Government line on Gaza suggests we have forgotten our own history

THE situation in Gaza is truly tragic. Tragic because it is causing the deaths of hundreds and injuring thousands.

Tragic because it is causing physical and emotional injury to innocent Palestinian civilians as well as the terrorists. Tragic because like every war it creates intolerable human hardship and heartbreaking suffering.

That all this was unavoidable is the greatest tragedy of all. When Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005, destroying all the Israeli settlements there, the Palestinians blew an historic opportunity, just as they blew an opportunity to have their own state way back in Bill Clinton’s day. The Palestinians’ need to destroy Israel is still stronger, it seems, than their need to build Palestine.

The Israeli response was, as the Egyptian foreign minister confirms, utterly predictable. It had been, as he put it, “written in the sky for months”. But the fact that Palestinian rockets rained (and rain) down on southern Israel poses questions for both sides.

What sort of organisation is Hamas that it practically invites retaliation which — according to its own narrative and by its own design — bears down on women and children most of all? And what precisely are Israel’s aims if they are not — as we keep being told — to end all the rocket attacks, let alone to eliminate the Hamas regime?

If Operation Cast Lead was no surprise in the region, it has upset European policymakers — and not just because their Christmas break was disrupted.

For three solid years Israel bit its lip and acted with restraint. After all, hadn’t Jerusalem been saying that Iranian nuclear threat and the on-off possibility of an accord with Syria were its top priorities?

At the same time, foreign diplomats have little cause for complaint. Why is Israel the only country in the world which is supposed to accept meekly for an extended period of time a situation in which its people are bombarded from outside? Israelis, it is true, had treated Gaza like an unpleasant illness that, if ignored, would eventually go away on its own. It didn’t. The mounting fear was that the rockets would improve in terms of their accuracy and range and that Jerusalem and Tel Aviv would have been imperilled, hence the response we have seen over recent days.

This was not a war or campaign that Israel sought. In a sense it cannot win, at least in the short-term. Will Hamas simply rise out of the ruins, shake off the dust and declare, as Hezbollah did in 2006, that it succeeded in surviving against the strongest army in the Middle East?

Alternatively, without a ground offensive, would the Palestinians again be able to tell themselves that the Israelis are avoiding confrontation and making do with dropping bombs from 30,000 feet up? The assassination of senior Hamas officials, the partial destruction of tunnels used to smuggle weapons into Gaza from Egypt and the bombing of buildings used by the Hamas leadership have not prompted the Islamists to announce a policy change yet. On the contrary, worryingly for Israelis, Hamas’s credibility has only grown since Christmas.

Nowhere is that more true than in Ireland, of course. Flag-burning demonstrators are scarcely unique to this country. What is different is that the motley crew of far-leftists and Arab immigrants are practically egged on by the Government. That Hamas is regarded by the EU as a terrorist organisation appears to have been completely forgotten in Iveagh House.

Why doesn’t the Government just say it: “Israel, stop defending your citizens”? Instead, a steady stream of statements issue from the departments of the Taoiseach and Foreign Affairs condemning Israel in the strongest terms and calling for an immediate ceasefire and talks as soon as possible. There is no hint of sympathy for Israel’s plight.

Rather, Government statements suggest Ireland has a unique insight to bear from the experience of Northern Ireland: “We have seen in our country that it is only through dialogue that one can make political progress and find accommodation,” as the Taoiseach put it on RTÉ.

Well, yes and no, Mr Cowen. One day, presumably, Israel will get around a table with Hamas: I don’t believe in purely military solutions either. But let’s not pretend that Israel is dealing with an opponent with Scandinavian levels of reasonableness.

Besides, have we forgotten our own history? The difference between the situation today in Gaza/Israel and in the 1990s in relation to the IRA should be blindingly obvious. The republican movement was looking for a way out of its self-destructive and counterproductive violence; Hamas believes it’s on a roll towards its ultimate aim of a Jew-free Palestine on the whole territory of Israel.

One of Jerusalem’s key objectives in Gaza — supported quietly by Arab governments — is to inject some realism into Hamas, just as the British and Irish security forces did to the IRA. We should recall it was not a short process: it took years, decades in fact. And even then, the IRA had to observe a unilateral ceasefire before they could join talks: the RUC, gardaí, British army and the Irish defence forces were scarcely confined to barracks.

Not just that, but everyone had to sign up to Senator George Mitchell’s principles: no violence, verifiable disarmament and an end to the mutilations that passed for ‘punishment beatings’. Actually, Hamas commanders tend to prefer a bullet to the side of the head than to the side of the kneecap.

Again then, why must Israel settle for anything less in its own search for peace? We set preconditions; so will they.

Which is not to say Israel shouldn’t tactically offer talks, precisely because they are the last thing Hamas actually wants.

And that is why the Israeli public is nervous. There is both determination and dread as thousands of Israel’s reservist army are called to the front.

YES, Israel has proved it can hit hard. But are its politicians as clever as its army is strong? The mainstream PLO returning to Gaza atop an IDF tank is an unlikely prospect. Even if the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, agreed, how would Israel be able to respond to rocket fire with a friendly PLO/Fatah government in power instead of Hamas?

A more likely alternative is a balance of threats, what pro-Palestinian activists call ‘Gaza as an open prison’; in other words, keeping Gaza as calm as possible via a combination of military and economic pressure and continued close cooperation with Egypt. Gaza would continue to be an unrecognised Hamas state until a long-term process of change and moderation comes to fruition. Effectively, that would be an arrangement akin to that which Israel has with Hezbollah in the north.

A better approach if Hamas isn’t interested in talks leading to a two-state solution — Israel and Palestine side by side — might be complete Israeli disengagement, sealing the border and letting the Gazans and their Egyptian Arab neighbours get on with it.

At present, Israel has responsibilities towards Gaza — having to feed the killers, in effect — but little real leverage. The Arab world won’t like having to take on Gaza one bit but it can scarcely object.

One way or another, once the fighting is over, a new strategy towards Gaza needs to be devised. The sooner the better.

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