself too. If the two-state solution perishes forever what is left for Israel? How can it remain a democratic but also jewish state? Considered in those terms even Gaza is just a bloody sideshow tangential - despite its horrors - to the real and horrendous questions that loom large in Israel's future.

The occupation is unsustainable and so is everything else. As the TNR article concludes:

 [F]ew of the people we spoke to expected progress any time soon. With Netanyahu entrenched, Abbas on his way out, settlements and rocket ranges expanding, and the populations increasingly hardline, we seem to have reached the end of an era in the peace process. And no one harbors much hope for what comes next.

“I see it from a mathematical point of view,” said Avi Dichter, the former chief of Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency. “The American effort will always be multiplied by the amount of trust between the two leaders. So if Kerry's pressure represents the number five, and then Obama's help brings the American effort to ten, it really doesn't matter. You’re still multiplying it by zero. The final result will always be zero.”

It doesn't matter whose fault it is. It just is. It's a zero sum game with no winners but in which Israel risks losing more than its opponents. There they stand and there they can do no other even though they know it will not, cannot, be anything like enough. Hopeless in Gaza and Jerusalem alike. Until the next time when everything will be worse again.