When, almost 100 years ago — May 7, 1915 — the blue riband liner Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine 18km off Cork, the atrocity contributed to a train of events that cost scores of millions of lives and, to this day, defines our world.
The tragedy, in which 1,201 passengers lost their lives — many of whom are buried in Cobh — was the immediate pretext for America joining the allies to defeat Germany after five years of industrial-scale carnage in World War I. That defeat, and the society-breaking reparations demanded of Germany, led to World War II and eventually the establishment of the European Union.
It might be a less-than-perfect use of history to suggest a parallel between the unprovoked sinking of the Lusitania and the destruction of the Malaysian plane MH17 over Ukraine by pro-Russian terrorists last Thursday, with the loss of 298 lives, but it would be poor politics and very poor, neglectful diplomacy to ignore the similarities.
Another of today’s escalating tragedies is also rooted in events of almost a century ago. The Balfour Declaration of November 1917 is seen as the founding charter for Israel but the absolute indifference to one of its pledges — “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” — is made real in the escalating and unacceptable atrocities inflicted on the captive population of Gaza.
Yesterday, at least 40 Palestinians were killed by Israel. It is possible that some of the victims were involved in utterly unacceptable missile attacks on Israel, but it is more than likely that the great majority killed or injured were innocent civilians caught on the wrong side of history. No country can treat a neighbour like this and not be considered a terrorist state, no country that has even the most basic understanding of decency or legality would behave this way. Had the IRA bombed Israel as it bombed Britain, would Israel feel free to attack this country even though the great majority of the population had nothing to do with the IRA? It does though seem to be Israeli policy to make it ever more impossible for Palestinians to remain moderate, thereby fuelling the vicious cycle of ethnic cleansing at the heart of so many Israeli actions.
It is certain that Israel would object most strongly if the actions of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu — endorsing military attacks on a civilian population by Israel’s defence forces — were compared to those of Russian president Vladimir Putin — endorsing military attacks on a civilian population by Russian separatists — but the comparison is tragically legitimate.
It is to the West’s, and our, great shame that we feel free, indeed obliged, to condemn one terrorist state and consider imposing sanctions on it while at the same time refusing to strongly criticise or impose any sanctions on the other. These are complex difficult situations and far from black-and-white, but they are not so obtuse that we cannot tell right from wrong.
If the West’s condemnation of Russia is to have any integrity, it will have to curb Israel’s terror campaign far more forcefully than it has. The EU must convince America that it can no longer turn a blind eye to state terrorism emanating from a supposed friend.
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