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As if the very real suffering of both Jews and Arabs caught up in the ongoing tragedy of the Israeli-Gaza war were not enough, too many commentators and activists in our own countries seem determined to make it about ourselves as well.
This conflict should have nothing to do with right or left political viewpoints. All decent, reasonable people, no matter what their domestic political persuasion, should be able to empathise with the suffering on both sides. And yet, what we are witnessing in the UK and the US is a weaponizing of the situation in Israel and Gaza to justify pre-existing right-wing or left-wing goals.
On the right, commentators in both countries are using the protests calling for a ceasefire, or expressions of concern for Palestinians, to argue that this proves the failure of multi-culturalism, and is yet another reason to clamp down on immigration, especially from Muslim countries. They are also using the crisis to pour criticism on leading universities or parts of the media as out-of-control bastions of the extreme left, simply because some students, or some journalists, have expressed sympathy for the Palestinians, or criticized some aspects of Israel’s response.
On the left, too many commentators and activists have leapt to condemn Israel, whilst somehow failing to mention Hamas’s brutal attacks, which were what actually triggered this latest round of bloodletting. Too many on the left have also used the crisis, and Western governments’ support for Israel’s right to self-defence, to bolster their view that this is all part of some ludicrous, white, imperialist plot to suppress people of colour everywhere.
But this conflict is not about us, and should not be exploited to become part of our own cultural wars.
Unfortunately, the notion that some people might genuinely be horrified by Hamas, and yet still be concerned at the nature of the Israeli response, as being overly harsh, and possibly counter-productive, seems to elude too many on the right. The notion that some people might long have sympathy for the Palestinian cause, yet totally abhor what Hamas did, and understand why the Israelis need to respond, seems to elude too many on the left.
All people with even a modicum of awareness of the horror of the Holocaust should be able to comprehend why Hamas’s brutal attacks on Israel on 7 October reawaken memories of the absolute worst experience in Jewish history. It should not be hard to understand why Jewish people feel the need for a homeland of their own.
Even if many, or most, of the participants in mass protests in support of Palestinians, are motivated by nothing more than a genuine desire for peace, it still should not be hard to understand why many Jews feel scared and threatened, when they see some marchers shouting loaded slogans like “From the River to the Sea”. It should not be hard to understand why Israelis feel outraged when their actions in Gaza are condemned by prominent figures like Jeremy Corbyn, or at the United Nations, without mentioning the 7 October attacks.
On the other hand, all those with a modicum of knowledge about the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be able to comprehend why Palestinians feel so frustrated, hopeless and angry. Palestinians in the West Bank are caught in a vice between the Israeli occupation of their territory, the never-ending seizure of their lands by settlers, and the ineffectual, corrupt leadership of the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. In Gaza, where there have been no elections since 2006, Palestinians are trapped in a noose between Israel and Egypt, and the brutal rule of Hamas.
If you can empathise with the citizens of Belarus, and not blame them for their suffering under President Lukashenko’s authoritarian rule, or with the citizens of Myanmar for their suffering under Myanmar’s military junta, you should also be able to empathise with the citizens of Gaza, rather than blaming them for having to live under the stranglehold of Hamas.
I do not wish to make false equivalence. It is undoubtedly Hamas’s actions which have brought this latest reign of terror down upon Palestinian heads. It is Hamas’s cowardly use of civilians as human shields which is putting so many more innocent Palestinian lives at risk. Hamas’s seizure of hostages is an obscenity.
But Hamas’s actions do not absolve Israel of all responsibility. All of us who care about Israel should not blindly support its actions when these go beyond what is proportionate or acceptable under international humanitarian law. This is not to hold Israel to a different standard, but to the same standard which is expected of every state. The fact that Hamas has absolutely no respect for human life, does not give Israel carte blanche to respond with excessive force itself.
Western political leaders have an immensely difficult balancing act – between supporting Israel’s right to self-defence, whilst urging it to do so in a manner which is consistent with humanitarian law, does not trigger a wider regional conflagration, and keeps alive some prospect of eventual Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. Huge pressure must be brought on Qatar to expel Hamas. The EU are well-meaning, but not strong enough to make a real difference. The UN has a vital role to play on the humanitarian side, but is too divided and one-sided to be able to mediate politically. Russia and Iran are only spoilers.
Though frequently reviled as being too pro-Israeli, only the US has the leverage and channels to have any chance of success.
It’s hard to retain much hope at the moment. For now, the escalating violence may simply compel people on both sides to rally around their leaders, even when they disapprove of their actions leading up to this moment, as many Israelis certainly seem to do about Netanyahu, and many Palestinians about Hamas.
But perhaps, just perhaps, at some stage, the sheer scale of atrocities and the depth of suffering on both sides, may finally, at last, cause them both to say “enough is enough”, and allow true partners for peace to emerge. If and when that moment comes, it’s vital that we do not let our domestic squabbles and divides impede our support for them.