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It is the first duty of any government to defend its citizens against external attack, a principle Israel is entitled to invoke to justify its operations against Hamas in Gaza. Had the IRA started bombarding Wales with rockets across the Irish Sea in the 1970s, Britain would have been bound to react. Air strikes on launch sites, as Israel is conducting, would have been the obvious response.
Despite the defensible logic of its position, Israel always receives a bad press on such occasions. This is partly because of the disproportion in the casualty figures on each side, but also because of a general impression that Israel bears a heavy responsibility for creating the situation in the first place. There may also be an element of anti-Semitism in the mix, but defenders of Israel make a great mistake if they dismiss all criticism for that reason.
The disparity between casualties from air strikes on one side and rocket attacks on the other is no doubt partly because of Israel’s superior technology, including defence systems, and because of Hamas’ practice – recklessly irresponsible or cynically deliberate – of launching rockets from populated areas. But behind this lies the suspicion that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, despite protestations to the contrary, indicates it values Jewish life higher than Arab life. Many Jews in Britain and elsewhere have an uncomfortable feeling there is some truth in this. The squalor in which many Palestinians are forced to live would not be tolerated if they were Jewish.
This impression is increased when Israeli government spokesmen make remarks which imply that what Israel is doing in Gaza amounts to collective punishment. Little distinction is drawn between members of Hamas and ordinary residents of Gaza, including women and children. The attitude seems to be that the latter will be made to suffer until the former sue for peace – and the suffering is all Hamas’ fault. This is unacceptable, though critics of Israel need to recognise that it does bear a worrying resemblance to the logic behind allied “area” bombing of civilian populations in Nazi Germany.
The fundamental issue raised by the current Hamas-Israeli confrontation is the strategic bankruptcy of both sides. Israel’s Government under Benjamin Netanyahu bears most of the blame for that. Hamas’ intransigence, including its refusal of an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire, has given him the perfect excuse to refuse further peace negotiations and put the two-state solution into the deep freeze. Meanwhile, he quietly encourages new or expanded Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
As for Hamas, Mr Netanyahu is in collusion with Egypt to squeeze it financially by closing border crossings. But he does not want Hamas to fold completely, for the reasons David Blair outlines in his column in The Tablet this week – but also because Hamas serves his purpose by its repeated launching of anti-Israel terrorist and rocket attacks. It is almost as if Hamas and Israel have found their ideal enemies, so they can engage in their dance of death for ever. Only Israel can stop the music, but only if it wants to.